Postgraduate Research Opportunity

ESRC Studentship: Skill Acquisition During Higher Education

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Title: Skill acquisition during Higher Education

Funding: Your PhD fees will be covered and the studentship provides you with a stipend of £18,285 per year

Application deadline: 18 January 2021

Start date: 1 October 2021

Based in: Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER)


Whether a university degree provides the skills required by a rapidly changing labour market is a very open question. Technological advances are generating sweeping changes to traditional job tasks, with evidence of an increasing demand for, and increasing return to, a wide range of non-cognitive skills (Deming 2017, Edin et al. 2017). These concerns are not new, and for the past few years an important theme in the UK Higher Education sector has been the development of strategies to improve the ‘employability’ of graduates. This is perhaps best represented by efforts to encourage and recognize participation in extra-curricular activities, such as work placements, volunteering, or engagement in competitive sports. The rationale is that these activities may not only enhance students’ experience while at university but also empower them with a set of skills that employers increasingly value in the labour market, such as the ability to negotiate or to perform well in a team environment.

Yet, we still know very little about what students think about the value of these activities in terms of employability and earnings and whether there is significant variation in these beliefs according to students’ family background and other individual characteristics. In a recent study, we exploit new data collected from a cohort of undergraduate students at a UK Higher Education institution (the BOOST2018 study) to show how expected returns to investment in extra-curricular activities inform students’ time allocation choices during undergraduate studies (Delavande et al., 2020). Interestingly, we also uncover important differences in these expected returns by ethnicity, with BAME students perceiving lower returns to work experience and other types of extra-curricular activities as compared to their white British colleagues. It is however still unclear whether the differences we document are driven by the presence of labour market constraints, which may reduce access to certain types of activities for some groups of the population, or lack of information about the true return to these activities. Indeed, with few exceptions (Persico et al. 2004, Lechner and Downward 2017, Saniter and Siedler 2014), there is little proof that participation in extra-curricular activities while at university leads to improved employability upon graduation, or if the returns vary with  socio-economic background or ethnicity, for example. It is also unclear to what extent students have a good understanding of the type of employability skills mostly sought after by prospective employer, or whether they these beliefs are updated upon entering the labour market.

Under the joint supervision of Prof Emilia Del Bono and Dr Angus Holford the holder of this studentship will work on some of the above mentioned research questions.

The student will be encouraged to use data from the BOOST2018 study, a longitudinal study that follows a cohort of approximately 2,000 UK undergraduate students from their first term at university through to the completion of their degree in July 2018, and to a follow-up survey fielded in the Spring of 2020, when most students were already on the labour market. The student will also be encouraged to expand the research questions and explore opportunities offered by other UK datasets already available for analysis, such as the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education, which contains information on internships and job placements. Moreover, there will be the possibility to pursue administrative data linkages between different dataset, including the HESA student records, the UCAS admission records, and the National Pupil Database. The work could also be extended to consider data from other countries which could offer evidence useful for an international comparison.

More information about the BOOST2018 study

The first 13 waves of BOOST2018 collected information on several aspects of student participation to university life, from lecture attendance to hours spent studying, working for pay and on a range of extra-curricular activities. During the third year, a specially designed module of the survey asked students to report their chance of employment, expected earnings, and career prospects conditional on hypothetical scenarios involving different combinations of academic and extra-curricular activities. Then, using a list of nine skills that employers consider relevant in making hiring decisions (benchmarked on a recent survey administered to UK graduate employers, AGR 2016), students were asked to rate themselves, rate their peers, and predict the proportion of employers tailoring their hiring strategies to those skills. A follow-up survey was fielded in the Spring of 2020, when most students were already on the labour market, and similar questions about skills were asked so that it would be possible to analyse whether beliefs about the importance of these skills were updated. The dataset also collects information on a range of individual cognitive and non-cognitive skills, subjective expectations about university outcomes, and beliefs about own cognitive ability, so that the research questions can be expanded in different directions.


  • This studentship is offered as either a 1+3 (Masters plus three-year PhD) or a +3 award (PhD only) in economics, based in the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER), for both international and home/EU students.
  • It may be taken full-time or part-time.


  • The studentship award covers your University of Essex fees and provides you with a stipend of £18,285 per year.
  • You will also be able to apply for small amounts of additional funding via the Research Training Support Grant.

Eligibility criteria

Residential criteria

UKRI has recently announced that it is changing its residential eligibility rules. Now, regardless of whether you are a "home" applicant or an "international" applicant, you can apply for a studentship.

To be classed as a home student, you must meet the following criteria:

  • be a UK national (meeting residency requirements), or
  • have settled status, or
  • have pre-settled status (meeting residency requirements), or
  • have indefinite leave to remain or enter

If you do not meet the criteria above, you are classed as an international student.

Academic eligibility

For Masters and PhD funding (1+3, or +4 award structures): qualifications or experience equal to a first (1) or upper second (2.1) class honours degree, or an equivalent combination of qualifications and/or experience are required.

For PhD (+3) funding: qualifications or experience equal to a Masters degree with distinction or merit, or an equivalent combination of qualifications and/or experience are required. Your Masters degree must be in a relevant discipline, and include significant research methods training.

How to apply

Get in touch with the lead supervisors Professor Emilia Del Bono and Dr Angus Holford, who will advise you on the entry requirements and the application process for this studentship.

Application deadlines

  • Deadline to contact potential supervisor: 4 January 2021
  • Deadline to apply for PhD place: 18 January 2021
  • Deadline for interview (if any): 15 February 2021
  • Deadline to accept or decline offer: 1 March 2021

Start date

You will be expected to start on or about 1 October 2021.