22 SES 06 D, Doctoral Programs in Various Perspectives
Very little is currently understood about access to doctoral study, in spite of the staggering growth in postgraduate student numbers in UK higher education in the last two decades. There are now more than five times as many postgraduates than in 1990, prompting calls for further research (McCulloch and Thomas, 2013). Despite this huge expansion, very little is currently understood about access and the structure of doctoral opportunities, including whether inequalities seen at earlier stages of the educational system continue to manifest themselves at its apex. This is in stark contrast with the situation at undergraduate level where much research has been undertaken on inequalities in access to initial higher education (Boliver, 2006; Connor, 2001) and the barriers facing those from different groups (Archer et al, 2003; Hossler et al, 1999).
A substantial body of research on initial entry to higher education identifies cultural factors as a barrier to participation, where higher education is seen as unsuitable for “someone like me” (Reay et al 2005; 2009). But unlike at undergraduate level, financial support is not available for all doctoral students which may be a disincentive to students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds, especially given recent changes to undergraduate student finance which trebled the tuition fees. Such students might be expected to show ‘relative risk aversion’ (Breen and Goldthorpe, 1997) based on the cost (and length) of doctoral study and its uncertain outcomes.
In line with this, the study proposes a detailed investigation of how and why some graduates came to enter PhD study and others did not. The little extant research in this area neglects non-participants but it is essential to understand whether they differ from participants in their characteristics, attitudes and motivations. Since theories in the sociology of education seeking to explain mechanisms for the reproduction of educational disadvantage (rational choice and reproduction respectively) emphasise either the financial or cultural aspect of decision-making for disadvantaged students, the research will provide an empirical test for these two approaches.
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