Acquiring a place on a taught doctoral programme is an achievement that many spend years trying to accomplish. In my field of educational psychology, it’s not uncommon to hear people being offered a place on their fourth, fifth, or sixth attempt. There is a widespread meme that many potentially exellent candidates are lost during the selection process. This is for a variety of factors, chief among them that there aren’t enough places for the demand. This creates a difficult situation as there is fierce competition. You need to be a very strong candidate with many positive elements to your application, such as relevant experience, to be successful.
A related but distinct criticism concerns the characteristics of those who do earn a spot: the range of backgrounds and types of people, or the lack thereof. The diversity of trainee educational psychologists (TEPs), along with the profession in general, has been rightly criticised as being overly white (Thomas, Giles, Browne, Robinson, Bunn & Rowley, 2020), overly middle class (Lissack, 2020), and therefore not representative of the populations we work with1. There have been numerous calls to action and steps have been taken (Thomas, Giles, Browne, Robinson, Bunn & Rowley, 2020). But the processes by which candidates are chosen have received comparatively less attention. I believe this has led to a viable alternative being overlooked.
The purpose of this blog post is to examine one aspect of the selection process. Much can be said about the advantages and disadvantages of interviews and the means by which candidates are evaluated. I am solely discussing the final step of the process, when decisions are made about which candidates are to be offered a place. I will focus on educational psychology, but a lot of what I discuss can be applied to other doctoral programmes, for example clinical psychology.
The agony of choice
Deciding who to offer a place to on a doctoral course is an extremely difficult decision. Many of the candidates will be excellent and there are not enough spaces to offer places to all. The finest of margins can make the difference between elation and devastation. So how does one choose?2. Typically, after the initial selection process and interviews, candidates are scored and ranked. A minimum score/criteria will often be decided so that only candidates who are judged to be “good enough” are considered. Decisions can then be made about which candidates will be successful and which ones must try again.
Many factors determine your score and rank: how you performed during the interview and on other tasks on the day; degree qualification; relevant experience; etc. However, many of these factors are greatly influenced by privilege. Black applicants and working class applicants are less likely to have a top degree classification (Universities UK, 2019; Crawford, 2014). Disabled applicants will likely have found it harder to balance gaining relevant experience and their needs (Mattocks & Briskoe-Palmer, 2016). Applicants from well-off families are more likely to know how to gain relevant experience (Elliot, Bengtsen, Guccione & Kobayashi, 2020). Therefore, the top applicants are likely to have benefited from their prior privilege. So, despite having all the best intentions to improve TEP diversity, you can end up with a selection of predominantly white middle class TEPs. Privilege makes you more likely to be lucky during the selection process and earn a spot. This shows how luck has a large but often unspoken impact on the doctoral process. Why not make the role of luck both more explicit and fair?
The framing of ‘many excellent potential EPs are lost’ implies some minimum threshold for being a good EP that a large number cross3. This becomes more explicit if a selection panel creates a threshold for applicants to be considered. An alternative to such panels agonising over which candidates to offer places to is to use a lottery system for those who pass said threshold. As a result, each applicant who is deemed “good enough” would have an equal chance of earning a place on the doctorate.
There is theoretical and empirical evidence to suggest a system such as this increases diversity of those who are successful. This has been seen in areas as diverse as grant applications (Chawla, 2021; Adam, 2019) and postdoctoral fellowships (Klaus & Álamo, 2018). A lottery as a way to differentiate between candidates when there are very fine margins and the signals of suitability are relatively weak creates a fairer system (Fang & Casadevall, 2016). The sting of disappointment is also reduced, especially if they are told how far along the process they got (Adam, 2019). If a system such as this were implemented, those not already advantaged, such as those who could not afford to take a pay cut or work without a salary to gain relevant experience, would have a better chance of earning a place. This is because they no longer need to have as much privilege as their competitors; they just need to be good enough to be an EP.
Implementing such a change would obviously not fix the problem. Much more is needed, such as more funded places, paid AEP jobs for disadvantaged folks, to name a few. But it may go some way to making the doctorate application process fairer and improve the diversity of doctoral candidates.
Adam, D. (2019). Science funders gamble on grant lotteries. Nature, 575(7784), 574–575. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-03572-7
Chawla, D. S. (2021). Swiss funder draws lots to make grant decisions. Nature. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-01232-3
Crawford, C. (2014, November 4). Socio-economic differences in university outcomes in the UK: drop-out, degree completion and degree class. https://doi.org/10.1920/wp.ifs.2014.1431
Elliot, D. L., Bengtsen, S. S. E., Guccione, K., & Kobayashi, S. (2020). The Hidden Curriculum in Doctoral Education. Palgrave Pivot. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-41497-9
Fang, F. C., & Casadevall, A. (2016). Research Funding: the Case for a Modified Lottery. MBio, 7(2), e00422-00416. https://doi.org/10.1128/mBio.00422-16
Klaus, B., & Álamo, D. del. (2018). Talent Identification at the limits of Peer Review: an analysis of the EMBO Postdoctoral Fellowships Selection Process. BioRxiv, 481655. https://doi.org/10.1101/481655
Lissack, K. (2020, September 9). Reflections on being working class in a middle class profession. Edpsy.Org.Uk. https://edpsy.org.uk/blog/2020/reflections-on-being-working-class-in-a-middle-class-profession/
Mattocks, K., & Briskoe-Palmer, S. (2016). Diversity, inclusion, and doctoral study: challenges facing minority phd students in the United Kingdom. European Political Science, 15(4), 476–492. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41304-016-0071-x
Thomas, M., Giles, P., Browne, L., Robinson, M., Bunn, H., & Rowley, J. (2020). Professional Doctorate in Educational and Child Psychology at the University of East London: Position Statement on Anti-Racism and Decolonisation. Educational Psychology Research and Practice, 6(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.15123/uel.89124
Universities UK. (2019). Black, Asian and Minority Student Attainment at UK Universities: #CLOSINGTHEGAP.
1 I say this as a middle class white person, so I am firmly included in this.
2 Caveat: I am not on any selection panels so I do not know the exact process. My knowledge is based on discussions with those who have been or are currently on selection panels for different universities.
3 This threshold will be different between people and universities.