Summer schools piloted as Cambridge develops first widening participation strategy at postgraduate level

New programmes will offer students from other UK universities practical research experience as part of Cambridge’s commitment to diversifying representation among postgraduates

The University of Cambridge will this year pilot two summer schools as part of efforts to encourage more students from underrepresented backgrounds to apply for postgraduate study.

Experience Postgrad Life Sciences, and the SHARE programme in the social sciences, will each offer undergraduates from universities across the UK and Ireland an introduction to postgraduate study, vital practical research experience and support through the application process.

The two summer schools are part of Cambridge’s commitment to diversifying representation among postgraduates, along with the appointment of a Postgraduate Widening Participation Manager, Dr Katherine Powlesland, and recent re-assessment of the University’s postgraduate admissions practices to better support students from underrepresented backgrounds in making competitive applications. The University is also working to boost the number of Master’s studentships for postgraduate students from underrepresented groups.

Drs Janet Deane, Andrew Blagborough and Matthias Landgraf are co-ordinating Experience Postgrad Life Sciences, an 8-week, paid, residential internship programme which aims to help biological and biomedical sciences undergraduates – including those studying medicine and veterinary medicine – develop research skills, get lab experience, and discover what postgraduate study involves.

“This is aimed at students at universities that are not research intensive and cannot offer this type of opportunity in a lab,” Dr Landgraf said. “These are students who have faced really challenging circumstances and have still found a way to overcome these.

“Creativity and innovation thrive in an environment that is varied and diverse, where people from different backgrounds and with different skills come together. This programme is also about access to information, helping these students create their own networks of connections. It’s very clear that a lot of them haven’t grown up in an environment – of relatives and friends – where they can tap into knowledge around university applications and career choices around postgraduate study or research. That is what we can provide.”

The Cambridge laboratories that host the students – who will be housed by Fitzwilliam College free of charge – will stay in contact with them beyond the summer internship, to provide ongoing help as they complete their undergraduate degrees and seek to enter postgraduate education.

Meanwhile, SHARE, an online pilot programme run by the School of the Humanities and Social Sciences, is aimed at undergraduate social sciences students from backgrounds underrepresented at postgraduate level. Participants, who receive a bursary of £650, will be matched with a PhD student mentor and an academic staff mentor, who will support them during a two-week programme of live events and group discussions, offering research methods training plus guidance on writing research proposals and applying for funding.

Dr Kristine Black-Hawkins, Deputy Head of the School of the Humanities and Social Sciences, said: “Encouraging students from diverse backgrounds into postgraduate study in the social sciences is a key part of the School’s mission. I am delighted to support this pilot project. We hope the programme will be an exciting opportunity for participants to find out more about postgraduate research as well as offer advice to those who wish to go onto further study, whether at Cambridge or elsewhere.”

In developing the University’s first widening participation strategy at postgraduate level, Dr Powlesland has already overseen a major mapping exercise to understand at a granular level where there is underrepresentation in the UK-domiciled postgraduate community at Cambridge. As well as – for the first time – capturing contextual information about new candidates’ individual circumstances on the University’s postgraduate applications forms, the work also involves building up a detailed picture of the types of Master’s and PhD students already applying to the University, and pinpointing pockets of underrepresentation across the University’s academic divisions and departments. With no UCAS equivalent providing a widely used central hub for postgraduate applications, Widening Participation data – beyond the statutory reporting requirements collected by HESA (including gender, age, disability status, ethnicity) – has not historically been readily accessible in the sector.

“Diversifying postgraduate study is a sector-wide challenge, but Cambridge is now forging a clear path that I hope could support change in the sector as a whole,” said Dr Powlesland. “There is a belief in some quarters that if you’ve done an undergraduate degree then any disadvantage you had in your education before then has been levelled out. However, across Higher Education there is an acknowledgement – supported by the recent sector-wide expert analyses – that things are not as fair as they should be.

“Academic results will still be the starting point for application to postgraduate study, but if you’ve achieved a so-called ‘good’ degree – usually a 2:1 or above – while you’ve had to, for example, work a part-time job, or if you’ve had caring responsibilities whilst you’ve studied, that’s an even more impressive achievement and it’s important that admissions officers know about it.”

Further information:

  • Experience Postgrad Life Sciences is a paid internship for 15 students taking place 5 July-27 August. It is sponsored by the BBSRC and the Wellcome Trust and hosted by the School of the Biological Sciences (SBS) and the School of Clinical Medicine (SCM). Fitzwilliam College will house students free of charge.
  • SHARE is offered free of charge, and includes:
    • Two weeks of research training, postgraduate research application preparation, and mentoring
    • A bursary of £650 for the two-week programme (19-30 July 2021), intended to allow participants to fully concentrate on the programme without the need for paid employment to support themselves.

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