Skip to content

Skill Acquisition during Higher Education

  • Location: the accredited SeNSS DTP
  • Duration: three years, beginning in October 2021 and completing in 2024
  • Supervisors: Professor Emilia Del Bono and Dr Angus Holford
  • Fees and stipend: Studentships include the following for the duration of the award:
    1. a tax-free maintenance stipend to cover your living costs: this is set at £18,285 per year.
    2. access to research training support funds; and,
    3. access to other funds to be used for overseas fieldwork, overseas institutional visits, difficult language training, placements etc.
  • Deadlines:
    4 January 2021: contact potential supervisor
    18 January 2021: apply for studentship, please submit this application to the supervisor(s) directly
    15 February 2021: deadline for interview (if any)
    1 March 2021: final decisions communicated

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 Professor 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.


  • AGR - Association of Graduate Recruiters (2016), “The AGR 2016 Annual Survey”.
  • Delavande, A., Del Bono, E. and A. Holford (2020), “Academic and non-academic investments at university: The role of expectations, preferences and constraints”, forthcoming in Journal of Econometrics
  • Deming, D. (2017), “The growing importance of social skills in the labor market” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 132 (4), 1593-1640.
  • Edin, P. et al. (2017), “The Rising Return to Non-Cognitive Skill,” IZA DP 10914.
  • Lechner, M. and P. Downward (2017), “Heterogeneous sports participation and labour market outcomes in England,” Applied Economics, 49:4.
  • Persico, N. et al. (2004), “The Effect of Adolescent Experience on Labor Market Outcomes: The Case of Height” Journal of Political Economy,112:5.
  • Saniter, N. and T. Siedler (2014), “Door Opener or Waste of Time? The Effects of Student Internships on Labor Market Outcomes”, IZA DP No. 8141.


Taught and research degrees


Supervision and teaching from leading academics


Fully-funded studentships through our Doctoral Training Centre

How to apply

A step by step guide