By Sarah Thomson |

It’s no secret that the world of academia is far from a meritocracy. In efforts to combat this at undergraduate level, many universities and organisations are striving to increase access to higher education for students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds. As a so-called ‘widening participation’ (first generation, low-income, state-schooled) student I was given support when applying to university from the widening participation programme LEAPS. Once at university I was the grateful recipient of means-tested financial aid and was thrilled to be among Edinburgh’s cohort of Lloyds Scholars, another social mobility programme. All of this is to say that I was in the fortunate position to benefit from programmes geared towards helping students overcome the financial and social barriers to pursuing higher education.

Programmes like Lloyds Scholars are invaluable in widening access to higher education among undergraduates

Since transitioning to postgraduate study, I haven’t encountered any use of the phrase ‘widening participation’. But when it comes to pursuing postgraduate study, the playing field is far from level. I’ve been thinking a lot about the PhD application and funding process, and the ways it disadvantages people from the ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds like the ones universities support at undergraduate level. I can’t profess to having the answers to a lot of the questions I have about making the system more inclusive, but here are a few thoughts.


Acknowledge part-time (or full-time) employment

I completely understand that, when comparing a large pool of applicants, undergraduate and Masters grades offer a seemingly straightforward way to differentiate between candidates. However, for low-income students balancing part-time, or even full-time employment alongside their studies, grades may not offer the most accurate marker of potential, especially when placed alongside those of students who have been able to devote their time solely to their studies. With a number of funding applications now asking for additional ‘markers of distinction’ on top of achieving first class grades, it’s vital to remember that some students are balancing the pressure to excel academically with the need to make ends meet each month. These students may also lack the time and resources to grab the extracurriculars needed to make their fledgling academic CVs stand out. And for students who take years out to work, save, and return to postgraduate education, there’s added pressure to perform to the same level as students who have completed their degrees back to back.


Create space to discuss extenuating circumstances

I was amazed that, despite the focus placed on students achieving top grades, there was rarely scope for applicants to add details about extenuating circumstances that may have affected their academic performance to date. When space in these applications is at a premium, expecting candidates to squeeze potentially vital information like this into another section of the application seems unfair. Yet, when students are knocked out of funding competitions for not achieving a First class undergraduate degree, it seems only fair that the student who narrowly missed out on the top grades but had caring responsibilities/financial worries/health concerns etc. to juggle alongside their studies should be given the opportunity to discuss these.

Considering employment unrelated to academia on funding applications would offer one way to level the playing field in funding competitions

Reduce (or scrap) application fees

The cost of applying for PhD places can vary wildly, but it’s clear that the costs can be prohibitive. One application to a US university can easily cost $300+, and some British programmes now cost £50-75+. Following the advice to make multiple applications in order to maximise the chance of securing funding is all well and good, providing the applicant has access to the money necessary to make applications.


Avoid assumptions about people’s financial situation

This one’s for everyone involved in PhD applications. One of the most baffling conversations I had during applying for PhD programmes was with an academic who asked me if I would turn down funding I’d just been offered in order to self-fund at a “more prestigious” university (I’ll leave you to guess which one). Self-funding may well be a viable option for many people, but the assumption that it’s an option for everyone was a little frustrating. Similarly, I had a professor tell me to “just book flights and reimburse yourself” while I was applying for a smaller travel grant, as if securing funding wasn’t a deal breaker on whether or not I could justify making the trip in question. 

I could write a whole post on imposter syndrome and becoming a PhD student, and I’m sure it’s something that’s universal in the PhD experience to some degree. But the moments when I’ve felt most out-of-place in this first year in academia have rarely occurred inside the classroom. Passing comments along the lines of “how many jobs do you need, anyway? You’re supposed to be a student”, from fellow postgraduates whose degrees are being fully funded have fuelled unnecessary anxiety. When filling in the alumni survey for my undergrad university there was no way to list full-time study alongside one part-time job, never mind two, reinforcing the sense that not dedicating all of my time and energy to my studies was somehow the ‘wrong’ way to be a postgraduate.



No amount of widening participation programmes at undergraduate level is going to level the playing field for students progressing to further study. Even with student loans the cost of a Masters can be prohibitively expensive (and some Masters courses are ineligible for student loans), and student who maintain responsibilities alongside their studies (be they caring responsibilities, employment or something else entirely) should be given the chance to illuminate these factors in the funding application process. Whether departments and funders do this by interviewing potential PhD students, or extending the length of applications to allow a more holistic view of the candidate, the current system is no longer fit for purpose.


Sarah was a 2013-17 Lloyds Scholar and has a keen interest in widening participation in higher education. She’s happy to talk to any first generation/widening participation students interested in pursuing postgraduate studies, and can be reached on Twitter or via Pubs and Pubs.

All images: Sarah Thomson