Supporting PhD Students in the Social Sciences

The South East Network for Social Sciences, or SeNSS is a consortium of 10 leading UK universities, all engaged in cutting-edge social science research and training. Late last year SAGE Publishing – the parent of Social Science Space — announced that it was to collaborate with SeNSS to both share ideas and collectively support the development of the next generation of social science researchers, such as through SeNSS’ doctoral training program.

Here, SAGE’s Mollie Broad speaks to professor Shamit Saggar, associate pro-vice-chancellor research at the University of Essex, to find out more about SeNSS, and how it will respond to the rapid changes currently facing the social sciences.

How and why was the SeNSS first developed?

In spring 2015, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) announced that it intended to bring about a major restructuring of its support for doctoral training. The ESRC’s evaluation of its earlier post 2010 arrangements indicated that universities could do more to develop the training and skills of PhD students, especially through developing cohorts of students. A group of 10 research-led universities in the south east decided to form a doctoral training consortium, recognizing that this would be the best way to achieve success against these markers. The SeNSS members are: City, University of London, University of East Anglia, University of Essex (which also co-ordinates SeNSS’ work), Goldsmiths, University of London, University of Kent, University of Reading, University of Roehampton, Royal Holloway, University of London, University of Surrey and University of Sussex.

The central rationale for the SeNSS consortium is that, together, we can achieve more for our PhD students than working in isolation. Our universities already have thriving social science research environments and, in many cases, significant investments in doctoral studentships and professional development. But we are crucially alive to the idea that we can go further, by opening up training to one another, using our critical mass to develop advanced and specialist training facilities, strengthening inter-disciplinary research opportunities, and brokering better relationships with leaders among research users.

SeNSS was awarded an ESRC Doctoral Training Partnership grant in summer 2016. It is led by myself, with professor Alan Pickering (Goldsmiths) as deputy director, and Dr Felicity Szesnat as manager. SeNSS supports 13 discipline-based pathways, and will be selecting its inaugural cohort of PhD students in spring 2017.

How does SeNSS support early career researchers through this partnership?

SeNSS does this in four main ways: first, by ensuring that all PhD students receive suitable social science methodological training that ensures strong skills and awareness of multiple methods, approaches, and analytical techniques.

Second, SeNSS provides support, including financial resources, to individual pathways so that they can meet the needs of students in a tailored way. There is likely to be demand to create training events that strengthen common methods training, encourage students within pathways to identify and cooperate on recurring themes, and create a forum for students to reflect on methodological issues and share best practice.

Third, SeNSS provides support for supervisors. Some supervisors will benefit from a better appreciation of different research topics and how students pursue their research questions. Others will want to focus on their students’ precise training needs, and SeNSS will facilitate awareness of suitable training offered across the consortium.

Finally, we will provide support for student-led activities, including a student journal and a student conference, in order to help create a vibrant atmosphere for students to learn from each other.

Where in particular do you think additional support and resources are needed, and how do partnerships, such as the one with SAGE, help address this?

There are many areas in which SeNSS’s non-university partners can get involved. Many of them are from the research user and practitioner worlds, such as leading polling organizations, publishers and conference hosts, think tanks, government agencies and foundations. Around half of our social science PhDs will eventually work outside academia, and future career trajectories of many may involve developing a clever way of combining academic and non-academic careers.

SAGE is a leading academic publisher with repute in the social sciences. SeNSS students have much to learn about what publishers do, what they are looking for, how they drive innovation and creativity across disciplinary boundaries and, of course, how to get published. I would especially identify SAGE’s strong interest in research methodology and its publication of comparative studies on methodological questions. SeNSS is committed to strengthening this core area, and working with SAGE makes this an altogether more interesting exercise from our students’ perspective.

The social sciences are currently undergoing a period of rapid transformation. How do you predict the field will develop over the next 10 years, and in what areas?

No one in the social sciences is especially keen to stick their necks out at present. Too many social scientists’ heads have come off in the rancor over the 2016 Brexit vote, the 2015 General Election result, the 2008 financial crisis, and the continuing Eurozone problems.

However, throwing caution to the wind, I anticipate social scientists will find themselves working in much larger teams – typically between 20-50 – developing new research ideas and designs, and analyzing complex issues and data in a group setting. It will be much rarer to see researchers working alone. I also expect that the really creative and bold social scientists will want to invest in their skills and build careers that are connected to the natural sciences and to the arts and humanities. The pace of technological change is likely to increase, so social scientists will want to explore issues of how people will respond to such change. There are many impacts on and implications for identity, relationships, communities and so on, meaning that social scientists are going to be in demand.

And finally, although universities have a unique role in preparing social scientists, top rate social science will happen not just in the academy. Some of the most interesting research will take place in other settings in the future, and SeNSS’s job is to provide academics and students with robust training and skills to prepare them to succeed in that future.

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