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Recruitment best practices

The aim of this document is to provide a consolidated list of suggested actions for PhD student recruitment, that follow equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) best practices. This is not intended to act as a summary of legal requirements. In the absence of guidelines on this topic, this document was written by the NERC SENSE Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT), referred to as ‘we’ in this document, using our experience of practices we have implemented, or will implement during our PhD recruitment process. This is a working document that will continue to evolve, and we certainly don’t presume to cover all the best practices for PhD student recruitment. We  always welcome comments, corrections and suggestions of further improvements that we can make. We hope this document will be a practically useful resource for other CDTs and Doctoral Training Programmes (DTPs) to improve their PhD student recruitment processes in the future, in order to build happy, diverse, cohorts of students that will enrich the scientific community for decades to come.

These guidelines have been organised into four sections which corresponds to the four main stages of PhD student recruitment. This includes PhD project design, PhD advertising, the interview selection process and the interviews themselves.

This document is available to download here.

PhD project design

  • We ask that PhD project supervisory teams strive to be diverse, for example including academics with a mix of gender, ethnicity and career stage, in the same way that breadth of subject expertise is considered.
  • We require that academics collaborate with industry partners on PhD projects, as the visibility of career opportunities beyond academia are a key consideration for some groups.
    1. All SENSE students will do a 3-month industry internship – this is largely through formal CASE partnerships
  • We ask that academics use inclusive language in the PhD project description, the links below provide good advice on this topic and can be used to check the language in project descriptions:
  • We include a clear statement of eligibility for applicants on our website, which explicitly encourages applications from underrepresented groups.
    1. We also provide names and contacts details of the centre managers who can answer questions about applying and provide assistance, and clearly state that they are not on the recruitment panels.

PhD Advertisement

Interview selection process

  • We require that the recruitment committee takes or refreshes their unconscious bias training in advance of the recruitment process.
  • We anonymise all application documents from UK applicants before being read by recruitment committee, in order to reduce unconscious bias. This includes redacting the name, and gender indicative wording in all application documents.
  • We found it’s works best to:
    • Allocate administrative time for this
    • Request anonymised, gender-neutral references
    • Request applicants submit an anonymised CV and anonymised personal statement in addition to their usual ones
    • Use the Xodo software or Adobe’s redact tool for PDFs and highlighting in black for word documents
  • We ask that academics are asked to write gender neutral references, in order to reduce the time required for the anonymising task
  • The recruitment committee and supervisors grade all applications quantitively on pre-defined criteria
    • The theory is that quantitative ranking helps remove any unconscious bias, but we did also leave room for written comments
  • We carefully considered criteria the candidates are graded on industry experienced treated equal as academic experience
    • De-emphasised scores for master’s degrees
  • We will guarantee interviews for appointable applicants from underrepresented groups
    • This year (2023 recruitment) SENSE are guaranteeing interview slots for up to 50% of our previous years interview allocation, for BAME or disabled applicants. Gender is not one of SENSE’s underrepresented categories.
    • It is our ambition to offer mentoring calls with a centre manager to each candidate that puts themselves forward and is eligible for these ring-fenced interviews, prior to their interviews


  • We ensure that invitations to interview are sent with sufficient notice to allow for preparation, considering that the applicant may have pre-existing and immoveable caring or financial commitments.
  • We make clear to all interviewees that their decision about whether to accept an in-person or virtual interview slot will have no bearing on the outcome of the interview.
  • We check the set of interview questions with an EDI coordinator.
    • It almost goes without saying that the same interview questions are asked to all students.
  • It is mandatory that are no single-sex or homogenous shortlisting panels or interview panels
  • We quantitively grade the interviewee responses on pre-defined criteria.
  • We use a calibration grid for each interview questions, which defines the criteria for a poor, good, excellent and exceptional answer, and therefore their associated grade.We have found that this provides a robust framework around which the interview panel can agree on final marks, and has the additional benefit of calibrating grades between rooms when interviews are conducted in parallel.
  • The SENSE calibration grid from the Year 1 recruitment round is available on request, from staff and academics involving in hiring PhD students
  • We ask a number of interview questions in the format of a practical test, providing an opportunity for students to demonstrate their capability on the key skills that are being recruited on, reducing the burden on providing descriptive answers. Applicants are informed the general nature of these practical tests in advance
  • We record a quantitative, overall interview score is for each applicant, and use this information  to rank and then select the applicants that offers are made to.

As of 19th June 2020 the Leeds Doctoral College committed to collecting and providing to CDTs and DTPs the UKRI required EDI data of all PhD applicants, not just those who are awarded studentships. This data, which was not provided in previous years, will be available to the centres at the time of application, thus enabling us to guarantee interviews for appointable candidates from underrepresented groups, such as BAME or disabled students.

We welcome suggestions and comments, and hope this document may be useful to other CDT and DTPs in their recruitment processes.


SENSE Management team

December 2022

Please note that the logos on this page are of SENSE’s organisations and funders, and does not necessarily infer that this is the policy positions of these organisations.