News Release

Researchers release action plan to boost diversity in postgraduate science students

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Oxford

UK researchers are calling on higher education institutes and research funders to adopt a new set of recommended actions to address the substantial under-representation of PhD students from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Black, Asian and minority ethnic students have a markedly lower representation in postgraduate research compared with undergraduate or taught postgraduate study in the UK. For instance, in 2020/21, around 26.5% of UK undergraduates were from ethnic minority backgrounds, compared with around 19% for postgraduate students

The Equator project, based at Sheffield Hallam University, has been investigating why this is the case and developing evidence-based interventions to target these barriers. The team have now published their findings and an action plan for higher education institutes in the leading journal Nature Geoscience. This is based on their research into ethnic minority participation in Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences; subjects with some of the lowest diversity levels.

The project involved working with Doctoral Training Organisations through a series of focus groups to understand and analyse their admissions practices, including advertising, interviewing, and evaluation. The researchers also sought feedback from students who took part in Equator activities, such as surveys and focus groups. 

Their findings highlighted that advertising was not the main barrier to entry. The study’s lead author, Dr Benjamin Fernando (University of Oxford), said ‘It is often assumed that students from minority backgrounds are underrepresented simply because don’t know about PhD opportunities. Our work suggests that this is not the case – rather, they choose alternative paths for a range of complex societal, cultural, and personal reasons.’ For example, these might include worries about career security or funding.

The study identified three areas where improvements should to be made to address underrepresentation of ethnic minority students:

  1. Student-facing improvements,
  2. The procedures used in applications themselves,
  3. How students are evaluated.

Student-facing improvements:

These recommendations included:

  • Greater use of demographic networks (e.g. Black in Geoscience), as these are more likely to be effective than increased untargeted advertising.
  • Address the lack of confidence about applying for research careers through funded pre-application support, including workshops, online Q&A sessions, office hours, networking events, and mentoring.
  • Provide standardised expression of interest forms for students to contact potential supervisors.
  • Provide written resources that proactively address the potential concerns of applicants (for instance, available financial support), and provide greater clarity on what information applications should contain.

The procedures used in applications themselves:

  • Provide dedicated, ring-fenced opportunities, such as guaranteed interviews for candidates from minority backgrounds who meet minimum requirements.
  • Equitable use of contextual data: Funders (such as the UK Government) should provide a framework for how contextual information* and personal circumstances are taken into consideration for postgraduate study applications (similar for undergraduates).
  • Standardise demographic data collection at the point of application and expand this beyond minimum legal requirements to include factors such as undergraduate institution.

How students are evaluated:

  • Reduce bias by decreasing the emphasis on supervisor-specific nominations and by monitoring conflicts of interests for internal applicants.
  • Reforming assessment metrics to focus on potential, not “excellence”. Instead of rigid assessment criteria based on undergraduate grades, allow for more holistic evaluation.
  • Use more holistic interview questions designed to prompt candidates to showcase their transferable skills and character attributes (e.g. resilience or creativity).

Within the report, these actions are divided into those which should take place during the current admissions cycle (2022-23), those which will take one-to-two years to implement, and those which require long-term structural change on a timescale of five years to address.

The Equator project’s Principal Investigator, Dr Natasha Dowey (Sheffield Hallam University), summarised the effort by saying: ‘We have produced an action plan that departments across the country who admit PhD students in the physical sciences can copy. By providing a prioritised list of actions spanning multiple years, there is no excuse for not taking immediate action.’

* ‘Contextual information’ may include information about a candidate’s background, demographics, or experiences not directly related to their academic study. At undergraduate admissions this information is commonly used to inform selection for interviews within a framework given by UCAS. This is not universally the case at postgraduate level.

Notes for editors:

For media requests and interviews, contact:

Dr Benjamin Fernando, University of Oxford:

Dr Natasha Dowey, Sheffield Hallam University:

The results of this work will be published in Nature Geoscience under the title of ‘Strategies for making geoscience PhD recruitment more equitable’ at 16:00 BST Thursday 3 August. After the embargo lifts, the paper will be available at DOI: 10.1038/s41561-023-01241-z. To view a copy of the paper before this, contact Dr Benjamin Fernando:

A range of downloadable infographics describing the work and findings of the Equator Project are available at

About the geosciences:

  • PhDs are the highest research degrees offered by most UK universities. They generally involve 3-4 years of funded study into a particular topic.
  • ‘The geosciences’ is a catch-all term which encompasses Geography, Earth, and Environmental Sciences (GEES). Certain parts of ecology, zoology, etc may sometimes be included in this catch-all.

The Equator Project:

  • The Equator project was funded by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) in 2021 to seek solutions to the issues of under-representation and under-inclusion of PhD students from ethnic minority backgrounds in the geosciences. More information can be found here:
  • Equator was led by Dr Natasha Dowey at Sheffield Hallam University, and co-led by Dr Sam Giles at the University of Birmingham and Professor Christopher Jackson at Imperial College London
  • “Equator 2.0”, supported by a range of partners, seeks to expand upon the successes of Equator and is taking place during the summer of 2023.

About the University of Oxford

Oxford University has been placed number 1 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the seventh year running, and ​number 2 in the QS World Rankings 2022. At the heart of this success are the twin-pillars of our ground-breaking research and innovation and our distinctive educational offer.

Oxford is world-famous for research and teaching excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe. Our work helps the lives of millions, solving real-world problems through a huge network of partnerships and collaborations. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of our research alongside our personalised approach to teaching sparks imaginative and inventive insights and solutions.

Through its research commercialisation arm, Oxford University Innovation, Oxford is the highest university patent filer in the UK and is ranked first in the UK for university spinouts, having created more than 200 new companies since 1988. Over a third of these companies have been created in the past three years. The university is a catalyst for prosperity in Oxfordshire and the United Kingdom, contributing £15.7 billion to the UK economy in 2018/19, and supports more than 28,000 full time jobs.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.