Combining access and excellence? The Grand Union afloat at last...

After almost two years of planning, our Grand Union Doctoral Training Partnership gets its first canal-trial this month. We will get to see what our lofty ambitions for our partnership look like out on the water. Training pathways from across Oxford, the OU and Brunel are busy selecting applicants for their doctoral programmes, and deciding who amongst the very strongest might be a suitable candidate for an ESRC studentship.

From Anthropology to Area Studies, Criminology to Citizenship, and from Migration to Management, supervisors and pathway leads on our 24 different pathways will be preparing detailed nomination cases, and ranking their very best candidates.

Then our scholarship assessment panel will sit down to read more than 100 applications and nominations. They face an unenviable task: evaluating and scoring very different claims to doctoral excellence. It is like comparing apples, pears and pomegranates, one might protest. How do you compare an Oxford undergraduate boasting a double first in Economics with a development practitioner proud of their ten years leading an educational NGO? Which matters most: a applicant's future research potential visible in an exciting research proposal, or evidence of past academic achievement, backed up by glowing references? How do you weigh theoretical and conceptual contributions against ground-breaking policy research that promises topicality, relevance and 'impact'? And should applications be assessed by disciplinary experts, or by scholars from across the social sciences? 

Such questions arise strong feelings, and no easy answers.  Three years ago, our Doctoral Training Centre stopped allocating a share of awards to disciplines and instead began to run open studentship competitions. Determined to make our review process as robust as possible, each application and nomination gets independently read by five or six experienced assessors. We score them on a 1-5 scale across a range of domains, including their academic record, doctoral research proposal, and references. We make our evaluation criteria as clear as possible, and give our assessors the opportunity to carry out a pilot assessment in order to help them moderate and standardise their scoring.

Each time we learn from the year before. This year our new partnership has an ambitious priority: addressing inequalities of access to doctoral research funding.  As well as scoring candidates' academic achievements, we will also now take 'evidence of relevant professional expertise and success' into account, recognising that this provides scholars with vital organisational and management skills.

Our assessments also include a new 'Contextual Information' domain. This allows us to take into account a range of other factors that might strengthen an application: relevant policy and professional expertise; existing research access; knowledge exchange possibilities; widening participation considerations; supervisory commitment and 'fit' with existing research priorities. This will all help us ensure that part-time candidates, mature students and candidates with a diverse professional CV are all treated fairly.

The stakes are high. Our scholars get up to four years of full funding, along with generous extra support for fieldwork, internships and institutional visits. They also have unrivalled opportunities to build research networks in a community of almost 2000 research students across our Grand Union partnership. 

More important still, our universities and departments benefit hugely from hosting ESRC scholars. They are the future of the social sciences. When not writing their dissertations, they are busy organising conferences, visiting other universities, doing internships, and getting involved in policy debates, all the time gaining valuable leadership experience.

Awarding scholarships is a difficult, challenging and sometimes invidious process, especially when apples, pears and pomegranates all deserve a chance. But once we meet our new scholars, it is always worth it.

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