Experiences of LGBTQ+ Doctoral Researchers

Written by Dr Ross English, University Lead for Doctoral Student Development, Centre for Doctoral Studies

Earlier this year I was one-half of a research collaboration which set out to investigate the experiences of LGBTQ+ doctoral researchers in the UK. This project came out of last year’s Vitae International Researcher Development Conference where a small group of delegates shared their personal experiences. It was clear that there were issues to be addressed but little evidence had been gathered from which to start a conversation on a sector-wide basis.Though this project was aimed at doctoral researchers, it’s emerging findings may also resonate with research staff.

Studies of LGBTQ+ students and staff have been undertaken but doctoral students are either absent from these reports or lumped in with ‘students’ or ‘postgraduates’; the latter including a much larger Masters cohort. The question we had was whether there was anything in the PhD experience which created or exacerbated challenges for LGBTQ+ students. So I and my co-investigator, Kieran Fenby-Hulse of Coventry University, launched a survey which gathered responses from 224 current PhD students from 47 UK Institutions.

The stories the responses told were rich and varied, heartening and disheartening, and too numerous to do justice to here. Collating and summarising the responses has not been straight-forward as we attempt to balance identifying common issues while respecting the unique nature of each person’s experience. We did not, for instance, want to artificially categorise respondents’ identities for the purposes of running correlations. We also did not want to dismiss experiences via statistics; e.g. that only 1.3% of our respondents said that they know for certain that their primary supervisor is not LGBTQ+ friendly could be presented as a positive finding for the sector, losing the fact that, just in our relatively small sample, there are three people currently going through that experience.

As for our findings, they are still taking their final shape but some common themes are emerging: There are issues of awareness within many people’s research environment; that heteronormative, cisnormative and binary gender assumptions (unless corrected) can lead to issues faced by LGBTQ+ doctoral students remaining side-lined. Many respondents commented on the invisibility of LGBTQ+ role models in their field and the subsequent question of whether one needed to fit-in to progress. The challenges of operating in an international environment came out clearly; where students are expected to research, attend conferences, collaborate with or look for jobs in areas of the world that are culturally and/or legally LGBTQ+ hostile. Explicit homo- and trans-phobia still raises its head and the role of senior staff in either enabling or challenging such behaviour was clear. Where the supervisory team fits in to this picture (indeed, for some, the question of whether it does at all) was the issue that divided our respondents most.

We are aware that the majority of the issues raised are not PhD specific and hope that our findings will have wider relevance. We also are conscious of not just seeking the problems people face and are keen to recognise those LGBTQ+ students whose experience of doctoral study has been an open and positive one.

The results of the study will be submitted for publication in the next couple of months and a full report will be released in early 2018.

If you are interested in carrying out a similar study about the experiences of LGBTQ+ research staff, please contact ross.english@kcl.ac.uk.

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