This is the second of 2 blogs this week from The London Postdocs who have started a campaign The Lost Voices to address and raise awareness of inequalities that early-career researchers might face.
Author: Dr Shaakir Salam, King’s College London
Editing contributions by Dr Jemima Ho (The London Postdocs, King’s College London), Jumani Yogarajah, Kailey Nolan (NIHR ARC North Thames), Dr Morag Lewis (The London Postdocs, KCL), Dr Rui Pires Martins (The London Postdocs, QMUL), Dr Sarah Jasim (The London Postdocs, NIHR ARC North Thames, UCL, LSE)
2020 turned many things on their head for all of us, but one thing that stood out for me, was the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. It brought to light the reality of ‘the talk’ that black parents must have with their children. I have experienced ‘the talk’ but through the lens of an Asian Muslim, which has shaped and impacted most, if not all, my decisions when trying to pursue my career as an early career researcher,
For me, ‘the talk’ ranges from regular comments and suggestions such as: ‘your name will cause you problems’, ‘you will have to work twice as hard just to get to the same positions as your non-Muslim peers’ and ultimately ‘you are currently the enemy in this country’. Unfortunately, for many of us, these microaggressions have been imprinted on us from a young age.
Growing up in the North of the UK, in a post-9/11 world, I encountered countless instances of overt racism from secondary school onwards. When this happens from such a young age, it becomes so internalised that you begin to hate anything about yourself that makes you different. In secondary school, my peers asked why my dad does not own a ‘paki shop’ (a corner shop and a common stereotype synonymous with South-East Asian heritage), and I was also regularly asked if I loved the country I was born in? At university, the overt racism became more subtle (although the jokes about being a terrorist continued), and by this age I had become so accustomed to the looks and the questions, I began to let most things slide.
Entering the academic world, I hoped to leave behind the attitudes that I had been surrounded by growing up. However, whilst I wanted to fully immerse myself in my degrees and later my PhD, I became conscious that my extended family support was lacking compared to my peers. Additionally, I held, and still hold, a hidden pressure that my academic degrees must lead to success as, unlike many of my peers, I have no financial fallbacks. At the time, I had never heard of the concept of intersectionality – the notion that one person has a multitude of identities and their experiences of oppression and inequality can relate to one or many of these interrelated identities, including race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity. It just felt like challenges compounded further challenges that I had to face by myself.
Although my name is Shaakir (pronounced Shark-ir), I gave up trying to get my academic peers to pronounce my name correctly. I have now become accustomed to the nickname ‘Sharky’ as the half-hearted attempts ranged from ‘shaky’ to the funny white boy at school calling me Shakira. As prominent members of society have recently reclaimed the correct spelling, origin, and pronunciation of their names, it has caused many of us to reflect on how much of ourselves as early-career researchers we dampen down or reshape to fit in with the academic environment?
I know I must shave my beard before I interview for academic roles to avoid any negative connotations with my religion. The mention of Ramadan brings a confused expression to most, with some asking me ‘but do you actually believe in it?’ Throughout my academic career I have known that embracing my religion and culture may hinder my progress, and that ironically being myself may be detrimental to my career prospects. These experiences have stayed with me as I have progressed to a postdoctoral researcher and have cumulated into a form of internal hatred towards myself, my culture, and my religion. Am I a brown Muslim struggling in an academic system, or just another Geordie living in London working as a postdoctoral researcher? Can I be both and succeed in my career?
I am now working in a system that makes me feel too white to be ‘brown’, and too ‘brown’ to be white. Throughout my time in academia, I have seen and acknowledged that attitudes towards British Muslims and others from a minority ethnic background change. However, the lack of cultural and racial inclusion to this day makes me question whether I want to continue this career path. If becoming the leader of a laboratory has less than 5% chance of success for white students, what chance do I have? As I write this, I am unsure if these issues will change in the lifetime of my career. However, I am hopeful that new awareness, initiatives and strategies, and more diverse voices and representation, will ensure that the next generation will not face the same struggles that some of us have endured.
The Man in the Mirror: Shaakir’s Story
Can you relate? Share your story
The Lost Voices is a series of three initiatives aiming to collate stories on inequalities faced by the early-career researcher (ECR) community, to help empower us all and enact institutional change. It is led by The London Postdocs and the NIHR ARC North Thames Academy, and funded by a UCL Researcher-Led Initiative Award.
In the first phase, we are inviting early career researchers to share their story. So if you have experienced inequality, bias or prejudice in any form, please let us know by:
- Posting your anonymous story on the The Lost Voices Story Collection
- Sharing your experience anonymously in the The Lost Voices ECR survey
- Sending us a short video (maximum length: 2 minutes 19 seconds) via WeTransfer (see our Youtube channel for examples) detailing your experience. We are offering £10 vouchers (Lifestyle/ Amazon) via e-mail for your time.
Shaakir and The London Postdocs will be interviewing senior academics across different disciplines and institutions who have also faced inequalities in their careers – so we can all learn from their experiences. If you are a senior academic who has faced or overcome inequalities during your career, please get in touch with us at or contribute your anonymous views via The Lost Voices senior academics survey
We will then collect both early-career researcher and senior academic stories, and discuss and debate these issues with institutional decision makers on Monday 24th May, with the aim of illuminating these experiences and inspiring further initiatives that drive change.