‘Why aren’t there more of us?'

Nina Higson-Sweeney, a psychology PhD student of mixed heritage, discusses her podcast series Black Future Dr with Associate Editor Chrissie Fitch.

Tell us about your professional and personal background, and what you currently do.
I’m a first-year PhD student at the University of Bath, exploring the issue of fatigue in teenagers with depression. Prior to my PhD, I completed a degree in Psychology and then a MSc in Health Psychology at the University of the West of England.

I was born in London but grew up in Plymouth, and I am Mixed White and Black Caribbean, with grandparents from Montserrat. I was raised by the white side of my family in a city that lacks diversity, so I only recently started to explore and embrace the black side of my identity. One way I’ve been doing this has been through the podcast.

What made you start this podcast?
Do you ever have those moments where an idea comes to you out of the blue and you think ‘oh wait – this is actually doable’? I had that moment in October last year. I had been doing my PhD for a month, and being the only black student in my cohort was weighing on my mind. I kept thinking, where are we? Why aren’t there more of us here? And what can I do to change this? The idea of the podcast slowly started to form. I tweeted to see if there was any interest and had an amazing response from people worldwide – not only was there a gap for this, but the information was really wanted.

So I started this podcast for several reasons. One was for promoting visibility, as it can be difficult to imagine yourself in a job if you have never seen someone who looks like you in that role: a particular issue in academia. To this day, I have not had a one-on-one conversation with a black doctor or professor. Education was another reason – I’m a firm believer that a great way to gain new knowledge is to hear from people with lived experience. A final reason is one of celebration – I wanted to showcase the incredible work being done by black doctoral students across the UK and demonstrate the wider impact we are having on our fields early in our careers.

Why did you call your podcast Black Future Dr?
The initial name I had was ‘Future (Black) Dr’. I felt this represented who we are – students working towards the title of Dr – who are black, which influences our experiences and journeys. However, after speaking with some members of the African-Caribbean Research Collective, we felt that having ‘black’ in brackets could be interpreted as diminishing that part of our identity - the exact opposite of the podcast’s aims. Hence ‘Black Future Dr’.

As a person of colour who has applied for PhDs, I found the episodes particularly relatable. What impacts do you feel the podcast has had?
That’s so encouraging to hear! Quite a lot of the feedback I’ve received has been about relatability – we have such a diverse range of guest speakers and topics that there is (hopefully!) something for everyone.

I think that the main impact of the podcast has been helping others to feel seen and to know they’re not alone. Doctorates are tough and are isolating at the best of times – it’s even harder during a global pandemic when so many people are working from home. I know personally that I have second-guessed my progress in doing my PhD, so being able to listen to others share similar experiences has been really validating and motivating.

I also think that the podcast has helped to demystify the doctoral process. Unless you’re in a space with people who have that knowledge, it can be difficult to understand how you even begin to look for doctoral programmes, let alone choose supervisors, apply to the programme, apply for studentships, design studies – the list goes on! I think the podcast has helped to provide some of that information, or at least signpost people to helpful resources. I hope it has made doctoral programmes a bit more accessible to the black community.

All 12 episodes of the first series have now aired. What do you feel you have achieved?
I feel I have achieved what I set out to do – that is, to create a resource for black students that was educational, accessible, and freely available over time. I’ve also connected with so many wonderful black doctoral students across the UK to share their stories, so I think I have helped increase our visibility, if only a little bit.

Do you have a favourite episode?
I’m not sure! Each episode could be my favourite, because they have all taught me something new. For example, Episode Five with Emmanuel prompted a lot of self-reflection about my identity as black. But I suppose I picked Lateesha’s episode to be the first one for a reason – not only has Lateesha been an informal mentor to me since I began my PhD, but she is a fantastic speaker and her episode is particularly encouraging for prospective PhD candidates. Lateesha spoke candidly about her PhD journey, acknowledging the challenges but also emphasising the positives. Her episode might be a personal favourite because it reminds me why I want to be here and that my PhD is doable.

Where do you hope to take the podcast in future?
I currently don’t have future plans – I’ve been focused on making this series a reality. It would be great to create a second series of Black Future Dr, and to make scripts of the current series available, but I would definitely need more help with both. I would love to see others pick up where Black Future Dr has left off, and create more podcasts, videos and resources to continue promoting the visibility of black doctoral students, and to encourage other black students to join us. We will never have enough of these resources, and I think it can make the most impact when it comes from the community itself.

The podcast series, Black Future Dr, is available on Acast, Spotify, Apple Music, Google Podcasts and Deezer. Tweet at @BlackFutureDr.

You can contact Nina by email at [email protected] or by Twitter at @n_higsonsweeney.

Podcast logo from Hannah Balogun

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