Should I stay or should I go? Pursuing academia as a racialised early-career researcher

31st January 2023

Aida Hassan reflects on whether she should pursue an academic career despite the challenges she faces as a Black Muslim woman. She enjoys intellectual challenges and a sense of community in academia. However, the joys are often outweighed by the tokenistic role she is usually given.

I started my PhD hoping to pursue a career in academia, though my reasons for this may have seemed utopian at the start. I enjoy reading, writing, and thinking about old and new ideas about how the world works – and academia seemed like the most appropriate home to develop these ideas. Going into my PhD, I knew a career in academia wasn’t so simple, given the increasingly competitive and cutthroat job market. Despite these challenges, I credulously believed this journey was going to be more than just finding a job to pay the bills and put a roof over my head. My choice for an academic career felt more like a calling, cliché as it sounds. When you spend most of your twenties worried about your future, you desperately cling to that calling like it will guide you to where you need to be. Of course, that rosy-tinted view of my academic life was quickly pulled to pieces in the mere few days of starting my PhD. Life was obviously never going to be peachy or grand in academia, but as a Black Muslim woman, you can never underestimate how much of an uphill battle awaits you on this journey. The reality hits you before you even make it to campus grounds.

As soon as you enter academia, it’s easy to lose yourself in your surroundings and observe who is in the room with you – or, more importantly, who is not in the room. Even as you initially ask yourself, “why am I the only Black person in the room?” you notice how quickly that question can escalate to, “should I even stay here?”.

Why am I here? 

During a workshop I attended in the first few months of my PhD, one of the workshop convenors (a white man) saw me absent-mindedly sitting in the corner – the only Black person in the room – and decided to sit with me during the coffee break. He asked me about my research, which I was hesitant to discuss since I was just getting started, but to be polite, I offered a vague description of my project. In response, the workshop organiser said, “it’s great to see someone like you in this field! Far too many white people are taking up space in global health”. They were happy a Black woman like me was around to fix all the problems of the global health field. Without expanding on the details of my project, this convenor has already made up his mind about my purpose in academia. I won’t bore you with the pervasive tokenism within global health right now (that problem requires a thesis-length discussion on its own), but this encapsulated the problematic politics of belonging and identity that racialised scholars face in the academy. As Zora Neale Hurston eloquently describes in her essay, How It Feels to Be Colored Me, we, as racialised academics, exist against a “sharp white background” that sees us as a source of free labour but simultaneously invisible as scholars of our merit.

As racialised academics, our position in these institutions is often reduced to the menial task of “decolonial” (and EDI) work on behalf of our predominately white, elite institutions.

Likewise, I’ve often been asked the question by fellow white colleagues, “why are you doing a PhD?” in a way that feels like an interrogation, sans the dark and cold interview room and the bleak fluorescent light in my face. Often they are not interested in knowing about your research interests or why you chose to pursue an academic career in your field. Rather, it feels like I am being questioned about my presence in academia. Put simply: I do not fit here because I’m not white and/or middle-class. Others will dictate my purpose as a Black scholar is to somehow absolve the racial anxieties faced by academic institutions and white scholars, through the bandwagon of decolonial and ‘equal participation’ work. Meanwhile, my credibility and merits as a scholar are ignored or called into question.

At some point, it becomes futile to prove yourself as a worthy researcher or scholar to your white counterparts, because the academy will always remain firm on the “sharp white background”.

We are left alone to navigate this background, and all the racial and gendered politics of belonging in academic spaces.

Should I stay?

Once you become entangled in a hostile system that sustains a culture of tokenism, gatekeeping and microaggressions, it is hard to maintain the same enthusiasm you had for academia when you first joined as a PhD student. There are many days when I sense the rising toll this environment has on my mental health, including a lack of motivation and shots to my confidence. The negative experiences are not always tied to the demanding or insurmountable PhD workload that awaits me every morning. Rather,

 it is disappointing that I am expected to go above and beyond in a system that does not look out for or care for Black women in the slightest.

At this point, it is natural to question whether it is worth staying in academia. But somehow, I’m still here, despite those growing challenges. I’m here because I care about the work I’m doing and want to share what I found with people willing to listen.

At least once in a blue moon, however, I find small moments of joy that remind me why I might choose to stay. I can outline many reasons why I want to leave academia and never return, but a couple of positives keep me going. The first positive is connecting with other Black and Muslim women academics in my discipline or beyond, who all have inspired my intellectual thinking and formed an important part of my support system. The importance of community can never be underestimated.

The sense of belonging does not need to be found in academic institutions, but in a community of like-minded academics, writers and organisers who see scholarship as a tool to empower and speak truth to our everyday realities.

he second positive – and most crucial – is the joys of scholarship. Despite my idealistic motivations for pursuing a career in academia, I still stand by how much I enjoy my research, teaching, and writing. My PhD project has helped me centre my voice and find confidence in owning my intellectual thought and ideas, even if the journey felt taxing and isolating at times.

I’m privileged to be in a position where I can pursue important research and enjoy certain aspects of my academic career, like writing and teaching. But the question of “should I stay?” will always loom in the background. And as long as academic institutions remain increasingly hostile and unsustainable for Black and Brown scholars,

 I’m worried my time in academia will be short-lived.

Aida Hassan

Aida Hassan is an ESRC-funded PhD student at Queen Mary University of London, currently researching global health governance and the limits of state-centrism in postcolonial societies. Her research and teaching interests include global health politics, postcolonial/anti-colonial thought in international relations, and the securitisation of health. Outside of her academic work, she has written blogs and articles on securitisation and racial politics of belonging in the UK, with writings published in Tribune and The New Arab. She is working on a forthcoming book chapter alongside wonderful colleagues entitled “The Counternarratives of Black Muslim Women in British Academia”.