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How we’re tackling the underrepresentation of BAME students in our postgraduate research


Professor Bamber, the ICR’s Deputy Dean, sets out how we are promoting diversity and racial equality among our postgraduate students.

Posted on 10 November, 2020 by Professor Jeff Bamber

ICR researcher in the lab

We all know that the higher education sector urgently needs to address inequality.

We also know that a more diverse and inclusive workplace leads to a stronger organisation, as we all benefit from different ideas, experiences and viewpoints.

This summer, The Institute of Cancer Research made a series of firm and far-reaching commitments in our action plan, BAME: Beyond the statements, which seeks to address the under-representation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic staff in research careers and in leadership roles across our organisation.

The commitments set out the steps the ICR will take to create an environment where all can thrive, and they begin by opening up conversations about race across all aspects of working and studying here, and seeking to understand and address challenges faced by BAME staff and students.

Student recruitment

One important issue we are focusing on within the Academic Dean’s team is to ensure a diverse admission to our pipeline of researchers. For the ICR, that begins with our PhD studentships for science graduates.

Mirroring a problem we see across the higher education sector, Black, Asian and minority ethnic students are under-represented in our student community here at the ICR – as well as in research careers and leadership roles.

Over the past few months, the Academic Dean’s team has been working closely with our student recruitment committee to design a plan which supports fairer and more equitable student recruitment.

We decided on some immediate actions that we would take, which I outline in this blog, and we agreed that we would then delve deeper into our data so we can create informed plans for further actions.


One action we’ve taken already is to begin a pilot in which we blind assessors to some of the information in PhD applications, by removing applicants’ names and email addresses before shortlisting.

Candidates are also advised to remove or obscure any photographs on transcripts. We have already shown that removing such information still allows effective shortlisting. We will now assess the impact of removing these details to see if it makes any difference to the proportion of BAME candidates moving through each stage of the recruitment process.

We have also enhanced our recruitment training for our PhD supervisors, to help them adopt a more inclusive approach which aims to avoid the unconscious biases that might otherwise inhibit their ability to identify excellent candidates independently of ethnicity, or indeed gender or other social grouping. 

Our main PhD studentship recruitment round is open to applications until 15 November 2020, 11:55pm UK time. 

See project list

How to apply

Enhanced guidance

We know from research that a lack of adequate information, guidance and advice for candidates is linked to the lack of diversity in the postgraduate student population. Some groups of students find guidance and support more obtainable, and this can influence how prepared prospective BAME students feel for success. The same applies for other underrepresented groups related, for example, to gender, disability, economic background and social class.

In recognition of the role that information, advice and guidance can play in preparing students for success, we have also enhanced the guidance we provide for all applicants on our website to make it as clear as possible what our supervisors are looking for when they recruit.

Our student representatives from the ICR’s BAME Forum (run in partnership with our partner hospital The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust) assisted with the review of this guidance. The forum is an active contributor to all the work we are undertaking as part of the BAME: Beyond the statements action plan, shaping it from its inception.

The enhanced guidance aims to make our recruitment process as transparent and inclusive as possible, to reduce the extent to which candidates may need to rely on the support and knowledge of social connections to support them in writing a good application.

For example, we have included information on the types of references a prospective student should choose, and what should be included in personal statements.

We have also re-evaluated our advertising, and have broadened it this year with the aim of attracting BAME and other underrepresented candidates who might otherwise have not heard of the ICR, or not considered undertaking a PhD here. We are explicit in saying that we particularly welcome British applicants from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds who are underrepresented at PhD level within the ICR.

Monitoring success

We will be closely monitoring the impact of this and other initiatives in our Beyond the Statements action plan, which began this year, and are strongly committed to continuing our efforts in this area across the ICR.

We are also delighted to have welcomed Dr Yinyin Yuan, Team Leader in Computational Pathology, to our Academic Dean’s team in a new role as Ethnic Diversity and Equality Champion.

As Dr Yuan explains: “I am looking forward to working closely with the Academic Dean’s team to continue to address diversity and representation in our student population. We know that increasing the diversity of perspectives and ideas that our student body brings to our research benefits us all.”

Dana Tahboub, student representative for the BAME Forum and the ICR’s Equality Steering Group says, “I am grateful for the efforts of many colleagues across several committees at the ICR to address the underrepresentation of BAME students within our student community. I am hopeful that this work, along with continuous championing, will facilitate equitable student recruitment and equality within the workplace.”

Professor Jeff Bamber is Deputy Dean (Biomedical Sciences) at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and is responsible for the academic management of our MPhil and PhD students, and our MPhil and PhD research degrees programme. He also works with other Senior Tutors in the Academic Dean’s team to support the welfare and pastoral care of each student.


Equality and Diversity PhD studentships
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