The BSG DPhil Programme: Interview with Professor Winnie Yip

Casper from the Admissions Team caught up with Professor Winnie Yip, DPhil Coordinator, to ask her about the newest BSG programme and what makes a good application, including top tips and “dos and don’ts”.

Winnie Yip speaks to a class of students at BSG
Winnie Yip speaks to a class of students at BSG

Insights about the DPhil programme – academic structure and support for students

Casper: Thank you very much for taking time to see me today, Winnie. What can you tell us about the DPhil in Public Policy? How is it different to other advanced degree programmes?

Winnie: As an academic institution with a focus on public policy, we are talking about doing high quality academic work and rigorous research that would lead to, or contribute to, policy differences. So, how is this different from going to politics or economics? There are a certain number of people in disciplinary departments doing work that has policy relevance, but I would say that is not their priority focus. Their priority focus is to develop new theories and methods in a particular discipline. Whereas we are fundamentally focused on research that answers policy questions, and for that we will draw on rigorous concept theory and methods from multiple disciplines. So we are question driven and our questions are very much centred on policy relevance: How we can help improve the government and how we can provide evidence to help the government make better policy.

Casper: How is BSG’s DPhil programme different from those offered elsewhere?

Winnie: We are pretty new and I always say that because we are new, we have a bigger risk, but new institutions also have a lot more room and opportunities to define new boundaries rather than fitting into boxes and squares that have already been defined in a more established institution. I think that it is the possibility of defining a school and defining a programme that makes BSG at Oxford attractive. There are many schools of Public Policy and Public Administration in the world, but the fact that we have a strong university and strong disciplinary departments is very important as well, so it is not just our school but all the resources within the University we can draw on.

Casper: Who is the DPhil actually for?

Winnie: The DPhil is a programme for people who are motivated and have the dedication to do something that would contribute to policy. I think that is really the overriding drive. So, on completing their degree, some students will be going back to the government that they come from in senior positions, some of them may be going to international organisations and I would not be surprised if some of them may want to go to policy school for academic jobs. Because if you look at the faculty here, then all of us have some kind of project outside the school that involves the government. We are not part of the government or a big think tank but we all have close links to that world.

Casper: How do you see the relationship between student and supervisor in the BSG? How much of the DPhil experience is group based and how much is individual?

Winnie: I would say that it is a combination of the two, that is, some of your time is more specifically with your advisor and the relationship is very centred on a specific topic that you have but every DPhil programme also provides students some training in things that are applicable to all topics, including how do you frame a question, how do you think about what is the best method to use? And so we do expect them to feel that there is a certain sense of cohort support, sharing and community. And it is always good to learn how to work with others in the policy world.

Casper: Will BSG require students to do a certain amount of teaching or publishing?

Winnie: The main requirements are not so much in terms of output but more in terms of preparation and coursework. And so right now we have two requirements within the School, which are the research development seminar, a year-long seminar series bi-weekly, and the other requirement is our policy evaluation course. Students can apply to waive the course if they have previously taken something like that. And then based on discussion with their supervisors students may also take other courses in the university.

Casper: But these are additional optional courses that the students do not have to take unless they want to?

Winnie: Exactly. It is just a way to give them the flexibility to acquire skills that they have not acquired before so that they can prepare for their thesis. In terms of output we do not have any specific requirements. They are of course welcome to publish articles. There is also no requirement for teaching. Somewhere down the line we are thinking of offering teaching opportunities as part of financial support. This is however not fully developed yet.

Casper: Are you envisioning making teaching training a part of the course?

Winnie: I do not know yet, but I very much doubt that we will have a course training them to teach. I think that we should maintain that the faculty develops all main lectures but graduate students could have an opportunity to do seminars on the MPP course, where they would be in a supportive role. So every week there would be a seminar for MPP students. 

Top tips for prospective applicants – the dos and don’ts about applying

Casper: So we’ve talked about some of the aspects of the actual programme. Now can you tell me how individuals can best prepare to apply?

Winnie: Well, being a DPhil programme as opposed to a masters or undergraduate programme means that we would expect any applicant to be able to demonstrate that they have already had postgraduate level training, especially in research methods and also ideally in one academic discipline. That’s because the programme is only three years, and so the students are expected to plunge into their thesis quite early on.

Casper: Does this have to be formal training, in the sense that one has to have a research skills masters degree, or can one also demonstrate the necessary academic qualifications through relevant jobs or other experiences?

Winnie: An applicant does not have to have a research skills masters degree, but the question then remains of how the applicant can demonstrate those qualifications. If I where an applicant, I would make sure that I can demonstrate that the skills I had acquired through work were comparable to what I would have acquired through academic training. Some people think that by postgraduate training we mean experience, but we are not talking about experience we are talking about academic preparation. The applicant will need to demonstrate that they have the academic preparation needed to carry out their thesis work.

Casper: How much interdisciplinary preparation do you expect candidates to come with?

Winnie: We do not expect applicants to have already acquired interdisciplinary skills at the time of application. But the policy world is complex, which means it is rare that any one single discipline can address a policy question. If another discipline can contribute to what a student proposes to study, we encourage them to apply an interdisciplinary approach, because that is the real world.

Casper: Please tell us more about the thesis work. What would you say makes a good research project for a thesis?

Winnie: A good project has to be asking important questions and I would define that significance in two senses: one, is it answering a question that would have policy significance? and two, is it significant in the sense that it contributes to the existing literature?

Casper: So when you say contributing to existing literature, what do you mean by existing?

Winnie: So a good project would be able to define which body of literature it draws upon. If the person cannot draw upon a certain body of literature in the proposal it means that this person is sort of thinking that this is an important question but cannot really back up that it is important.

Casper: You need some comparators I imagine?

Winnie: Right, you need to say this has already been found in the literature, but this is still missing and this is what I am setting out to do; I am trying to fill this gap. Or this is an important policy question but I have not found much in the literature that tries to answer this question and this is why I am setting out to do this work.

Casper: So the candidates should come having done a preliminary literature review?

Winnie: Well, there should at least be an idea of where it fits in an intellectual sense. The other factor that makes a good project is the feasibility. So proposing something with a great, grand idea but there is no way that it is tractable or feasible, that is not a good DPhil project. It doesn’t mean that it is not a good question, but it is not a good DPhil project.

Casper: So to sum up the three criteria that makes a good project: The first one is relevance, then significance and finally feasibility. Now let us assume that the candidate meets all the above criteria, can a DPhil really be done in three years, as compared to the longer programmes you see at especially American universities?

Winnie: I think it is important to clarify what the difference is between the American and British systems. For an American PhD the first two years are often coursework. Here, we expect the student to have completed that beforehand. So in that sense the actual thesis writing takes the same time as it would in the United States. Sometimes students think that it would be great to get a DPhil in only three years, but that is because you are expected to have gotten the academic training before hand. Three years is definitely feasible but that is why having adequate preparation is important.

Casper: To round up, what would be your top three tips for prospective applicants?

Winnie: I think a good proposal is important, because it is from the proposal that we gauge whether a student can present an idea in a way that convinces people that it is important, in a way that demonstrates that this person has a good analytical mind, that the student can write out the question and lay out how he or she would answer it and make a convincing case. So it is almost like they are using the proposal to demonstrate what they cannot demonstrate on just their CV or their coursework. The second thing that is important is getting good references, because applicants need to think about what assessors are looking at in order to get the information that they need. It includes your previous coursework, but that is something that is past and you cannot change, so what else do we want to find out? We want to find out whether this person has good analytical powers, whether this person can think independently, can think out of the box. That information comes from the proposal and from the references. The third is getting a realistic sense of who can supervise the project within the school by looking at the website. At least in the broad area because sometimes we look a proposal and say that this person would be good for us to have but at this point we do not have anyone who can supervise.

Casper: What would be your top don’ts?

Winnie: In the statement of purpose, do not repeat what is already in the CV or other things. You want to maximise information within limited space. Why repeat things that people can already see in other places? They can point people to that specific information but please do not repeat it. The second don’t is not to send in a proposal that makes people feel that you haven’t given enough thought to it. We are not looking for a perfect proposal but we are looking for something that demonstrates that this student has spent time on it and is serious about it.

Casper: Excellent. I am sure our prospective applicants will find this interview very useful. Thank you very much for talking to me and sharing your insights.

Find out more about DPhil study at the Blavatnik School of Government

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