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Opening up the Black Box of Pre-application Doctoral Communications

Project-specific illustration

Illustration by Dr. Kate Carruthers Thomas

- What is the "Opening up the Black Box of Pre-application Doctoral Communications" project?

Specifically focused on the pre-application process, this university-wide project aims to help supervisors and departments make inclusivity-aligned judgements about potential applicants.

  • Prior to making formal applications, potential supervisees often send academics informal approaches. Academics often make snap judgements about these inquiries, but, in deciding how to respond, they effectively become gatekeepers to the academic profession.
  • Directors of Post-Graduate Research Programmes (DPGRs) and PGR Programme Officers (POs) also engage in screening when evaluating correspondence prior to formal application. For prospective doctoral applicants, particularly from marginalised social groups and Global South countries, the application process is often challenging to navigate. Applicants draw on tacit knowledge to negotiate unfamiliar genres (e.g. inquiry emails to supervisors), which can disadvantage underrepresented students.
  • Previous studies on doctoral recruitment inequalities have focussed on formal admissions. It is equally vital to understand the pre-application side of admissions.


-What are the project objectives?

  1. To understand how supervisors, PGR Programme Directors and Programme Officers make decisions about responding to potential doctoral applicants at the pre-application stage, and to explore how these decisions may negatively impact the recruitment of diverse talent.
  2. To evaluate the extent to which the Warwick Doctoral College and departmental webpages on PGR admissions transparently describe the pre-application stage.
  3. To identify changes at institutional and department levels to create a more transparent and inclusive doctoral admissions process, with a particular focus on enhancing inclusivity for currently underrepresented groups.
  4. To produce a suite of professional development opportunities and enduring resources that facilitate the implementation of these changes.

- What does the research involve?

Literature review of existing scholarship and grey literature on doctoral admissions to synthesise existing findings and best practice. Webpage analysis of public-facing admissions material on Warwick Doctoral College and departmental webpages. Data collection across Warwick faculties: Semi-structured interviews about departmental pre-application practices with PGR Programme Directors and Programme Officers; Solicited diaries and Focus Group Discussions with doctoral supervisors.

- How will the research be put to use?

Flexible learning resources which can be used by relevant stakeholders in CPD at institutional/departmental levels and two briefings with checklists (i) for Warwick Doctoral College, Academic Development Centre, PGR Programme Directors and Programme Officers (including webpage guidance); (ii) for supervisors.

The project also incorporates the delivery of two interactive professional development activities. Workshop for PGR Programme Directors and Programme Officers facilitating departmental goal setting. Co-hosted Doctoral College/Academic Development Centre supervisor development session on doctoral supervisors’ role in enhancing inclusivity during pre-admissions communication. A Final Project Report will be produced and made available as an open access document.

The project is funded by the Research England Enhancing Research Culture Fund and runs from February-July 2022.

Follow us on Twitter:

Follow our researchers on Twitter to receive project updates @jiaburford @EmilyFrascatore @AhmadAkkad @Dangeni_ or follow the project hashtag #PADC_project

Who is working on the project?

Group photo

Principal Investigator: Dr James BurfordLink opens in a new window ( Department of Education Studies, University of Warwick

Co-Investigator: Dr Emily F. Henderson Link opens in a new windowDepartment of Education Studies, University of Warwick

Research Assistants:

Ahmad Akkad ( Department of Education Studies, University of Warwick

Dr. Dangeni ( Department of Education Studies, University of Warwick

Dr. Sophia Kier-Byfield ( Department of Education Studies, University of Warwick