By Anonymous |
I wanted to write this blogpost about my experiences as a POC navigating a PhD in the UK and in doing so, hoped others in similar positions like me would be able to relate to it. The reason I thought this to be important was because as a researcher educated in a different continent, trying to understand how the higher education system in the UK operates, can often feel like uncovering a ‘hidden curriculum’ and therefore alienating. Some of these things may be obvious for perhaps students already familiar with the British higher education but as an international student many of these can feel opaque and can be a learning process of its own. Starting a PhD as a researcher from another country can therefore feel like you are already on the back foot in an already long drawn doctoral degree.
The first few months for me felt very much like I was groping in the dark trying to find my way out while surrounded by academics and other PhDs who are a few years ahead, who seem exceedingly more certain of what they are doing. While this is likely to have been a common experience to many PhD students, not having very many people researching things remotely related to yours, having to relearn entire ways of doing and seeing things, operating in wholly new environments and often having to justify why you study an area of the global south as a non-British student in the U.K. are additionally taxing processes. Often the curriculum is Eurocentric, participating in teaching and other activities as a PhD increasingly puts the onus on me to adapt rather than an expanded curriculum where I might find myself naturally be able to contribute to. Independent research is an inherently alienating process, but the imposter syndrome can feel more pronounced in environments where you look and speak differently to others, there are not many whose work overlaps with your research and very few other researchers whose experiences you can relate to. Mentorship and positive role models remain integral for a PhD, without staff from diverse backgrounds who might share your experiences, university can feel estranging. An experience I know is shared by other researchers from working class backgrounds and other minorities from conversations with them.
While diversity, inclusion and equity, are emphasised by universities especially given the recent past, the reality however is that even if seeking to truly incorporate these, they are very difficult to achieve, simply because neither funding nor structural hierarchies that exist within academia can be changed overnight. “Why would you study X in the UK?” “But it’s so different here than there” “I didn’t realise you knew that” can be particularly grating to hear even from senior academics, when already feeling like an outsider. In addition, visa mandates and consistent worry of flouting regulations can make university feel like a hostile environment. Many would argue that if the process is so alienating why I would choose to study abroad at all. But for a researcher like me from a British colony, studying the bearing of colonialism on their country of nationality, both expertise and resources through archives and other access, lie in the UK. In many ways, countries with colonial pasts means that such networks remain for many researchers of Global South who find that researching subject areas, tenable only in a country like the UK.
Moving to the UK is difficult for obvious reasons of being separated from family and friends but especially in times of crises such as this global pandemic. While everyone is struggling to cope with the global pandemic, it can be doubly hard for those from overseas who are both worried about the uncertain future but also visas, funding and continuing research which often involves fieldwork that may be indefinitely postponed. The academic job market is difficult but the lack of representation can put people off a career in academe for students like me. I worry my work is not considered universal ‘enough’ and not everyone may see value in my work and doubt if there is space and support in an academic workforce which doesn’t represent me. With tuition at three times higher than that of a UK/EU National, many struggle to make ends meet with their stipends, an experience shared with many who do not have full studentships or financial support to fall back on. The lack of options of part-time research options, or extending their PhD into the fourth year may seem impossible for international students already dealing with the pressure of the PhD deadline.
Writing and researching colonial pasts, other inequalities, should ideally not be contested, but they remain so and point towards a wider problem highlighted by two huge events in 2020 that have shown what the lack of acknowledgement of difficult histories and recognising the inequalities that exist within society can create. If universities truly seek to remain committed to anti-racism, supporting diverse students from within the UK and welcome international students like me, they must start to recognise the inequalities and gaps within them and create environments to truly support researchers. Academia has an integral role to play in this struggle with reducing the ‘gap’ between the ‘them’ and ‘us’ construction and can build networks that blur these lines through inclusive curriculums and altering the way we view diversity.
Image 1: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/01/02/minority-students-sense-place-higher-two-year-four-year-institutions
Image 2: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1610927