I was recently asked to look into how we provide information to prospective PhD students, with a view to improving the way PhD-related information is presented on the Central University website.
PhD students are one of those elusive customers with web content all over the store. Not only is there content on both the University website and the school sites, but beyond that there is a distinct lack of consensus that PhD information belongs to « Ricerca », « Studia(ing) », » Postgraduate » or a special category area of its own.
We’re not trying to do a massive overhaul of how we organize PhD information right now — it’s a major undertaking, and a lot of other things need to be considered first. However, there was a feeling that the central pages could be better organized as they are, and it was up to me to correct them. (Thanks, Danny.)
In the spirit of starting-how-you-want-to-go, I thought I’d dive in and do a proper pre-investigation that would help me sort out the issue at hand and be of great help to us for any epic redevelopment work in the future.
I started by looking at the content that currently exists, both on the university website and on our schools’ websites. I have found that there are three main areas to separate when it comes to PhD-related web content.
1. Research area or theme
Some potential PhD students are still not quite sure what they want to study. Others arrive with a « passion project » already in mind. Both benefit from the ability to filter the available information according to a broad thematic research area.
I found listings of research areas on both the main university website and 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 links to the main website and school links… Frankly it was a bit of a mess, but this inevitably happens to multi-stakeholder content over time, and after everything, I was here to fix the problem. It.
Scholarships. Programs. Scholarships. Scholarships. Commissions.
Paying for your PhD is probably at the forefront of most prospective students’ minds, and while the information is all There for them somewhere, there is again a lack of consistency from school to school and from topic to topic in the way this information is presented. Some disciplines take a « priority funding » approach, funneling their prospective students through funding grants and then choosing a topic. Others list their funding programs separately. All research funding comes with strings attached:
- You may need to be from a certain country
- A minimum grade in a previous degree may be required
- It may be necessary to have a certain economic situation
- You will almost always need to study in a specific area
- Some funding is coming
- Some loans have a deadline
- Some loans have a fixed number of places
It’s complicated. Users may come to the site wanting to first look at potential funding for their area of research, 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…
So here’s where it comes in correctly difficult.
Individual PhD projects are necessarily presented very differently by the different disciplines of the university.
In the life sciences, for example, there’s an epic list of very specific themes. You choose one as if it were an Argos catalog and from there you can check if you are eligible for funding with any of the associated PhD programs (here it means funding opportunities).
Conversely, in a humanities subject there may not be a formal list of projects. Some funders will currently provide fellowships in a specific topic or theme, but this varies 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 trying to structure a core resource in a way that makes sense.
Collection of qualitative data
Having designed the PhD section of life sciences, I already felt quite familiar with the PhD user journey for the school. I needed to collect more data on humanities students.
With a random poll of my friends on Facebook I quickly established that, as suspected, doctoral trips in the arts and humanities are very individual and varied. So I decided to interview some humanities students and collect qualitative data about their experiences.
I spoke to three students, but my most enlightening conversation was with a recently accepted PhD student who had already done her masters in Dundee. Although she considered other institutions for her PhD, a return to Dundee proved to be the best choice for her.
During a telephone interview, we talked about his personal journey, not only on our website, but throughout the entire process, from the idea of the topic to his confirmation letter. I wanted to know what part our website had done and how well.
Overall, my interviewee was satisfied with the communications she had with the University, but the website let her down in particular for two reasons.
1. Research area
He hit the first hurdle right from the start: his research topic was not in the list of research areas. Maybe it should be, but more likely it’s simply an interdisciplinary project, and that’s okay – you can’t list all possible options in these situations (believe me, I’ve tried).
However, when she no finds his research area listed (which is probably a common occurrence for prospective humanities PhD students) he had nowhere else to turn. There was no number to call, no contact list to choose from. She eventually called her old Master’s supervisor – which she could only do because she was a former postgraduate student of the University – and from there she was sent in the right direction.
His second problem was finding information about taxes. He had researched funding elsewhere on the web, but quickly determined that he would need to self-fund, so when he searched our website he knew he was looking for a commission page.
Unfortunately, struggled to find it as the link isn’t very obvious and the information isn’t presented very clearly. Even once she had the numbers, she still lacked the information, as she needed to study part-time and would not pay tuition on a conventional schedule. In fact, she told me, it was only when she received her confirmation letter in the mail that she knew for sure what her payment schedule would be like.
Once she spoke to her new supervisor, he was able to explain how her tuition would work out as a part-time student, and noted that it was complex and individual enough that she wasn’t sure it was. I could be easily rendered in type on a web page. However, we have not provided a contact or any kind of information to help prospective students with potentially complicated repayment schedules. We have just presented a price list.
Sharp eyes will have noticed that my interviewee’s issues above exactly match items 1 and 2 on my « most important things we need to tell our users » list. So it’s embarrassing.
The quick fix
I made several changes as part of my instant cleanup project.
- I added a dedicated file PhD landing page with clear links to all relevant content
- I introduced a clearer distinction between PhD-specific information and postgraduate taught content
- I rearranged the pages to make them more clearly navigable
- I have provided some clarity on what our research areas are
- I made the link to the commissions page much more visible
- I am in the process of working with stakeholders in the humanities to try to provide more direct contact options for students with more individual needs
Looking at the future
The main point here is that the PhD user journey is incredibly variable and depends on a myriad of factors: the student’s area of study, their funding options, their personal circumstances, and so on. The PhD area of the central website, in its search for trade-offs and coherence across disciplines, is failing those students with more particular needs – which, when it comes to PhDs, is very likely most of them.
When it comes to user experience, a primary goal is to help the user find relevant information as easily as possible. But in situations like these, we also need to make it absolutely clear when the information a user needs is found Not be provided over the web and provide them with a good alternative means of obtaining that information.
I’ve often told people in the past that a big part of what we’re trying to do with a college website is stop people from just answering the phone when they have a question. But sometimes, that’s exactly what they have to do, and that’s okay.
More generally, exercises like these are part of an ongoing process. We have been consulting with University stakeholders on the future of PhD web content since the inception of the core web team and we still have a long way to go.
These chats I’ve had with current students have been an invaluable part of that overall mission and will feed into our future approach to presenting PhD information, but they’re only one piece of the puzzle. We will continue to work closely with PhD students, supervisors and administrators throughout the institution, continue to communicate our thoughts and progress, and remain open-minded when it comes to presenting solutions. So stay tuned!