The PhD user journey

I was asked recently to look into the way we provide information to prospective PhD students, with a view to improving the way PhD related information is presented on the central University website.

PhDs are one of those slippery customers with web content all over the shop. Not only is there content both on the University website and on School sites, but over and above that there’s a distinct lack of consensus on whether PhD information belongs under ‘Research’, ‘Study(ing)’, ‘Postgraduate’, or a special category all of its own.

We aren’t looking to do a massive overhaul of the way we organise PhD information right now: that’s a major undertaking and an awful lot of other things need to be considered first. However, there was a feeling that the central pages could be better organised as they stand, and it fell to me to fix them. (Thanks, Danny.)

In the spirit of starting-as-you-mean-to-go-on, I thought I’d dip my toe in and do some proper preliminary investigation that would both aid me in solving the issue at hand and stand us in good stead for any epic redevelopment work in the future.

Initial investigations

I began by looking at the content that currently exists, both on the university website and on our school websites. I found that there are three main areas to tease apart when it comes to PhD-related web content.

1. Research area or theme

Some prospective PhD students don’t know quite what they want to study yet. Others come with a ‘passion project’ already in their mind. Both benefit from being able to filter the information available according to a broad thematic research area.

I found research area lists both on the main university website and on some school sites, but there was a lack of consistency and clarity in which areas were listed and what constituted a ‘research area’. I found lists within lists, duplicate content, a mixture of internal main website links and school links… It was a bit of a mess frankly, but this inevitably happens to multi-stakeholder content over time, and after all, I was here to fix it.

2. Funding

Studentships. Programmes. Scholarships. Bursaries. Fees.

Paying for one’s PhD is probably near the forefront of most prospective students’ minds, and while the information is all there for them somewhere, there is once again a lack of consistency from school to school and from theme to theme in how this information is presented. Some disciplines take a ‘funding first’ approach, funnelling their potential students via funding grants to then pick a topic. Others list their funding programmes separately. All research funding comes with strings attached:

  • You may need to be from a particular country
  • You may need a minimum grade in a prior degree
  • You may need to have a certain economic situation
  • You will almost always need to be studying in a specific area
  • Some funding is rolling
  • Some funding has a deadline
  • Some funding has a set number of places

It’s Complicated. Users may arrive on the site wanting to look at potential funding for their research area first and foremost, but others either already have funding, or are self-funding, or are more interested in finding their research area or even a topic first, which brings us to…

3. Projects

So here’s where it gets properly difficult.

Individual PhD projects are necessarily presented very differently by different disciplines around the university.

In Life Sciences, for example, there’s an epic list of very specific topics. You pick one like it’s an Argos catalogue and from there you can check whether you’re eligible for funding with any of the associated PhD Programmes (here meaning funding opportunities).

By contrast in a humanities subject there may not be a formal projects list. Some funders will currently be providing studentships in a specific topic or theme, but this is variable from funder to funder, and from research cycle to research cycle.

There’s nothing wrong with presenting this information in different ways for different user needs, but it does present a problem when you’re trying to structure a central resource in a way that makes any sort of sense.

Gathering qualitative data

Having designed the Life Sciences PhD section, I already felt pretty familiar with the PhD user journey for the school. I needed to gather more data on humanities students.

With a casual poll of my own friends on Facebook I quickly established that, as suspected, arts and humanities PhD journeys are very individual and varied. So I set out to interview some humanities students and gather qualitative data on their experiences.

I spoke with three students, but my most illuminating conversation was with a recently accepted PhD student who had previously done her masters at Dundee. While she considered other institutions for her PhD, a return to Dundee turned out to be the best choice for her.

Over a phone interview, we talked through her personal user journey, not just on our website but throughout the whole process from her topic idea through to her confirmation letter. I wanted to know what part our website had played – and how well.

The findings

Overall, my interviewee was happy with the communications she had with the University, but the website specifically failed her on two counts.

1. Research area

She hit the first stumbling block right out of the gate: her research theme wasn’t on the research areas list. Maybe it should be, but more likely it’s simply an interdisciplinary project, and that’s okay – you can’t list every possible option in these situations (trust me, I’ve tried).

However, when she didn’t find her research area listed (which is likely a common occurrence for prospective PhD students in humanities) she had nowhere else to turn. There was no number to call, no list of contacts to pick from. She eventually called her old Master’s supervisor – something she could only do because she was a former taught postgraduate student of the University – and was sent in the right direction from there.

2. Funding

Her second issue was finding fees information. She had investigated funding elsewhere on the web but quickly established she would need to self-fund, so by the time she was looking on our website she knew she was looking for a fees page.

Unfortunately, she struggled to find this as the link isn’t very prominent and the information isn’t presented very clearly. Even once she had the numbers she was still missing information, as she needed to study part time and wouldn’t be paying fees on a conventional schedule. In fact, she told me, it wasn’t until she got her confirmation letter through the post that she knew for sure what her payment schedule was going to look like.

Once she had spoken to her new supervisor he was able to explain how her fees would work as a part time student, and she observed that it was complex and individual enough that she’s not sure that it could be easily rendered in type on a webpage. However, we didn’t provide a contact or any sort of information to help prospective students with potentially complicated repayment schedules. We just presented a price list.

The sharp-eyed will have noticed that my interviewee’s issues above precisely match items 1 and 2 under my ‘most important stuff we need to tell our users’ list. So that’s awkward.


The quick fix

I made several changes as part of my immediate clean-up project.

  • I added a dedicated PhD landing page with clear links through to all relevant content
  • I introduced a clearer distinction between PhD-specific information and taught postgraduate content
  • I rearranged the pages to make them more clearly navigable
  • I provided some clarity around what our research areas are
  • I made the fees page link far more prominent
  • I’m in the process of liaising with stakeholders in humanities to try to provide more direct contact options for students with more individual needs

Looking to the future

The main take-home here is that the PhD user journey is incredibly variable dependent on myriad factors – the student’s area of study, their funding options, their personal situation, and so on. The PhD area of the central website, in striving for compromise and consistency across disciplines, is letting down those students with more particular needs – which, when it comes to PhDs, is quite possibly most of them.

When it comes to user experience a primary objective is to help the user find the information relevant to them as easily as possible. But in situations like these, we also need to make it absolutely clear when the information a user needs is not being provided on the web, and provide them with a good alternative means of getting that information.

I’ve often told folk in the past that a big part of what we are trying to do with a University website is stop people just picking up the phone when they have a question. But sometimes, that’s exactly what they need to do, and that’s okay.

More generally, exercises like these are part of an ongoing process. We’ve been consulting with stakeholders around the University over the future of PhD web content since the central web team’s inception, and we still have a long way to go.

These chats I had with current students were an invaluable part of that overarching mission, and will feed into our future approach to presenting PhD information, but they’re only one piece of the puzzle. We will keep working closely with PhD students, supervisors and administrators across the whole institution, we’ll keep communicating our thoughts and our progress, and we’ll stay open-minded when it comes to presenting solutions. So stay tuned!

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