Graduate school represents a towering academic achievement. However, for many marginalized students, the journey of graduate school may also involve dealing with hostile learning environments or discrimination. A 2021 study by the American Sociological Association reveals that out of 1,300 U.S. graduate students surveyed, nearly two-thirds of students report discrimination on at least one characteristic (like race, gender, or religion), and 30% of students report discrimination on multiple characteristics.
Discrimination takes many forms — from exclusion and microaggressions to blatant harassment and even violence. In this guide, we’ll explore some common forms of discrimination that occur in graduate school, along with resources that can help students and administration create inclusive, equitable environments characterized by psychological safety and a sense of belonging. We’ll also feature first-hand stories from former graduate students who have experienced discrimination in graduate school, and we interview an expert in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB.)
What Prejudice and Discrimination Look Like
One of the many bright spots of a graduate school experience is the diversity of perspectives and cultures that surround you as you deep dive into a subject; but unfortunately, that very diversity can also inspire inequities and prejudice.
First-generation, low-income, LGBTQIA+, and ethnic minorities are sadly underrepresented in most graduate schools. So are students from different religious backgrounds, those with disabilities, and students with different cognitive learning styles. And a lack of representation can lead to stereotypes, bias, intolerance, and other discriminatory practices.
Let’s examine some of these concepts in a little more depth, also exploring how they might look in practice on a graduate school campus.
Prejudice Explained: Examples and Terms
- Prejudice is a preconceived and unjustified opinion or attitude toward a person or an entire social group based on their unique characteristics. These characteristics include ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, disability, neurotype, and religious preferences. Prejudices are generally unfounded and aren’t based on any real truth. For example, a religious professor who believes trans students are unholy may refuse to advise them.
- Bias is a conscious or unconscious preference or aversion towards a particular person, group, or idea. Whether conscious or unconscious, bias often manifests as stereotyping, social exclusion, or favoritism and tends to result in prejudice, unequal treatment, and the general marginalization of people they are biased against.
- Intolerance is a refusal to accept or respect opinions, cultures, beliefs, and lifestyles that differ from one’s own. These are often religious, political, and cultural beliefs based on rigid, narrow-minded attitudes that reject diversity, restricting freedom and equality. Intolerance often results in discrimination, harassment, and even violence towards those who are perceived as different.
- Inequality refers to unequal distribution of resources, opportunities, power, and general support among individuals or groups within a society or place, like graduate schools. Inequality can be based on a variety of different factors that include perceived gender, ethnicity, disability, education, socioeconomic status, and even religious beliefs. The result of inequality is often exclusion and general lack of access to basic academic needs and growth.
What Discrimination in Grad School Looks Like
- Microaggressions: These are small, yet harmful behaviors that communicate hostile, derogatory messages toward people from underrepresented groups. Typically based on stereotypes, microaggressions can take a variety of different forms that include subtle remarks and assumptions that invalidate minority experiences and perspectives. In graduate school, microaggressions create hostile learning environments that disable and weaken the psychological safety and well-being of targeted students, faculty, and staff.
- Stereotyping: This occurs when someone makes assumptions or generalizations about people based on their group membership. Stereotypes are typically based on a person’s gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, neurotype, religion, or perceived ability. When people spread stereotypes, they create hostile learning environments that undermine the academic and professional success of underrepresented students, faculty, and staff.
- Exclusion: This refers to behaviors that prevent targeted people from full participation in academic, social, and professional opportunities. Exclusion manifests in a variety of different ways, from simply ignoring people to perpetuating stereotypes and biases as well as limited access to resources and support. Exclusion results in isolation, alienation, mental health and well-being distress, and diminished academic and professional success.
- Harassment: This is characterized by unwanted, intimidating, or persistent behavior that often looks like stalking, threats of violence, and assault. Harassment can also look like direct bullying, cyberbullying, stalking, and sexual harassment. These offensive behaviors cultivate cultures of fear and trauma and can make entire groups of people, such as women and students with disabilities, feel unsafe.
- Gaslighting: This is a form of emotional abuse based on power, and typically manifests as someone trying to make someone else doubt their own beliefs, experiences, or perception of reality. This is psychological violence that often sounds like downplaying or outright denying the experiences of underrepresented people, blaming people for their struggles (victim blaming), stonewalling, and simply invalidating their feelings, concerns, and advocacy. Gaslighting results in confusion, self-doubt, and psychological distress.
- Violence: Any harm inflicted on another individual or group is violence, and in graduate school, this can be physical, verbal, or psychological. The most common forms of violence in graduate school are bullying, threats, harassment, and assault. Violence creates cultures of fear, hostility, and trauma, which limit opportunities for growth and development in graduate school.
A note to the reader: We want to acknowledge that the three stories provided in the following sections are all from the lens of neurodivergence. Although this is not strictly meant as a guide about discrimination of people with neurodivergence, we also want to acknowledge that many similar experiences happen across all marginalized groups. Our writer for this piece has found that neurodivergence and people with disabilities are often left out of the discrimination conversation. Because of this we felt that this was a good opportunity to share their stories here. It’s important to emphasize that all marginalized groups can experience discrimination and each individual story is unique and valid.
Microaggression: A Personal Story
To illustrate what discrimination looks like, we spoke with Natalie Drozda, PhD, a college professor who experienced microaggressions while pursuing her doctoral degree. Natalie, who is neurodivergent, says these experiences were a continuation of things she’s experienced her entire life. Natalie did not officially report the microaggressions she experienced for fear of retaliation, but she told mentors she trusted, who supported her and helped her complete graduate school.
There are subtle and not-so-subtle forms of microaggressions that I have experienced. But I would hesitate to call them “micro,” as they never felt small.
I experienced a general vibe of unbelonging, people talking over me, taking my ideas as their own in discussions, outright stealing my work, being gaslit, seeing other people with majority identities invited to the table and receive opportunities they did not merit while I would be ignored if I asked for them, etc.
I fit into multiple categories under the neurodivergent umbrella. You’d think being in a helping profession/field would make those specific higher education spaces more welcoming. I thought so. But my structured way of thinking, and my need for explicit instructions and details, is sometimes seen as an annoyance. I am not trying to be difficult when I ask for clarification. But my mind focuses on details and sometimes misses the larger (more obvious to others) picture.
I recall a specific instance in which I shared my ideas about a problem, and the energy within the group shifted. I knew what was coming: I have been called “weird” and “dumb” throughout my life in different contexts, but to hear it in a space I hoped would be “safe enough” devasted me. When people described my ideas this way, they often played their words off as a joke. I have been told I am too sensitive, but when you are consistently made fun of for the way you think and navigate a world that isn’t set up for you, it can get quite tiresome.
Thankfully, I had stellar faculty mentors. Though I never officially reported any incidents for fear of worsening or further complicating my life, I received invaluable support from my mentors surrounding some of these situations. I probably would have left academia altogether if not for those select few I am still in contact with today.
But my PhD journey would have been better if faculty had made more of an effort to get to know me. I was so used to being misunderstood up to this point that I didn’t feel it was my responsibility to correct misperceptions if others aren’t willing to put in any effort. If some faculty would have facilitated group work or conversations to help me feel included, that might have helped. Sometimes I think it’s a miracle I made it through at all. There were so many times I thought about dropping out.
These thoughts of dropping out were fueled not only by microaggressions, but also simply by the fact that many higher education spaces are just not conducive to learning for neurodivergent people. For example, I was often overstimulated (though I didn’t realize it at the time), which made everything (yes, dealing with microaggressions) more difficult, leading to burnout.
I don’t want to paint a skewed picture of complete doom and gloom, though. I made a few lovely friends throughout my undergraduate studies and grad school years. Not surprisingly, my best friends also happen to be neurodivergent.
A Story About Exclusion in Grad School
In the following story, you’ll hear issues that commonly arise from students who are disabled — their program was inaccessible, and accommodations were not readily available. Nicole, who is autistic, did all the right things: she asked for accommodations and advocated for herself, but because of the school’s strict adherence to protocols, they did not help her. So, she created her own workarounds, resulting in extra labor and ultimately burnout.
In graduate school, I had a lot of challenges with understanding assignments. All assignments were released as modules — packets of information — and since this program took place mostly online, I wasn’t in the classroom to ask questions. I had to read the modules, then complete an assignment related to them. I needed to ask clarifying questions, so I contacted my academic advisor to request disability accommodations.
For a number of reasons, I wasn’t able to get the accommodations I needed. I ended up creating a ton of workarounds, doing extra work just to keep up. At the time, I had a high level of perfectionism that made things difficult. I poured all my energy into earning As.
Since I didn’t get any support, I ended up doing more work than I needed to do to get A-level work, which resulted in burnout. If I knew I could have earned an A by writing five fewer pages, for example, I would not have burned out.
My biggest challenge, however, was not with coursework. I struggled most when working with the department that helps students pursue employment. Interviews and resume writing were major challenges of mine. But support was nonexistent. Eventually I received therapy from a nonprofit, state-funded organization, which was proactive at offering help and solutions. This is the type of help that I needed from my graduate school.
In general, I would have had a better learning experience if there was more emotional intelligence and areas of support where I struggled. Unfortunately, the way my program was set up, I had to know what to ask for to get help. I would have also appreciated more clarity on how to understand their modules.
A multimodal learning environment would have enabled me. Rather than just learning by reading and writing, if my program had implemented different ways to learn such as videos, coursework would have been more accessible. The assignments would have been more accessible had they been written in plain English as well.
What Harassment Can Look Like in Grad School
Matthew’s story discusses the injustice he faced as a PhD student with disabilities spans several years and multiple incidents. The story below is just one portion of his experience, which is still ongoing legally. While he advocated for himself and even eventually contacted a lawyer, his experience was that his professors continued to mistreat him — judging and correcting his autistic behavior and controlling nearly every aspect of his educational experience.
There is a long history of incidents that occurred from when I first entered the program more than a decade ago to today. I’ll just focus on the events that occurred after my dissertation adviser, died in mid-2018. By that time, I had a GPA of 3.8 and had passed my comprehensive exams, so I only had to write my dissertation. It is standard among graduate schools for graduate students to pick their own dissertation advisers. But when my advisor died, I was told that I had to work with a professor who I did not know, and whose specialty was not related to mine.
The day I met this professor, he yelled at me for not making eye contact and not emoting, claiming that this was somehow disrespectful and inappropriate. He also refused to answer any of my questions about my academic future. I was given strict orders not to try to find an adviser on my own, but that he would find one for me, even though students are supposed to pick their own advisers. It seemed apparent that this professor was treating me as a problem student because he disliked my autistic traits, and that he was going to harm my academic career. Whenever I went to the newly-hired disability services head and asked for help, I was told that it was her job to help me “properly socialize” with neurotypicals, and scolded me when I characterized this view as ableist.
She repeatedly met with the professor without me present, despite my insisting on being there (disability activists have an expression: “Never about us without us.”), and would then either side with him or do very little to help me.
Finally, after several months of this, I was given two choices:
- Find another professor at who would agree to be my advisor, either with my current topic or a new one (although I soon found that during the months when I had been denied the right to look for advisors, word had somehow spread among the faculty that no one was to agree to be my adviser without running it by the professor.)
Transfer to another school, which I found was impossible without losing credit for most of the work I had already done.
The university’s attorney created a document called the “Communications Protocol” that effectively faults me for my autistic traits, forces me to work with three professors who I do not want, and to work under harsh academic conditions that differ from how my neurotypical peers worked. I was told if I did not sign the document, I’d be removed from the program. Throughout all of this, the university pressured me to sacrifice years of work and drop out of the program, agreeing to a lifetime of crippling debt for a degree they clearly did not want me to earn.
Creating Safe and Inclusive Spaces in Graduate School
While diversity and equity are necessary considerations for creating inclusive academic spaces, they’re simply not enough. It is crucial that everyone also feels a sense of belonging, which is an important piece of inclusion that is often neglected.
Everyone deserves to feel that they have a place in higher education. Creating inclusive spaces requires honesty and integrity from every member of each institution — from students to instructors and even administrators and other supporting staff. In the following section, we’ll share concrete ways students and instructors can work to create more inclusive spaces in academia.
Use Inclusive Language
Inclusive speakers learn what language certain groups prefer and avoid speaking for people in generalized, euphemistic terms. Never make assumptions about anyone, as you can’t know a person’s ethnicity, religion, neurotype, or gender identity just by looking at them.
Inclusive language also means honoring pronouns, no matter what someone looks like, and avoiding using slang and idioms, unless you are willing to explain them. Colloquial terms can alienate non-native speakers, older adults, and neurodivergent people.
To create inclusive graduate classrooms, teachers and students have a responsibility to set and follow clear expectations for respectful communication. This means never making assumptions about other people, who they are, where they’re from, what they can and can’t do, or what they should and shouldn’t like.
Inclusive students and teachers strive to learn each other’s names, model active listening, and address misconduct — fostering inclusive environments where everyone can feel a sense of belonging and present authentically.
Educate Yourself Be an Effective Ally
Take time to listen to and learn about the experience and perspectives of underrepresented groups. Also seek out resources to learn their histories and challenges. You can attend workshops, seminars, or read relevant articles and books.
Underrepresented groups include people who are negatively racialized, disabled and neurodivergent people, those who identify as LGBTQIA+, people who live in poverty, senior citizens, incarcerated people, and those who struggle with addiction such as gambling or substance misuse.
Get to Know Students Who Are Different from You
A great way to learn about students from marginalized backgrounds is to engage in meaningful conversations with people from these communities. Listen and learn and build relationships with a broad range of people, rather than just people who are similar to you.
When you’re speaking with someone, whether or not they seem different from you, examine your biases, avoid treating them in ways that are based on generalizations or stereotypes, and speak up when you witness or hear about discrimination.
Cultural differences tend to lead to communication challenges. You can prevent communication breakdowns and discrimination by proactively learning about the cultural backgrounds of the people who are around you.
We’re all human, which means we’re uniquely different. These differences underscore why it’s important to ask people their identities before making assumptions. So, avoid assuming someone’s gender, ethnicity, ability, and race. While everyone comes from an ethnic group of some kind, there are people who do not identify with race or gender.
Address Discrimination Immediately
You can create inclusive learning environments by addressing discrimination when it is appropriate to do so. If you feel safe enough, you can simply tell the person why their behavior is inappropriate, what effect they can have on another person, and on the overall learning environment.
People are likely to listen if you’re honest and specific and when you clearly outline the consequences of discrimination. Unchecked discrimination can spread, creating a culture of hostility and exclusion.
Validate Student Experiences
Active listening is an inclusive skill that helps validate other peoples’ experiences. Active listeners listen to understand rather than to respond.
Keep in mind that validation is not necessarily the same as agreeing with someone; instead, it is about acknowledging their feelings, thoughts, or experiences. Validation can simply involve using reflective language to acknowledge their observation, like “I hear you saying…” or “So if I’m understanding correctly, you feel…”
Prejudice and Discrimination Prevention Resources
As graduate students and instructors, you have a unique opportunity to create inclusive spaces in your learning communities. To help you prevent prejudice and discrimination, we’ve compiled a list of 10 resources that will help you learn and grow into an effective ally in creating fair, equitable learning environments.
- A Framework for Advancing Anti-Racism Strategy on Campus: This 35-page report, created by the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, offers recommendations to promote anti-racism in policies, institutional structure, academic equity, student success, campus culture, and more.
- Brave Ideas for Social Change: Housed at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work, this podcast features conversations on emerging research, policy, and practice innovations that promote social change.
- Breaking the Prejudice Habit: Created by students at Ball State University, this is a collection of tools like videos, podcasts, and group activities designed to teach multicultural competence, promoting social change.
- Equity in Science by Julie R. Posselt: Julie R. Posselt, Associate Professor of Higher Education at the University of Southern California, details the gender and racial inequalities that persist in labs, departments, and programs of STEM disciplines in her 2020 book on representation, culture, and the dynamics of change in graduate education.
- National Association of Graduate-Professional Students: This student-led organization advocates for graduate students and promotes diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in higher education.
- Picture a Scientist: This film, screened at academic institutions, includes conversations with social scientists, psychologists, and neuroscientists who offer new perspectives on how to make science a more diverse, equitable field for everyone.
- Proud and Prepared: A document of over 50 pages, Proud and Prepared is a guide created by the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS) that helps LGBTQIA+ students navigate graduate training.
- Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education: These reports from the American Council on Education provide current data on race and ethnicity statistics in higher education.
- Unconscious Bias Course: This asynchronous course from the National Research Mentoring Network consists of 5 modules on bias, microaggressions, and a solutions toolkit that helps you develop self-awareness.
- Understanding Interventions: This is a collection of tools like workshops, symposia, and resources that aim to broaden participation of underrepresented group in science and science careers.
Interview with a Diversity and Inclusion Expert
Ludmila N. Praslova, PhD, SHRM-SCP, is a professor at Vanguard University’s Graduate Program in Industrial-Organizational Psychology. She is passionate about helping organizations create cultures where people of all backgrounds understand each other and thrive. She writes for Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, Psychology Today, and the SHRM blog and serves as the editor of the upcoming book, “Evidence-Based Organizational Practices for Diversity, Inclusion, Belonging and Equity” (Cambridge Scholars).
What should someone do if they witness discrimination? Offer support or report it?
“Should” is a very strong word. It’s easy to “should” other people. Ideally, yes, they would both support the target AND report. Reporting, however, is a difficult and personal decision.
If this is a specific case involving one person, the target may or may not want it. The target may or may not support it. The fight could be more than the target or witnesses’ mental health at the time could handle.
In absolute terms, yes, one should both report and support, but supporting may also mean asking the target how they want to proceed. But if you uncovered a pattern, (e.g., women are always held back in someone’s lab and you have statistics to prove it), the decision to report is a little clearer.
What are the most effective ways to prevent discrimination in graduate school?
As with any bad behavior, the best way to prevent it is to create highly transparent systems that discourage it.
What are some common mistakes allies and advocates make, and how can well-meaning people avoid making them?
Allies and advocates often focus on the “bad person.” Yes, some behaviors can be egregious and should be addressed. But just addressing the person is rarely enough. The interview source provided a link to this article she wrote for Harvard Business Review to provide further insight/context.
What are accessible and effective ways to become an advocate for underrepresented individuals in graduate school?
Get to know marginalized individuals and find out what would be most helpful for them. Support, don’t patronize, and never assume. Too often, “activism” means speaking over while people would rather have you “pass on the mic.”
Other than that, organizing educational events like lunch-and-learns with speakers from various backgrounds (especially speakers suggested by the community), suggesting articles of books, or opening spaces for discussion groups can be an illuminating start.
What do people most often get wrong about creating safe and inclusive spaces in graduate schools?
Graduate schools can be terrifying places — especially highly competitive, cut-throat programs where students are pitted in competition against each other. In this type of program, the overall competition pressure may need to be addressed before anyone can be safe.
If the entire program is built on management by fear (of failure, of not moving on), nobody is safe. Nobody can be authentic. Safety of those with fewer resources could be a place to start, but you can’t just carve out pockets of safety when the overall culture is a battleground.
What makes someone an ally? Is intent enough or is action required?
I think there are as many ways to be an ally as there are humans. You can’t expect an extreme introvert to act in the same way as an extreme extrovert, just as you can’t expect someone with means to be an ally in the same way as someone who’s trying to make ends meet.
Letting people know you are there for them (and meaning it) is as valid as donating money to causes (and NOT bragging about it) or sharing social media posts — whatever the person does with the right intent. Some people are just going to judge, but if you worry whether you are a hypocrite, you are probably not a hypocrite.