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Future student online experiences

Future student online experiences

Sharing the work of the Prospective Student Web Content Team

User research into the prospective postgraduate research application experience

Over the summer we undertook user research with prospective research students to better understand their experiences and help inform the design of our future web presence. We presented findings last week to the student recruitment and marketing community, and the slides and video are now available to staff.

Playback event video and slides

We gave a detailed playback of the research on 4 December which we recorded. The slides and a recording of the full playback of the research are available to University of Edinburgh staff.

Download the presentation slides (PowerPoint file)

Watch the video of the postgraduate research applicant user research playback event

Scoping and planning the project

To understand the postgraduate research (PGR) study area and scope a round of user research we identified internal stakeholders and interviewed them. This helped us to:

  • Develop an understanding of the nature of PhD study and the PhD application processes.
  • Understand the experiences staff had with both the application process and the use of the Degree Finder.

During these interviews, we created a draft user journey map and collected our assumptions to validate in the 1-2-1 user research sessions.

Read my previous blog summarising our plans for postgraduate research student experience research

Over this summer we conducted 16 1-2-1 research sessions to validate our User Journey and the assumptions and questions that we had collected:

  • 2 sessions with Master’s by Research participants
  • 14 with PhD participants

If you haven’t got time to watch the video, I’ve summarised the key points arising from this research.

Prospective Students do look for Master’s by Research (MScR) deliberately

Our data is limited because we only had 2 Master’s by Research participants, however

  • They chose an MScR deliberately.
  • They searched for MScR specifically once they knew it was available.
  • They discovered this type of master’s degree organically​ during the process of looking for PG study.
  • One participant searched for an MScR course the same way as they did a taught postgraduate programme; the other described this task as looking for a research degree.

This needs further exploration to better understand the most effective way to list MScR programmes, e.g., under a research degree grouping.

Most of the research participants checked for both funded and non-funded opportunities

Our draft User Journey had 2 main branches: split according to whether the PhD discipline was STEM or Humanities. We learned in our earlier work that most STEM PhDs are project-based, and most Humanities PhDs are self-directed.

and the draft user journey

However, when searching for PhDs the STEM PhD research participants checked for unfunded opportunities, as well as looking for funded projects, in case they saw their ideal research opportunity.

The Humanities PhD research participants checked for funded projects, even when they knew the chance of their niche being covered was low, as well as searching for both funded and unfunded self-directed opportunities.

Most of the research participants had low knowledge of the process of finding and applying for a PhD

We assumed that people from certain starting points would have more knowledge of how you find and apply for a PhD. For instance, we expected that those closer to postgraduate study and in certain STEM fields would know the process.

Only 6 of the 16 participants had some knowledge of the process.

International participants looking for a STEM PhD who knew they needed to find a project used their home country process knowledge, which was different to the UK or the University of Edinburgh process.

This is particularly significant because most PhD students are international. A data snapshot from March /April 2023 showed that 88% of applicants and 66% of matriculated students for 22/23 were international.

  • Some STEM applicants were emailing academics when they didn’t need to.
  • Applicants are finding out the process as they are trying to complete it.
  • Information and guidance on the process is a high priority.
  • Those who knew the process from the start had a significant advantage when searching and applying.

Several participants had a streamlined experience or did not need to find out the process because they were supported by an academic throughout.

The unequal starting points and availability of support have a significant impact on widening participation goals.

Multiple internal administration processes didn’t seem confusing but differences between universities were

Staff were concerned that multiple internal administration processes between and within graduate schools could be confusing applicants. That did not appear to present an issue for the participants in this round of research.

Different processes and presentations of information between institutions presented a challenge, showing how high a priority it is to be able to see clearly what the correct process is for a given university.

“For me this research part took a lot of time to understand because every university website is different, its organisation, its layout, keywords.”
Research Participant

The disorganised content on the University website confused applicants

Information on the process is not always presented at the point of need: when people are seeing the PhD information, partly owing to the information architecture of the website.

Content explaining the process is not detailed enough and some priority content is missing

  • The overall process needs to be explained in detail from the perspective of the applicant, rather than being presented as based on the discipline of the PhD topic.
  • Applicants need a detailed guide on how and when to approach a potential supervisor
  • Applicants need to know where they can go for advice – both general and tailored to their circumstances.
  • Terminology needs to be explained, MSci, MScR, CDT, DTP.

Research participants followed the route to the Programme Page in the Degree Finder

In desktop research, we saw the University website navigation and structure routes applicants to the Degree Finder Programme page. In the 1-2-1 research, we wanted to learn whether people were following this route or getting to programme information a different way.

10 out of the 16 participants used the page, some more in-depth than others.

We can’t conclude that there is genuine use of the page as an information source because people might be using it as though it is the main information source simply because they are routed there.

Once you arrive at the Programme Page it isn’t always clear that there might be more relevant information via one of the links provided on the Programme Page.

Most participants demonstrated going to the University home page as a starting point in their programme search, and so will, most likely, have been routed to the Degree Finder Programme Page.

The Programme Page doesn’t support the PhD applicants to complete their tasks

Significant confusion is caused for those looking to find a PhD project to apply for because it isn’t clear that the Programme Page is not showing a project and was mistaken for a project at least once. Several participants couldn’t locate the link to where the projects are listed or the relevant Institute/Centre/Group.

Participants showed confusion from having the same or similar content published in multiple places – the Programme Page, the School website (or Institute, Centre, or Research Group) and the central web estate.

There were some examples of the Programme Page content being useful, e.g., for indicating entry requirements and discipline fit.

The Programme Page template in the Degree Finder can’t work well for PhDs and needs to be re-developed

The current Programme Page template is designed for programmes with pre-determined ‘programme content’ where all students study that content.

Self-directed PhD programmes don’t have a single ‘programme content’ which is defined in advance, because each PhD has a unique ‘programme content’ depending on the research being carried out.

Project-based PhD programmes also don’t have a single set of pre-defined programme content, although a research project might be specified in advance of application, there can be hundreds of projects which lead to the same PhD award.

Undergraduate and PGT programmes are a bit like a ‘set menu’ where all the students who take that programme cover the same programme content. PhD programmes are more like a ‘buffet’ or ‘a la carte’ menu, each student has something unique.

The limitations of the Programme Page template for PhDs poses problems for Schools and applicants.  Schools often put less content in the degree finder or make it very generic and link to detailed information on the School website.

This results in duplication of some content on the School website and the Programme Page, which compounds the difficulties for applicants trying to get information about the programme and application processes.

It is difficult to prioritise the right content for PhD applicants using this template.

We’re using this research insight to develop a Programme Page template specifically for PhD programmes

Project decision

The overarching question that this research project set out to answer was whether to keep the PGR programmes in the Degree Finder.

We decided it makes sense to keep PGR programmes in the Degree Finder because:

  • The work required to make a separate provision outside of the Degree Finder needs University-wide changes that are outside the scope of this project.
  • Staff and applicants are actively using the Programme Page, we can re-develop it to address some of the issues we uncovered.

PGR programme provision separate from the Degree Finder could be considered in the future if there is University-wide support for the change.

Project steps

This insight has been used to inform a content audit and a content model update. The next task is to re-develop the Programme Page and we would like to invite you to collaborate with us to do this.

Quick wins

The Programme Page template re-development will take place over the next 6 – 8 months, leading to a launch in autumn 2025 for entry 2026.

In the meantime, there are some things which we, and distributed student recruitment and marketing staff, can do to help applicants.

  • Indicate that the Programme Page is not a PhD project and explicitly state where applicants can find PhD projects.
  • Publish the application process clearly and visibly. If linking to the process outside the Programme Page, it would be more helpful to applicants if you link directly to the application information rather than a School, Centre or Group home page.
  • Provide information about when and how to make contact regarding PhD supervision, including:
    • Guidance on what to say
    • When to contact, e.g., before or after you have a draft proposal
    • Who to contact, e.g., academics directly or the PGR administration office
  • State how to get in touch if you have a general question about the process
  • State how to get in touch if you have specific questions about which programme to take.

Get involved – help us design the new PGR template page

  • What we’re doing: We need your input to help us design the new PGR template page
    • We’re also looking for help with the PGT page
  • Who can join: School- or college-based editors of PGR programmes in the degree finder
  • When: February, estimated 2-4 hours involvement needed – will shape around people’s availability
    • PGT: 90-minute session last two weeks of January

Sign up to collaborate on PGT or PGR (University login needed)

Learn more about the prospective researcher experience

Download the presentation slides (PowerPoint file)

Watch the video of the postgraduate research applicant user research playback event


Read my previous blog post on initial user research and our planning for this project



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