25% of PhD students in the UK say that they have been ‘bullied’, according to a new report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI).

In ‘PhD Life: The UK Student Experience’, HEPI found that the most common type of bullying was from their supervisor (42% of those bullied), followed by a member of staff (36%) or another student (22%). Worryingly, 60% of those that had been bullied felt they were not able to speak out about it, suggesting more can be done by universities to ensure that doctoral students are protected.

Another 20% of students surveyed believed they faced discrimination, which could have been due to gender (29%), age (15%), race (15%), disability (6%), or religion (3%). However, a third of those surveyed believed diversity and inclusion initiatives had been successfully implemented in their department, with zero-tolerance policies enacted against discrimination – but another 27% of those surveyed felt that their institution’s diversity policies were ‘tokenistic’.

The report concludes that, “The combination of narrow specialisms, short-term, unstable early career contracts and lack of contractual protection allows the bullying of PhD students to go unchecked.”

Protecting students from the unique challenges of a PhD

PhD students face unique challenges, particularly the niche nature of their studies, the potential to be isolated from other students, and the sometimes challenging dynamic between a doctoral student and their supervisor. These wellbeing challenges have been combatted by initiatives including the University of East Anglia’s ‘Courage Project‘, which pilots schemes to improve the wellbeing of postgraduate students, such as resilience training, gardening groups, and events specifically for postgraduate students.

However, more can clearly be done to protect student wellbeing from bullying staff and students. The report recommends that universities offer “the opportunity to raise concerns about bullying, harassment or discrimination in a neutral environment, where claims can be investigated impartially,” and cites the University of Westminster’s PhD Society as an example of good practice that other institutions could follow in empowering their students to bring their concerns to the university.

Download the report here.