Block letters spelling "PhD" on top of a stack of books next to a piggy bank in front of a green wall

The Perfect PhD Candidate

In this blog, Dr Bukola Oyinloye shares findings from a study of academic and professional staff’s perspectives of doctoral success and draws some implications for the project.

To gain insight into the qualities desired of PhD candidates, in Workstream two, we interviewed academics from the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Sciences and professional staff significantly involved in the review and selection of doctoral applicants across the project’s partner universities. We selected academics who held Senior institutional roles and who had extensive supervision experience, and professional staff who had extensive student support experience.

We wanted to understand interview participants’ views of their ideal PhD candidate and, based on their experiences, the qualities/attributes of candidates who have been most successful in their doctorate. Although there are many possible definitions of ‘success’, and participants themselves offered that PhD candidates themselves may be best positioned to define what success meant to them, we opted for a simple definition: completion of the PhD, i.e., successful defence of the thesis.

For our participants, the perfect or ideal PhD candidate has the perfect combination of cognitive – academic skills and mental capabilities – and non-cognitive skills, i.e., personal attributes. Unsurprisingly, and perhaps fortunately, such a candidate does not exist, at least according to our participants. None of the academics we interviewed had ever had the fortune of supervising one, and none of the professional staff had ever heard of one.

Acknowledging that perfection is an unattainable – and perhaps undesirable – goal, participants told us they nevertheless desired candidates with a good balance of cognitive and non-cognitive skills. Cognitively, these were, among others, candidates with relevant knowledge of their research area who met the minimum academic requirements for the PhD and who could also demonstrate intellectual independence, were naturally curious and were willing to learn. Non-cognitively, these were candidates who possessed personal qualities such as confidence, drive, resilience; were committed to the toil of PhD work; could communicate this work; and were committed to being in community with others, particularly within the immediate environment of their PhD programme or department. 

For participants, candidates with a good balance of these sets of attributes tended to not only be successful in completing their PhD, but they also had a more positive experience during the PhD journey. This positive experience was primarily driven by the positive relationships such students were able to develop and sustain with supervisors and peers, relationships which included intellectual contributions and collaborations – interest in exchanging ideas and receiving critique – as well as social engagement – interest in bringing people together. 

Interestingly, there was generally broad agreement about these attributes across the disciplines. However, three qualities were highlighted particularly by those from the Sciences: effective problem solving, communication skills and team orientedness. It is possible that this nuance is due to the problem-centric nature of many Science topics (i.e., the need to prove or disprove a hypothesis), the importance of being able to communicate complex scientific ideas, and the group / team structure of many Science doctorates. Undoubtedly, these attributes are also important in the Arts & Humanities and Social Sciences; however, our findings suggest they have particular resonance for the Sciences. 

Despite these desired attributes, selection processes across many institutions, including participants’, are tailored to explicitly select  predominantly for cognitive attributes. This is echoed by the 2021 UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE) survey of UK supervisors where respondents’ top three priority selection factors, selected from a predetermined list of 11 factors, were research proposal, alignment with supervisors’ research, and potential contribution to the field. Notably, when asked to suggest other priority factors, the majority of respondents who did highlighted candidates’ enthusiasm / motivation / passion / interest / dedication. 

Although one of our participants contended that academics do implicitly or anecdotally consider candidates’ non-cognitive attributes, our findings suggest that there is greater scope for this set of attributes to feature much more prominently in review and selection processes than they currently do in many PhD programmes. As argued in our previous blog, incorporating more non-cognitive skills and attributes within the doctoral selection criteria could act for equity by helping to diversify the currently narrow pool of UK-domiciled PhD candidates. As we move forward in the project, we plan to use this evidence, alongside others we are generating through our research within the workstream, to help inform our approach and support to our project partners across the consortium.