Pre-application doctoral communications and gatekeeping in the academic profession

By Sophia Kier-Byfield

About the HE Education Research UK Blog Series
To raise awareness of the HE Education Research Census and contribute to a conversation about HE education research in the UK, this blog series explores a wide range of issues at the forefront of education research today. It includes blogs from colleagues at all career stages, research areas and nations of the UK. Please get in touch if you too would like to contribute.

Before applying for PhD study, aspiring researchers often send approaches or enquiries to university staff. Readers who have applied for a PhD themselves may remember sending that first email to a potential supervisor. Having squeezed one’s background, interests, experience and enthusiasm into a couple of hundred words and attached some files, this intangible representation of a person and their dreams is clicked into the unknown. The hope is that it reaches someone keen, interested and willing to give guidance.

These pre-application doctoral communications (hereafter PADC) are often in the form of emails from applicants to potential supervisors, departmental Programme Officers or Directors of Postgraduate Research, but they may also include video or phone calls, dropping into the office, making an introduction at an academic event, or reaching out via social media. PADC also refers to the passing of emails from applicants between staff members and discussions about their suitability or needs, as well as the communicative function of institutional websites.

Although it is not always a requirement that an application be preceded by contact, the practice can be said to be an unspoken norm in the higher education system in the UK. From the perspective of applicants, the anxiety that is induced by this act of communication and the pressure to get it right is palpable. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, there are numerous YouTube videos offering advice, blog posts suggesting how to tailor the perfect email, forums where applicants discuss strategies, examples of institutional guidance about what supervisors prefer, consultants who offer guidance on social media, and posts where students seek to demystify the process.

From the perspective of staff, PADC is also an important means of establishing relationships with doctoral applicants and making them feel welcome and supported. On the other hand, PADC can be challenging. Keeping up with the volume of communication and deciding where to invest time is an ongoing issue, especially when there are many unsolicited and impersonal emails arriving in staff inboxes. There have also been concerns expressed about the ways in which social categories of difference (e.g., gender, race, sexuality, etc.) may shape the nature of emails prospective supervisors receive, as recent discussions on Twitter have demonstrated.

A study currently underway at University of Warwick’s Education Studies department is seeking to learn more about the pre-application stage of doctoral admissions. Funded by the Research England Enhancing Research Culture Fund and running February-July 2022, the study takes its host institution as a case study and looks holistically at pre-application communications from the perspectives of Directors of Postgraduate Research, Programme Officers and supervisors across faculties. The study is qualitative, using interviews with departmental staff and solicited diaries and focus groups with supervisors to investigate the nature and influence of PADC. The study also includes a review of the departmental webpages at Warwick to discern their level of transparency and a literature review of doctoral admissions, admissions and EDI, and pre-application studies more specifically.

So why is PADC significant for understanding the state of the discipline of Education? The importance is twofold. First, understanding PADC could contribute to diversifying the Education research profession. Studying the pre-application stage is important to find out if there are any barriers to access that occur prior to formal admissions. For instance, research has shown that international applicants rely heavily on pre-application contact as a means of getting information about programmes (Kim & Spencer-Oatey, 2021). Research has also shown that bias against under-represented groups can occur at the pre-application stage and that staff identity influences recruitment (Milkman et al., 2015; Squire, 2020). PADC therefore functions as a form of gatekeeping that enables certain applicants to more confidently progress to the point of formally applying. However, there is general lack of research about the phenomenon of PADC in terms of the different stakeholders, practices and pedagogies involved, where responsibility and power reside, and the influence that it has on admissions decision-making. This is especially the case in the UK where the topic is understudied (Mellors-Bourne et al., 2014).

Second, getting a better understanding of PADC from an Education perspective demonstrates the insights that this disciplinary position can achieve. Whilst scholars in other areas such as Linguistics have studied PADC as texts (Sabet et al., 2021), studying PADC within Education Studies connects it as a phenomenon to ideas of pedagogy, scholarly judgement and academic autonomy. The ability to manage PADC in ways that are fair and sustainable has also likely been affected by the changes and pressures being felt in the university sector, and the study will situate PADS in this broader context. Taking PADC as an object of study in Education is therefore a means of gaining a better understanding of the various actors involved in the doctoral pipeline which eventually shapes the direction and norms of Education research.

The project therefore has direct implications for the discipline of Education, as it will reveal insights into pre-admissions practices and provide suggestions and recommendations for best practice that are drawn from both within and beyond the Social Sciences. Drawing on knowledge about other disciplines and faculties across the university will provide another lens through which to look at doctoral study and research in Education from new perspectives. It also delineates an under-studied area of enquiry for Higher Education research into the often taken for granted institutional practices that influence the make-up of the profession.

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Dr Sophia Kier-Byfield is a research assistant on the “Opening up the Black Box of Pre-application Doctoral Communications” project, working alongside her Warwick team members Dr James Burford, Dr Emily Henderson, Ahmad Akkad and Dr Dangeni. For more information on the project please visit the project website or search for project updates on Twitter at #PADC_project. 

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