When Usman Kayani chose to do a PhD in theoretical physics at King’s College London, he felt sure an academic career lay ahead of him. Now two months after completing his doctorate, having suffered from anxiety and depression, he is considering other options.
At first Kayani was the only student who was either black, Asian or from an ethnic minority (BAME) in his research group. Although the group later became a bit more diverse he remembers how that feeling of being different, coupled with a lack of BAME academics and professors he could look up to as role models, contributed to his feelings of anxiety.
“It didn’t help my imposter syndrome. I do feel the lack of representation can put people off a career in academia. It’s a vicious cycle,” he says. “My dream was always to stay in academia. Now I don’t know what I want to do and I feel a bit lost.”
As a BAME student, Kayani was defying the odds by doing doctoral research at all. According to an analysis by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in 2016, BAME students are more likely than white students to decide to take a master’s course but less likely to do a PhD. The research found that 2.4% of white students had started a PhD within five years of graduation, compared to 1.3% of their BAME peers.
Last month the UK Council for Graduate Education launched an in depth review looking to establish why more BAME graduates aren’t progressing onto PhDs. The review, which will report next year, will conduct a detailed analysis of student data to understand trends for researching, qualification rates and funding for different ethnicities, as well as to highlight existing schemes which are encouraging participation rates for BAME students.
The fact that more young black students aren’t choosing to do doctorates doesn’t surprise Lynette Goddard, a black academic at Royal Holloway, University of London. She says that in 21 years as an academic she has only supervised three black PhD students. “That tells you something,” she says. When she announced her promotion on her Facebook page, someone commented: “I was never taught by a black lecturer at university so it didn’t occur to me I could do that.”
Goddard is used to being in a minority. She was promoted at the beginning of the summer, making her the 27th black woman professor out of a total of around 21,000 across the UK – a statistic that she describes as “shocking”. She is the only black academic in her department of drama, theatre and dance, and insists it is actually one of the more diverse drama departments in the UK: until three years ago she says there wasn’t a single other black British-born woman working as a full-time academic in a UK drama department.
Prof Kalwant Bhopal, deputy director of the centre for research in race and education at Birmingham University, argues that BAME students feel strongly that universities are places for white students, “reserved for the privileged few”. She adds: “Students see it in a curriculum that isn’t for them, in the support that isn’t there for them, and in the academic workforce which doesn’t represent them.”
Bhopal recently interviewed third-year undergraduates for a study about next steps. Her team found that BAME students were less likely to apply to do a PhD, even if they were on track to achieve a first or a 2.1.
“Our respondents from all BAME groups said: ‘I would like to become an academic but why should I try when there are no positive role models for me?’” she says.
Kehinde Andrews, professor of black studies at Birmingham City University, says this means many black students struggle to find a supervisor who is knowledgeable about the subject they are interested in. “Often minority students have a different approach and a different way of seeing things,” he says. “So finding a supervisor who is compatible is hard.”
Finding funding can prove a challenge too. He was fortunate in winning funding for his doctorate from the Economic and Social Research Council, but says that such opportunities are now much harder to find. “A lot of PhD funding now is more prescriptive. They say: ‘If you research this we will fund you.’ But just like the curriculum those topics are Eurocentric, so the chances of minority students finding a topic they actually want to do is pretty small.”
This chimes with Bhopal’s findings. “Many respondents were interested in researching areas of inequality and especially race, and they felt they were less likely to get support for those sorts of projects.”
Her research suggested that cultural barriers aren’t the only things in the way. They found that black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi students were also less likely to have access to sufficient funding to do a PhD. “There are very few bursaries available to do a PhD and those that exist are very competitive, so that really matters.”
She argues that universities who want to address racism and make the workforce more representative should look seriously at providing financial support for first class BAME students who can’t afford to do a PhD.
Cliona Kelly, who has just started a PhD in neuroscience at Aston University, is the first person in her family to go to university, and suspects her parents don’t even really know what a doctorate is. She says in her group of black friends, money is the main obstacle to considering a PhD.
“When you want to do a PhD they start asking whether you have done any placements or research,” she says. “But that means taking the summer off and working for free, which most black students can’t afford to do. You’ll be contributing to the rent at home so doing a placement for no money just isn’t possible.”
Kelly worked for Aston full-time while she did her master’s in psychology, which she says found “really draining”; if she hadn’t managed to secure a grant for her PhD she wouldn’t have been able to do it. She says she wants to stay in research, and is hoping to improve “that terrible statistic about black women professors. But universities need to make sure that there is support in place to give us the means to succeed.”
Prof Alec Cameron, Aston’s vice-chancellor, says that one reason they don’t have many BAME students doing doctorates is that most PhDs now happen in Russell Group universities. But he also says students who are the first in their family to go to university tend to be far more focused on following a clear path to a particular career after graduating.
Aston has the highest proportion of BAME undergraduate students in the country. But Cameron says he is very conscious that their academic body doesn’t mirror this.
“There would be a motivation to produce more BAME staff. But we probably start from an assumption that most students at Aston are looking for a professional job rather than an academic pathway.”
Meanwhile, Birmingham City University is trying to increase opportunities by offering four fully funded master’s courses in black studies and race and ethnicity. But Andrews isn’t optimistic that change will come fast. “I’m not surprised that they aren’t applying for PhDs. You’re very unlikely to get a job at the end as it’s all so exclusive. Just look at how white the academy is.”
Written by: Anna Fazackerley