Research intelligence: how to support black postgraduate students

UK academia’s champion for black postgraduate students, Anne-Marie Imafidon, and others explain how scholars can help diversify graduate education

April 13, 2021
Source: Sam and Simon Photography
Anne-Marie Imafidon

Having achieved As in her A levels aged 11, before starting a mathematics degree at the University of Oxford at 15, Anne-Marie Imafidon isn’t easily fazed.

But the former child prodigy, who now runs the social enterprise Stemettes, which encourages girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, admitted there were tough moments during her master’s degree.

“Being black and female in an environment where we are not stereotypically found can be hard,” reflected Ms Imafidon, who has been appointed by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Office for Students to lead an £8 million programme seeking bids for research projects to address why more black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students are not participating in postgraduate research.

Just 4 per cent of students starting postgraduate research courses in 2018-19 were black and just one per cent of UKRI-funded studentships went to black students (3 per cent went to those with mixed ethnicities), according to the funder’s latest diversity report.

The programme will also examine how these students can be supported while in graduate study. Her own experience at Oxford was both “positive and negative”, she says, so she is keen to “create a research environment that works for everyone”.

For Ms Imafidon, the overwhelmingly white profile of the research sector makes it harder for BAME students to succeed as they may not feel a sense of belonging: “If you are continually feeling ‘othered’, it ends up wearing on your ability to function – if you feel like you don’t belong, you end up spending a lot of energy trying to change or thinking you don’t deserve to be there.”

Ideally, a diversified academy that reflected the ethnic mix of Britain’s student population would stop this sense of alienation, said Ms Imafidon. “I’m always struck by Nicola Rollock’s research showing that there are just 25 black female professors in the UK, which suggests several things are impacting on black women,” she said.

Until such longer-term ambitions are achieved, however, academics of all ethnicities can play their part in tackling under-representation by regularly questioning their own work in this area, she added: “Academics may not consider themselves racist in the slightest, but they should always be reflective and think: ‘How can I lend my support and influence to those from a different ethnicity?’ It’s worth them asking: ‘Am I listening to people who are not the same ethnicity as me?’ or ‘Do I understand that these students might not be fully funded or might not have gone to the same kind of university as the rest of my team?’

“There is always the chance to run a piece of code differently or try something new in research, so I would challenge academics who are mentors to think in that same way: What does continuous improvement look like in this area?” she said.

Contestants climb an inflatable wall during the Strongman obstacle race in 2019, in Paarl, near Cape Town. Symbolising helping up black postgrads

Kamna Patel, vice-dean for equality, diversity and inclusion at the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment at UCL, said scholars should be even more self-critical by asking whether they are, in fact, valuing certain types of knowledge, or attributes typically held by some students, over other types of knowledge or talent.

“We need to focus on the supervisors and gatekeepers to the profession and think about what they value – what kind of knowledge counts?” explained Dr Patel. “We need to think a bit more structurally and consider whether staff are valuing students’ bilingualism or multilingualism or how they’ve become proficient in navigating whiteness.

“Given the awarding gap at every level of our education system, those students who make it to postgraduate level have, by definition, beaten the odds, so they will have the resourcefulness they need to succeed. They are not the problem − what we need to do is value plurality, and you don’t need a series of workshops to do that.”

Fixing under-representation at postgraduate level will require sustained investment and institutional engagement from school to university, with support continuing at postgraduate level, believed Dr Patel, whose department provides undergraduate scholarships of up to £15,634 in association with the Windsor Fellowship, a charity that also runs mentoring schemes for BAME students.

Ramota Adelakun, a PhD student in biosciences at UCL, who founded the UCL Black Doctoral Students Network last year, said that some of the group’s 80 or so members had reported difficulties in communicating with their supervisors, who may not appreciate the issues they face.

“Although staff will have had contact with black students at undergraduate level, many are not used to having black doctoral students so, in this research environment, that might affect how they interact with us,” Ms Adelakun explained.

“Some members want communication to be more personalised; if students aren’t being paid then many won’t be able to take up that summer placement or secondment that is being recommended,” she added. “Helping someone to find that funding for a project or placement can be crucial for building a research career.”

Building trust and communication is crucial if black students are to feel like they belong, she added: “We want academics to be honest with us, even if it means admitting they have some bias.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Lend a hand and ear to black postgrads

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