Supporting PhD students from underrepresented groups: Why it’s important and how to do so
Taking on a PhD should lead to a fascinating life of discovery, where students navigate new challenges and transition from being pupils to becoming scholars in their own right. However, life as a PhD student is challenging, as many PhD students report feeling stressed out and overwhelmed by expectations. Furthermore, many PhD students are young people who find themselves in unfamiliar environments, which adds to their feelings of stress and isolation.
When a student comes from an underrepresented background, such feelings can be intensified by a real or perceived sense of not belonging in their situation. In the Global North, particularly in Europe and North America, many students come from so-called WEIRD—Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic—backgrounds. However, as educational opportunities have opened up to underrepresented groups, a growing share of students now belong to groups that have historically not been well represented in higher education1, particularly in PhD programs. For these PhD students, their underrepresented status can compound the usual stresses of academic study if they are not given appropriate support.
Who are the underrepresented students and what challenges do they face?
Ethnic and cultural minorities
People from ethnic minority backgrounds for a given country are less likely to enroll in PhD programs compared to their peers. As one example, the UK has struggled with enrolment in PhD programs among Black, Asian, and ethnic minority (BAME) students, with 2.4% of white students starting a PhD within five years of graduation, compared to 1.3% of their BAME peers2.
Besides the existing ethnic minority populations within countries, many other minority students have immigrated from abroad. Besides discrimination3 and difficulties with assimilation, these students are also usually not native speakers of the teaching language, which can result not only in difficulties in communicating and retaining information, but also in feelings of exclusion4.
Women in traditionally “male” fields
Gender is another vital factor. Despite increasing educational attainment of women5, they are still heavily underrepresented in many fields, particularly at the postgraduate level. Within STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, women are usually in the minority6. This minority status and perception of certain STEM fields being “boy’s clubs”7 can create a self-fulfilling prophecy that prevents women from pursuing careers and educational opportunities in some fields, discouraging otherwise excellent scholars from contributing to research.
Sexual or gender minorities
Despite increased acceptance and awareness of non-heteronormative sexual orientations and forms of gender expression, non-heterosexual researchers are more likely to report feeling unwelcome or excluded in their workplace8. Additionally, 39% of non-heterosexual academics agreed with the statement “I feel that I will not be taken seriously” when asked why they choose not to discuss their feelings of stress or anxiety with relevant people in their workplace. Non-heterosexual identities have been found to be related to low educational attainment in high school because of these individuals feeling unsafe9. So, it is crucial to ensure an inclusive and safe environment for LGBTQ+ PhD students so that they realize their potential.
Students from lower income backgrounds are also underrepresented in higher education10. A well-known example is the underrepresentation of working-class students at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge11, which are the traditionally preferred universities of the UK’s social and political elites. Despite comprising fewer than 1% of the UK’s population, almost a quarter of the British House of Commons have graduated from either Oxford or Cambridge12. As access to education is vital for social mobility, poor inclusivity of low-income students can further entrench class divides.
People with disabilities
People with disabilities experience worse educational outcomes and fewer opportunities at all levels of education13. Accordingly, disabled people are underrepresented among PhD graduates. While challenges faced by people with disabilities cannot be generalized, students with disabilities report an extra burden of labor in their studies compared to able-bodied peers14 that cannot be remedied without accommodations for their differences in ability.
Neurodiversity is an increasingly recognized concept in psychology and education theory, which posits that some lifelong neurological conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, are not inherently pathological, and are instead part of natural variations in human psychology that can even confer some advantages in the right settings15. However, such conditions can affect social and executive functioning and have been linked to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety16, which may have negative impacts on academic achievement.
The importance of a safe, inclusive environment
While underrepresented students experience myriad challenges, a key measure that all supervisors can take to ensure better mental health and more equitable outcomes is to create an environment in which students and researchers feel they are included. People from underrepresented groups often report feelings of imposter syndrome17, a common issue among PhD students that contributes to them failing to complete their studies18. Ensuring that students have an inclusive environment not only helps students reach their goals, it contributes to the field of study by ensuring that no willing students are turned away or discouraged due to their underprivileged status compared to their peers.
Four steps supervisors can take to help PhD students from underrepresented groups
1 – Check in with students
A PhD supervisor’s role can be likened to that of a manager in a company. One of the mantras that I have encountered in management training is “Seek first to understand.” Scheduling a one-to-one meeting on a regular basis specifically to discuss issues outside of their studies can provide a valuable venue for students to discuss any issues that they are experiencing in their personal lives. Not only does this allow supervisors to impart their insight to help students better deal with their issues, it also allows supervisors to understand if any external problems, such as bullying, are affecting the performance and well-being of students. Better understanding will allow supervisors to tackle ongoing issues in their group.
2 – Understand the cultural and personal backgrounds of students
Cultural sensitivity is vital when working with people coming from different backgrounds. While every person is an individual who deserves to be considered based on their own personality and traits, the background of a student will usually affect their conceptions of the world and interpersonal skills. I have witnessed awkward interactions between people of two countries based on differing cultural expectations of personal space or the casual discussion of taboo topics. While we usually act with the best intentions, we can still unwittingly be guilty of microaggressions19 if we do not understand the background of other people. Educating oneself on the cultural mores of students can prevent microaggressions, making them feel more included.
3 – Foster a culture of inclusivity
Many people make valuable friends while studying for their PhD, and a friendly support network increases the self-esteem of students, improving their educational performance20. A supervisor cannot guarantee that everybody on the same program can get along, but they can encourage meaningful connections by serving as a mediator to help students “break the ice.” Supervisors also play a crucial role in preventing bullying. When students report bullying or discrimination, supervisors should seek to understand the situation and educate their students on what is or isn’t acceptable conduct.
4 – Accommodate within reason
“Reasonable accommodations”21 are vital to ensuring inclusivity in workplaces or centers of learning. Far from being “special” or “privileged” treatment, accommodations ensure that students who experience challenges or deficits are given the same opportunities to apply themselves as other students. Some examples include granting students with disabilities more time to complete tasks, or allowing students from different religious backgrounds to observe their own holidays and allocating spaces where students can perform daily religious rituals without the fear of judgment.
Likewise, creating a safe and judgement-free environment for neurodivergent students to open up about their invisible challenges can allow supervisors to make accommodations, such as providing a quiet environment for people with sensory processing issues.
Inclusion is vital to providing the broadest range of students the best chances of being accepted to and completing PhD programs. While I have spent this article describing various categories of underrepresented people and their considerations, it bears repeating that every student has their own unique set of circumstances. Fostering a culture of openness and dialog is vital to understanding each student’s worries, which can allow a supervisor to meet each student’s unique needs.
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