Fully-funded PhD Scholarship (4 years) in research project PERSIST

PhD Researcher Vacancy (fully-funded, for 4 years) in the PERSIST Project, at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid

The PERSIST project seeks applications from excellent candidates with a strong interest in social science research. We offer a 4-year predoctoral fellowship to develop a doctoral dissertation at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid as part of the research project “Persistence in University Exams: Evidence from High-Stakes Test on Digital Platforms” (PERSIST). The project is headed by Jonas Radl (Department of Social Sciences) and Jan Stuhler (Department of Economics); it is funded by the Spanish State Research Agency (AEI, Reference: PID2020-117525RB-I00).

The successful applicant shall join the PhD Program in Social Sciences of Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. The PhD researcher will get the opportunity to participate in the Department’s training program for PhD students. He/she will be supervised by the two principal researcher of the project, benefiting from an interdisciplinary environment within a project situated at the intersection of quantitative sociology, applied economics and educational psychology. The PhD researcher will write a dissertation based on a set of research articles publishable in international refereed journals.


We are looking for a candidate with:

  • a Master degree in sociology, economics or another relevant social science, to be completed before September 2022
  • excellent academic record
  • advanced statistical training, analytical skills and experience with data analysis
  • strong motivation to undertake a doctoral dissertation related to the themes of the project
  • good writing skills and fluency in written and spoken English

Application Process

a) Direct applications to UC3M should contain:

  • a motivation letter.
  • a detailed CV, including academic record.
  • a written sample of your work, e.g. the master thesis.
  • names and contact details of two referees.

Documents should be sent to: Laura García Llamas (lgllamas@pa.uc3m.es) by November 11th, 2021. Shortlisted candidates may be asked to attend an interview (by Zoom)

b) Official application to AEI:

Moreover, an official application has to be sent to the call for PhD scholarships of the Spanish State Research Agency (Agencia Estatal de Investigación, AEI) to be eligible for the position. Candidates should pay close heed to the formal requirements of this call. The closing date for receipt of applications is 11 November 2021 (2 p.m. CET). Inquiries may be sent to Laura García Llamas (lgllamas@pa.uc3m.es).

PERSIST Project Description

The PhD researcher will work within the project “Persistence in University Exams: Evidence from High-Stakes Test on Digital Platforms” (PERSIST). The project centers around novel data collection from online exams carried out at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid in the academic years 2019/20 and 2020/21. In the last evaluation period in mid-2020, around 15,000 exams were run on the university’s digital learning platform “Aula Global”. Based on the open-source system “Moodle”, the platform contains the option to randomize the order of questions in multiple-choice tests, allowing us to compute students’ exam persistence – the degree to which students sustain their performance during an exam. We propose matching these data to the university’s database containing students’ socio-demographic characteristics.

Personality traits such as persistence, perseverance and grit relate to an individual’s ability to sustain effort over time, and are argued to be highly relevant for socio-economic achievement. Yet, the valid measurement of these “non-cognitive skills” has proven to be difficult, particularly because of biases arising from self-reports in surveys. Hence, a recent methodological innovation is to measure the persistence of students while taking the well-known PISA test, i.e. the relative decrease of performance during the two-hour test, while controlling for the difficulty of each question. On average, performance drops by about 7% over the course of the test, with significant differences between students, demographic groups and countries.

However, the key limitation of this methodology is the lack of stakes in the PISA tests: students’ performance does not affect their grades, and they never even learn how well they did in the test. It remains unclear whether the observed drop in performance reflects low motivation, or whether it is representative for individual behavior in other settings. The external validity is also questionable because the PISA evaluation is a rare event in which students’ behavior may also depend on the messages conveyed on the ground. In Spain specifically, the results from the last PISA reading test were not released due to anomalies in implementation. University exams, by contrast, are a more natural setting in which students have strong incentives to perform and a lot at stake.

By exploiting the pervasive use of high-stakes exams on the university’s digital platform, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, the project aims to address three objectives:

(1) uncover how sociodemographic characteristics – and especially gender – affect students’ persistence in high-stakes exams;

(2) establish the way in which students’ exam persistence has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, depending on prior educational performance;

(3) evaluate how parameters of digital educational design (e.g. timing, duration and stakes of exams) affect students’ sustained effort under duress;

The availability of large-scale data on students’ exam persistence holds immense untapped potential to push the knowledge frontier. Moreover, many universities use the same digital learning platform, such that our approach could be scaled up efficiently, by using exam records at other educational institutions. The novel application of the test persistence method on digital platforms will therefore advance our understanding of educational achievement, and support evidence-based policies to enhance equality of opportunity.

 Research Environment

The interdisciplinary nature of the project, with one Co-PI from sociology and one Co-PI from economics, grants ideal opportunities for the young researcher to develop versatile research skills and begin a promising academic career. The Institute of Economics and the Institute Carlos III Juan March at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid offer top-class scientific environments. The selected person would be supervised by Jonas Radl and integrated into the doctoral program of the Department of Social Science. In addition, the candidate would be co-supervised by Jan Stuhler and be encouraged to participate in courses and activities at the Department of Economics.

Duration of the fellowship: Four years.

Starting date: Summer 2022