Universities place a considerable emphasis on Widening Participation (WP), and all institutions are required to produce a Fair Access Agreement which outlines their commitments to increasing university uptake amongst students from lower socio-economic groups and low participation neighbourhoods. WP initiatives take a number of forms, from ‘university taster days’ to one-on-one tutoring and mentoring. There are a range of national and institutional bodies and events which seek to raise awareness of university study amongst students who would not normally consider higher education. As a PhD student, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved in these initiatives, but there are also some potential pitfalls. This article aims to provide some tips and advice for helping to widen participation during your PhD.
1. Think carefully about your aims and choose the right project or initiative for you.
You may be driven simply by a desire to increase university uptake, but you can also gain plenty of valuable skills and experience in the process. Think about your aims for the future (especially your desired career path) and see how your WP work can fit into these ambitions.
2. How will this WP initiative fit into your research?
Outreach and WP activities can sometimes be very general experiences which do not tie directly into your research. They can, though, also offer a brilliant opportunity to share your research with a non-specialist audience, so think about how you could use your research to inspire future generations of students.
3. Contact your institution’s outreach and WP team.
They will be able to provide you with details of all institution-wide events and initiatives, and they will often be willing to provide you with some suggestions for the events that are best suited to your aims.
4. Do your research.
There are many initiatives that seek to increase university participation across the country, and some may be offered in your area. While these might not have a direct connection to your institution, they may well seek to recruit researchers working in your field: The Brilliant Club is one such expanding organisation which seeks to raise university participation and has links with a whole range of Russell Group institutions.
5. What sort of involvement would suit your style?
If you prefer the idea of small group tutoring or one-to-one mentoring, then it is perhaps best not to volunteer for a taster lecture to fifty Year 9 students. Instead, seek out the initiatives and events with which you would like to get involved, and when applying or volunteering draw explicit parallels between the event and your own interests.
6. Speak to colleagues in your department or faculty.
It can be surprising just how many local WP events take place in your department. Speak to departmental secretaries, the Director of Graduate Studies and other research colleagues to see if they are organising any upcoming Widening Participation events in which you could offer support.
7. Seek advice on the ‘employability’ of your activities.
Widening Participation in some form demonstrates commitment to admissions and recruitment work and to public engagement, but it can be both reassuring and insightful to speak to senior colleagues and heads of department on the extent to which such initiatives could benefit you when working in your chosen discipline.
8. Contact your institution’s continual professional development (CPD) or Teaching and Learning team.
While you will not be gaining experience of teaching at HE level when undertaking Widening Participation activities, these colleagues will be able to offer you support and suggestions for recording your activities for the purposes of future accreditation.
9. Don’t over-stretch yourself.
The considerable range of potential projects available means that it can be very tempting to over-commit yourself and neglect your other responsibilities. Involvement in one WP activity per year clearly demonstrates your commitment to Widening Participation and to outreach: don’t forget the thesis!
10. Use the experiences to support your own work.
School students can offer the most thought-provoking and surprising comments about your research. Enjoy the experience and feed through student feedback and suggestions into your PhD.