Fool’s gold: career advice for young, Black academics

Freshly minted professor Jason Arday provides tips for aspiring Black and ethnic minority academics on how to safeguard themselves on the hazardous journey to the top

Jason Arday's avatar
University of Glasgow
28 Feb 2022
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Advice for black and minority ethnic academics who are trying to make their way on the higher education career ladder

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I’ve recently been given the coveted title of “professor”, making me one of the youngest people in the UK to join the professoriate. Throughout my academic ascent, I’ve often wondered what it would feel like to finally reach this summit. Now I’m here, I admittedly feel little of the jubilation I expected – more exhaustion and relief just for having made it.

From this vista I have a few points of advice for aspiring, early career, Black and ethnic minority academics on how to safeguard yourself on your journey to the top.

Recognise when you’re being asked to do extra work to fight racism in the academy 

An unprecedented amount of labour has been placed on the shoulders of Black and minority ethnic academic staff since the murder of George Floyd. Universities were quick to respond to the global outcry after his murder with performative measures and interventions. Some utilised the moment as an opportunity to glean positive press – at the expense of those who continue to be oppressed – and ignored the impact it may have on the physical and emotional well-being of people of colour. It’s important for White colleagues to also shoulder the burden of this work and not always leave it to staff of colour.

Be aware that for academics of colour undertaking anti-racism work, the burden and sheer weight of this endeavour can be exhausting and often exploitative 

Another reason I felt fatigued when I finally became a professor was because I did not appreciate the toll that comes from attempting to disrupt racism within the academy and society more broadly.

There remains a wasteland of academics who have diligently dedicated themselves to dismantling institutional racism and, similar to myself, have disregarded self-care and mental wellness in their efforts to stubbornly push through the systemic walls of inequality. Racism requires this type of unrelenting resistance, but it should not be at the continued expense of people of colour.

So, prioritise your well-being and relationships 

When I started out in academia a decade ago as a Black, autistic male, I was fully aware of my modest academic capabilities. To compensate, I became obsessive and relentless, working as hard as physically possible, maximising all hours of the day to ensure I was giving myself the best opportunity to succeed.

I understood there was currency in channelling all my efforts into becoming the hardest-working person. It did not occur to me that eventually this may come at some physical or psychological cost. It’s only now I’ve reached my goal that I’m able to observe how punishing the past decade of neglecting my self-care has been. Remember that your mental well-being and relationships are important. You cannot get back 10 years of lost friends and family time.

As such, set clear work-life boundaries 

Do not let your job infiltrate your personal life beyond the hours of work. Develop routines around self-care and sleep; develop a healthy reward system; engage in social activities; treat yourself and continually remind yourself you are worthy. Take the time to reflect on and appreciate your achievements privately and with close friends and family. Schedule and take leave – and do not use this time to catch up on work or complete administrative tasks. This is extremely important in avoiding burnout or continuous fatigue.

And, finally, do ‘the work’ 

I have always been guided by the principle that it’s not about where you end up, it’s about how you get there. For example, I ask myself: did I help people on my ascent? Did I lift other academics of colour up behind me as I climbed the academic ladder?

I’m very aware that there are so many other, equally deserving academics of colour who have not been afforded their day in the sun. This provides a continuous reminder that the success of a few reflects the many more who have been failed by an institutionally racist system. For this reason, it is incumbent on those of us who have reached the summit of academia to provide a pathway for the next generation of Black and minority ethnic academics.  

I’ll be honest, doing “the work” is not glamorous, because it’s not recognised in academia – where individualism, vanity and selfishness are abundantly rewarded. But, encouraging Black and minority ethnic talent must remain at the axis of our collective activism and endeavours towards anti-racism. Not to mention, doing this work fosters a sense of humility that preserves our integrity and moral compass.

By prioritising self-care and lifting up those coming behind you, I’m certain that when you finally reach the summit, you will have the energy to stop and enjoy the view.

Jason Arday is professor of sociology of education at the University of Glasgow and a trustee of the Runnymede Trust, the UK’s leading race equality thinktank, and the British Sociological Association.

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For more resources on this topic, see our collection Being Black in the academy.


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