Diversity, Inclusion, and Doctoral Study: Challenges Facing Minority PhD students in the United Kingdom

By Kate Mattocks (Liverpool Hope University) & Shardia Briscoe-Palmer (University of Birmingham)

“I would like to stay in academia; however the future is very bleak for black female academics within political science. I would have to break that glass ceiling which will be another hard struggle on top of all the other struggles I face. However I would like to be able to path a way for those undergraduates behind me who also have the same aspirations as myself but see no-one like them standing in the distance”
(survey respondent, disabled BME woman).

mattocks-shardiaIssues of underrepresentation and discrimination in the discipline of political studies are ‘both urgent and longstanding’ (Mershon and Walsh, 2015: 441). Inspired by our own experiences as PhD researchers and motivated as well by the relative absence of literature on the academic labour of those at the start of their career, last year we undertook a small project – now published in European Political Science – on how individuals from three minority groups – women, black and ethnic minorities (BME), and individuals living with a disability – experienced the process of studying for a PhD. Our aim was to put these groups where they rarely sit: at the forefront.

We used a mixed methods approach, distributing an online survey to 23 politics departments across the UK, as well as a small number of semi-structured interviews. Our results are not to be taken as a generalisation of all minority PhD researchers studying politics in the UK, but rather a representation of challenges experienced by those that took part in the study. Based on the responses, we grouped findings into seven themes: institutional support, finances and funding, confidence and self-esteem, external responsibilities (such as caring), health and well-being, future professional life; and isolation, exclusion, and disadvantage.

Both the minority and non-minority groups shared concerns about finances, health (although those who identified as having a disability reported this to be a bigger concern), worry over finding a job post-PhD, and self-esteem and confidence. What we were particularly interested in is where we found differences between the groups – there were certain challenges that were more pronounced within the three categories of minorities. This is where our results can be useful not only as the basis for future research but also practically when considering concrete changes that could be made within institutions.

The first striking result is that the non-minority group were much more likely to want to pursue an academic career once they had finished their PhD. This finding requires some deeper digging in the form of more research across a larger sample size. Does it mean that the non-minority group feel they are better able to cope with the pressures of academia? Research by Bhopal (2014), for example, discusses institutional racism in higher education and that BME academics are less likely than their white counterparts to have access to powerful ‘insider’ networks, which creates very real challenges of belonging.

Secondly, BME respondents were more likely to report that caring responsibilities were a concern, though worry about this issue increased for all groups when asked to compare concerns before and after studies commenced. Again, further research needs to be conducted to determine whether this is statistically relevant among a larger sample size and to further illuminate the socio-cultural dynamics of this category of researchers. More generally, the time that most people are completing a PhD is also often the period of life when they are thinking of starting a family. Because we know that there is a drop-off for BMEs into postgraduate study (Equality Challenge Unit, 2015) and in progression once in an academic role (Bhopal et al., 2016), the academy as a whole needs to examine much more carefully how early career researchers are supported alongside parallel life circumstances such as caring responsibilities and family life.

Thirdly, those in our minority groups were more likely to say that they had experienced isolation and exclusion. Perceptions of disadvantage varied considerably — no one in the non-minority group indicated that they had experienced disadvantage, a result that speaks for itself. Similarly, no non-minority respondents felt a lack of institutional support during their studies, in comparison with both the women and BME minority groups. Interestingly, disabled respondents did not report such a perception, which could be an indication, we feel, of the disabled student allowance.

What does this mean for the PhD experience? The challenges that were highlighted in our research are heightened by the structural inequalities and marginalisation experienced by minorities (Crenshaw, 1991; Beckwith, 2015; Gill and Donaghue, 2016). As Oman et al. (2015: n.p.) argue, ‘getting “in” and getting “on” in Higher Education (HE) are two issues that are often conflated in ways that ignore what it might mean to “get by” in an institution.’ Our findings indicate that the discrimination and challenges that these groups face are not always overt or in the open, although they can be. Much of it is hidden and indirect.

 We do not want to give the impression that these challenges only exist in the discipline of politics, nor only in the UK. Our research shows that much more work needs to be done to investigate these groups in more detail as well as understand the nuances and differences between them. It also demonstrates the need for better data as well as future work targeting a greater sample size looking at broader conceptualisations of diversity, including factors such as age, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, religion, mode of study, topic of study, as well as an international researcher perspective.

Politics departments to take a look at how people from minority backgrounds – and here we do include women, making up only roughly 30% of the discipline in the UK (Bates, Jenkins, and Pflaeger, 2012) – could be experiencing the types of challenges we have highlighted. Ultimately, we are of the belief that institutionalised support measures should be put in place to help minorities inclusively progress in the discipline. In order to diversify the makeup of the discipline to include difference, attention needs to be paid to the recruitment and progression of postgraduates and thinking in general needs to be more bottom-up approach than top-down. The future viability and relevance of the discipline depends on it.

Please see the full paper associated with this post here [http://link.springer.com/journal/41304/15/4/page/1] in vol. 15, issue 4 of European Political Science.


About psawomenpolitics

The UK Political Studies Association Women and Politics Specialist Group. Resource for researchers working on women and/or gender and for women in the PSA. The 2014 Specialist Group of the Year.
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