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How I broke down barriers to study physics at university

Monifa Phillips was the first black woman to graduate from the University of Glasgow with a PhD in physics. She graduated in 2019.

I’m black British, of Caribbean descent, state-school educated and I grew up in Hackney, London.

I really enjoyed secondary school. I remember that, of all the subjects I studied, I particularly enjoyed maths.

For my GCSEs, I took science and additional science, but I found that I liked studying science as much as I liked learning about textiles or Spanish, for instance. I enjoyed learning in general. 

In my free time, I took on many extra-curricular activities, learning the piano and clarinet, and doing hip-hop dance as I could. I like to consider myself a Jack of all trades, and a master of none.

Choosing physics

At AS-Level, I decided to focus on my STEM skillset and go turbo-nerd; I chose to study maths, further maths, chemistry and physics.

I used to imagine myself studying maths at university. Part of the reason for me choosing STEM subjects was because I come from a community that encouraged going to university to enter a particular profession, such as those in medicine or law.  

Because I had opted for science AS-Levels, everyone assumed that I would aim to become a medical doctor. I didn’t want to be. Instead, I decided to go rogue and become a different type of nerd altogether.

I found the jump from GCSE to AS-level really challenging. I got a C in my physics AS-level, but I stuck with it.

By the time it came around to applying for university, I had become so annoyed with maths that I decided to apply to study chemical physics, a subject that straddled my two other A-levels perfectly.

Initially, I had no intention of studying pure physics. Although, after spending my first year at university with only three other students on my course, I decided to hedge my bets and study pure physics as part of a larger cohort.

Funnily, in hindsight, I realise that I didn’t actually have the grades to get a place studying physics at the University of Sheffield.

STEM subjects and women

I think that more young women would be interested in STEM if they are taught that it’s completely achievable by parents, carers and teachers. More young women would feel encouraged if schools make proactive efforts to counter gender bias.

However, responsibility for this doesn’t fall squarely on schools.

It’s also important for employers in the STEM industry to work with outreach organisations to give young women more opportunities to see people like them in STEM fields.

It’s important that these events also cater to young black British women in particular. For instance, I’ve only connected with one other black British woman physicist thus far, and I’m 27.

Getting my voice heard

Being the first black woman to graduate with a PhD in physics from the University of Glasgow feels great and not great.

In truth, I pushed the university to find these numbers after feeling largely unseen and unsupported in my department.

No-one talked about race and/or culture. This was strange because I’d always been aware of my black British identity and culture. I had grown up in multicultural environments where I was one of many different people. During my PhD, I found that many of my peers had no idea of how varied British culture can be, and had not really thought much about how being raised with access to different food, music, history, literature, etc. can shape your identity.

Being part of an ethnic minority community, I’ve always been aware of this, and it’s not a bad thing at all: it’s enriching and it should be celebrated.

To find the multicultural vibe I craved throughout my PhD, I actively sought out different groups of people outside of physics, outside of STEM, and outside of the university too. I explored the city of Glasgow and it’s people. 

Outside of my PhD, I joined a hip hop dance group, a sewing group, and a roller derby league. I learnt so much more about the city and it’s people and was much happier for it.

Highlighting the BAME community

Recently, the Equality and Diversity team at the University of Glasgow asked me to be part of their diversity calendar.

I took this as an opportunity to demand that they improve the level of support for black British students and the wider BAME community.

In doing so, I was able to get them to create, for the first time, a web page dedicated to BAME students and staff at the university.

I did so because I believe that universities should reflect and respond to the needs of their student and staff body. I hope that the university makes more changes to support current staff and students from minority communities.

Jobs in physics

There are quite a few jobs that relate to physics.

It’s a good topic for demonstrating skills in analysis, problem-solving and science communication.

There are jobs in:

  • Data science
  • Teaching
  • Intellectual property
  • Medical science
  • Science journalism
  • Knowledge transfer
  • Academic research
  • Industrial research
  • Science policy and much more.

All STEM subjects will train you in the same fundamental skills. Because of this, I didn’t worry too much about the particular career I wanted to pursue.

I only considered doing a PhD in the final year of my undergraduate degree. I expected to start a graduate scheme as soon as possible because I had always thought that PhD’s were reserved for people cleverer than me. But I came to realise that that was a self-limiting idea and that I was just as good a candidate as any other PhD applicant.

On the other hand, if you do physics or a STEM subject and realise it’s not what you want to do, that’s totally fine. Gain even more skills and become amazingly well-rounded.

We aren’t defined by one interest only, right?

My advice

I work in intellectual property law and am currently training to become a patent attorney.

In my job, I help inventors gain legal protection for their inventions across a wide range of industries. 

In this role, I’m at the interface between technology, business, and law. It’s very different from the role of a physics researcher, but it’s a welcome change.

If you’re interested in becoming a patent attorney, you don’t need a PhD so don’t feel under pressure to get one. You do, however, need a technical degree and excellent oral and written communication skills.

Get along to an open day if you’re interested, those are really informative and fun.

What I would tell my teenage self

I’d tell myself that to keep developing skills in whatever I find interesting. A physicist is someone who studies and applies physics, anyone can be one.

I’d also tell myself that it’s okay to be interested in loads of different things at once. There’s no need to fit into an age-old stereotype to pursue something that interests you.

Read more: What it’s like to work as a scientist


Charlotte Harding
Charlotte Harding
Charlotte is a journalist and the co-founder of The Women's Work Collective.


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