Career intelligence: how to succeed as a black PhD student

Craig Poku was the only black PhD student in his department. He reflects on how black British doctoral students can navigate the challenges they face

December 19, 2019
Source: Getty

It is an unfortunate reality, but black students are less likely than others to consider doing a PhD. At the University of Leeds, where I have just taken my viva, only 1.2 per cent of doctoral graduates in the past 20 years have been black British, despite commendable diversity initiatives to shift this imbalance.

Part of the solution will involve tackling an achievement gap that means black students are less likely to achieve a first- or upper second-class degree, denying many the opportunity to reach postgraduate education. The sector, however, must also discuss how black PhD students are asked to operate in predominantly white fields.

I hope that my story, having just completed a science PhD as a black British student, might help to further this debate by highlighting some key areas where support is needed.

Creating a sense of familiarity

As an undergraduate, I stayed in London and lived with my family. When things got tough at university, I could rely on them for emotional support, and my friends were nearby as well. When I moved to Leeds for my PhD, I didn’t have that support network.

Although Leeds is a relatively diverse city, the percentage of black people in the population is far lower than it is in London. Little things such as a barber refusing me a haircut because they worried that their clippers might not cope with my hair type, or not being able to find my favourite foods, began to wear me down.

I initially dealt with this culture shock by visiting London most weekends, but the financial burden became too much.

And I wasn’t addressing the fundamental problem. My first port of call was the University of Leeds’ African and Caribbean Society. Feeling part of a community with similar experiences was refreshing. I was directed to local black-owned businesses, including somewhere I could get my hair cut.

My trips to London became less frequent and felt less like an escape.

Feeling empowered to speak up

In London, it was not very often that I was the only person of colour in a room, so I was more likely to turn a blind eye to ignorance.

I’ve had people tell me that I don’t look like someone who would attend university. I’ve been told by white people that I don’t sound black. But I never dealt with the confrontation directly because I always thought someone else was more likely to step in and fight my corner.

As the only black PhD student when joining my department at Leeds, I felt a greater responsibility to challenge people’s biases, unconscious or otherwise, when they emerged.

If I heard a biased comment, I would openly question why it was made. Often, the comment might seem trivial. Nevertheless, when challenged, colleagues were surprisingly willing to listen to my experiences, although sometimes they would claim that I was being oversensitive.

As an example, I was once told by a colleague that the homophobic views of Africans stemmed from their lack of access to appropriate technology. I knew that engaging in this conversation would involve investing my emotional energy for them to understand my thought process.

Through conversations such as this, I began to learn where the source of these biases stemmed from, which helped me understand how I could have a positive impact in the workplace.

I am fortunate that I have a line manager who is comfortable enough to discuss the issue of race in academia and who appreciates the difficulties I have sometimes faced as a black member of staff. I’ve now started to discuss my experiences with other BME students here at Leeds to see how we can push this work forward in a more structured way.

The power of social media and role models

Over the past few months, I’ve increasingly used Twitter to share my experience. Accounts such as Academic Chatter and Minorities in STEM allow me to talk about what I’ve been through and to connect with other black students with a similar story.

I read on Twitter about the experiences of Nicola Rollock, reader in equity and education at Goldsmiths, University of London, as a black academic (I later heard her speak at a symposium organised by Minorities in STEM). I remember being able to relate to some of the struggles she described both on social media and in person. What I took from her are the coping strategies she has employed to help her preserve her emotional energy while excelling in her career.

On the whole, social media has offered an avenue to finding support and trust, where early career researchers can talk about the struggles of doing a PhD. This has reminded me that I am not alone and can find a path to achieving my goals.

Craig Poku is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Leeds’ Institute for Climate and Atmospheric Science.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Seek out support and share your experiences

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