What proportion of PhDs are ESRC studentships?

by Allan Williams

Nine out of ten social science PhDs are not ESRC-funded, as the Review of ESRC Doctoral Training Centres (DTCs) noted in 2015. So how has the proportion of PhDs arising from ESRC studentships varied between disciplines in recent years?

In each academic year from 2011-12 to 2015-16, on average 545 ESRC-funded postgraduates submitted their PhD, out of a total of around 32,000 completed in social science over the five years. This means that ESRC studentships accounted for between 8% and 13% of social science PhDs depending on how much of which disciplines you include, as the proportion varies widely between disciplines from under one in 50 (in History) to four in five (in Development studies). This variation is itself interesting and too big to ignore.

The chart below illustrates this variation between disciplines.

phd submissions

It shows how important ESRC studentships are in relation to total PhDs awarded in each discipline (on the y-axis) and to the total number of ESRC PhD submissions (on the x-axis). The size of each circle reflects the numbers of ESRC studentships in each discipline. Note the extent of variation between disciplines, both in size and where they sit on the chart.

As we might expect, ESRC studentships accounted for a minority of PhDs and fewer than one in five in nearly all disciplines. Overall, a third of ESRC-funded PhDs were in geography, economics and sociology, each with over 300 submissions, and the bigger disciplines are generally to the right of the chart. Of those towards the bottom, some are smaller disciplines while in others, notably Psychology and History, ESRC studentships are arguably unrepresentative of the wider PhD population since only parts of these disciplines are in ESRC’s remit, for example Economic and Social History. This may also be a factor in disciplines such as Education in which professional doctorates are more common.

The chart also shows the extent of variation in demand (for PhD studentships) and supply (of funding) between disciplines. Development studies is a clear outlier, as uniquely ESRC studentships accounted for the majority of PhDs, although some caution is needed as overall numbers are small and the relevant HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) code changed during this period. At the other end of the scale, Management & business studies accounted for 8% of ESRC PhDs but only 4% of all PhDs in the discipline, suggesting that there were plenty of both students wanting to do doctorates and other sources of funding.

Overall there were around twice as many PhDs in both economics and sociology as in human geography, but about the same number of ESRC studentships in each. This means that a PhD student in human geography was twice as likely to hold an ESRC studentship as one in economics or sociology. As a former ESRC geography PhD student myself, I don’t see this as a problem. But it raises interesting questions about what the “right” number and distribution of studentships looks like. This is part of a wider and ongoing debate around approaches to postgraduate training.

ESRC’s current approach is to fund excellent doctoral research in social science in whatever disciplines that is found through open competition for studentships, managed and allocated through the ESRC Doctoral Training Network. The PhDs in this analysis began up to a decade ago under previous ESRC postgraduate training policies, notably to strengthen research capabilities and increase capacity in priority disciplines while giving DTCs flexibility in allocating studentships. The outcome broadly reflects disciplinary benchmarks set in 2011, although many of these studentships began earlier.


allan_williams headshot 150Allan Williams is Senior Evaluation Manager in the Insights team at ESRC, part of UK Research and Innovation, and is responsible for undertaking and managing evaluation and analysis of ESRC investments, policy and operation.

You can see the data and analysis that informs this blog (PDF) on the ESRC website, along with further analyses.

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