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Your Guide to Finding and Navigating a Top LGBTQ-Friendly PhD

An LGBT-friendly PhD program can provide you the environment you need not just to survive your graduate degree, but to thrive in it. Keep reading to learn more.

Written By

Taylor Cromwell

Last updated

Feb 08, 2024

Choosing a PhD program is not a decision you should make lightly — your PhD program can determine not only the next 5+ years of your life, but your professional trajectory. You’re likely already weighing factors like research opportunities, faculty expertise, tuition cost and more, but it’s important that you not neglect the services schools offer to support LGBTQ+ students and causes. Finding a program that supports and celebrates your identity is important for every student, particularly as a member or ally of the LGBTQ+ community.

The American Psychological Association indicates that LGBTQ-friendly doctoral programs are characterized primarily by faculty whose values include a genuine celebration of diversity and to whom it would not occur to be anything less than inclusive in their language and interactions. This fosters an environment that is open, supportive, and affirming for all students.

In this article, we’ll highlight several LGBTQ-friendly schools with strong graduate programs, share tips for finding a supportive school, explore the benefits of online PhD programs for LGBTQ+ students, and delve into the areas of study that best support the LGBTQ+ community. Keep reading to get started.

Spotlighting LGBTQ-Friendly Schools

Choosing the right PhD program is crucial to both your academic success and personal wellbeing. An LGBTQ-friendly school is characterized not only by its commitment to diversity but also by the resources and policies in place to promote it. To help get you started on your search, we’ve highlighted two LGBTQ-friendly schools that actively promote a welcoming environment, partner with LGBTQ+ organizations, and enforce non-discriminatory policies. Kick start your search for the right program below.

University of Oregon 

The University of Oregon is another top school with robust support for LGBTQ+ students, including resource navigation, education, community building, and event implementation. Whether you have questions about your education, need help with food, housing insecurity, or healthcare, the support services team is there to help you navigate your options.

The university also makes other intentional efforts to create an equitable and accessible environment for students. You’ll find all-gender restrooms available, medical and mental health resources, gender-expansive housing options, and help with gender marker and document changes.

Graduate programs at the University of Oregon are designed to accommodate a variety of needs, with a curricula that encourage exploration and critical thinking. The university’s accreditation status ensures a high standard of academic excellence, and the commitment to providing a safe and inclusive space for all students sets it apart. Additionally, the school offers scholarships to students through LGBTESS — so be sure to explore your financial options.

University of Pennsylvania

Known for its academic prestige, the University of Pennsylvania has long been committed to creating an inclusive and supportive environment for LGBTQ+ students. The school prioritizes the wellbeing of students from all backgrounds.

The LGBT Center alone has served the Penn community for over four decades, providing a welcoming space and invaluable resources for LGBTQ students. The center helps scholars stay at the cutting edge of LGBTQ+ research and provides students an introduction to queer literature and culture through access to modern, relevant, and engaging materials.

Graduate students benefit from curricula that encourage interdisciplinary collaboration and critical inquiry, preparing you for leadership roles in various fields. The University of Pennsylvania is an ideal choice for those seeking a PhD program that values academic excellence within a supportive and inclusive community.

Finding an LGBTQ-Friendly PhD: Hallmarks of a Supportive Program

Every program that you come across will vary slightly, however, there are a few common qualities you should look for in schools that claim to prioritize an LGBTQ-friendly environment. These features distinguish programs truly committed to inclusivity from others. Whether you identify with the community or want to be a supportive ally, here’s what to look for when comparing programs.

Affinity Groups and Organizations 

Many LGBTQ-friendly PhD programs actively foster a sense of community through dedicated affinity groups and organizations, such as USC’s LGBTQ+ Student Center. Through the Student Center, the school offers specialized groups like Ace/Aro Space, Beyond the Binary, Bi+ Spaces and more.

These groups provide a platform for networking, mentorship, and shared experiences, creating a supportive community within the academic landscape. Look for programs that prioritize the establishment and promotion of these groups, indicating a commitment to creating a sense of belonging for all students.

Explicit Non-Discrimination Policies

A truly LGBTQ-friendly PhD program goes beyond statements and implements explicit non-discrimination policies

These policies should be comprehensive and robust, ensuring that the protection of LGBTQ+ individuals is woven into the fabric of the academic institution. Penn’s Diversity and Inclusion policy is a great example of this. The school explicitly outlines its stance on anti-retaliation, student conduct, equal opportunity, affirmative action, and much more.

Evaluate program handbooks, websites, and official documentation to ensure that non-discrimination is more than just a formality but a genuine commitment to fostering an inclusive environment.

Inclusive Language and Communication

Inclusive language plays an important role in creating an environment where everyone feels acknowledged and respected. A supportive program ensures that inclusive language is not just a box to check but a consistent practice in all communication channels. 

Whether in school-wide emails, program websites, professors’ communications, or syllabi, the use of language that recognizes and respects diverse identities is indicative of a commitment to inclusivity. This could include using gender-neutral language when discussing hypothetical examples to create a welcoming atmosphere.

Representation in Leadership and Faculty

A supportive PhD environment actively seeks representation of LGBTQ+ individuals in leadership roles and among faculty members. A diverse faculty not only brings varied perspectives to the academic discourse but also serves as role models for aspiring researchers. Evaluate the program’s leadership structure and faculty composition to gauge its commitment to diversity and representation.

Training on LGBTQ+ Issues 

A program should commit to inclusivity on an ongoing basis through training on LGBTQ+ issues. This includes training for faculty, staff, and students to raise awareness, foster understanding, and address potential challenges. Look for programs that prioritize professional development and education on LGBTQ+ matters, as this demonstrates a proactive approach to creating and maintaining a safe and supportive academic environment.

Benefits of an Online PhD for LGBTQ+ Students

Students of all backgrounds and identities can benefit from the flexibility and affordability of an online PhD, but these programs often offer so much more for LGBTQ+ students, including accessible resources, empowering learning environments, safety and privacy, and more. Read through this section for a closer look at how digital learning environments can be conducive to LGBTQ+ students’ academic success and personal wellbeing. 

Easily Accessible LGBTQ+ Resources

Online programs offer a wealth of easily accessible resources for LGBTQ+ students. Online mentorship programs, such as the LGBTQ+ Scholars Network, provide valuable guidance to students and foster a sense of community regardless of their physical location.

At Dallas College, students can find help with their essential needs, wellness and safety, academic support, and more. See the University of Oregon’s resource page to see a great example of other resources a quality program can provide you access to, from gender-inclusive housing to LGBTQIA protectionsgender affirming support, and more.

Empowering Learning Environments

Discriminatory speech is highly moderated in online forums. These forums also provide a sense of anonymity that proves empowering for many LGBTQ+ students who many otherwise hesitate to express their identity. 

Platforms like Blackboard and Canvas prioritize inclusive discussions, fostering an environment where diverse perspectives are respected. For instance, LGBTQ+-focused discussion groups create spaces for open dialogue, encouraging students to explore their identity comfortably within the virtual academic community.

Global Perspective 

Online PhD programs provide a unique opportunity for LGBTQ+ students to gain a global perspective. 

Over the course of your degree, you’ll likely interact with peers and faculty from diverse geographic locations, which will broaden your cultural understanding. Conferences, such as the International LGBTQ+ Leaders Conference, enable students to present their research to a global audience, fostering a sense of international collaboration. This exposure encourages a comprehensive and inclusive approach to research, preparing you to contribute meaningfully on an international scale.

Safety & Privacy

It’s essential that you feel safe and supported during your studies. Inclusive schools recognize the unique concerns LGBTQ+ community face and implement measures to create and maintain secure virtual spaces. Look for programs that lay out specific safety measures; in particular, you can look for online nondiscrimination policies. These policies should explicitly address LGBTQ+ inclusion and prohibit any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and expression. 

Areas of Study to Support LGBTQ+ Community

Pursuing an advanced degree can have an immense impact not only on your depth and breadth of knowledge in your field, but on your ability to support the LGBTQ+ community. From gender & sexuality studies to social work, your PhD can offer an avenue for meaningful engagement during your studies and beyond. In this section we’ll explore how you can give back as a student and professional alike.

Gender & Sexuality Studies

A Gender & Sexuality Studies degree can empower you to become one of tomorrow’s community leaders with a deep understanding of the historical, social, and cultural dimensions of LGBTQ+ issues. The meticulous research you’ll conduct as a PhD student can prepare you to contribute valuable insights to the evolving landscape of this field, challenging stereotypes and fostering inclusivity.

For example, you could explore the role of queer literature in shaping cultural perceptions. By interrogating topics like intersectionality, queer theory, and LGBTQ+ history, you can develop the knowledge and skills necessary to advocate for positive change within academia and beyond.

Human Rights Studies

Pursuing a doctorate in Human Rights provides a comprehensive framework through which you can address LGBTQ+ rights globally, nationally, and locally.

In-depth research opportunities in this field can shed light on the unique challenges faced by the queer community in different regions, fostering a more nuanced and effective approach to human rights advocacy. For example, you could study the legal landscape for LGBTQ+ rights in countries with restrictive policies, or research the impact of international advocacy efforts on local communities. If you’re interested in engaging in policy analysis and advocacy strategies to promote the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights on a broader scale, this could be a great path for you.

Psychology & Counseling

By getting an advanced degree in Psychology & Counseling, you can play a pivotal role in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of the LGBTQ+ community. At Palo Alto University, for example, you can study pursue an emphasis in LGBTQ Psychology as part of the Clinical Psychology Program.

Research in this field can focus on the psychological effects of discrimination, identity development, and the efficacy of therapeutic interventions. For instance, you could explore the mental health disparities among LGBTQ+ youth or research the effectiveness of affirmative therapy approaches. 

By pursuing an advanced degree in psychology, you can become an advocate for LGBTQ+ mental health, working to reduce stigma and improve access to inclusive and affirming services.

Public Health

Public Health is a worthwhile area of study for those seeking to make impactful contributions to the wellbeing of the LGBTQ+ community. 

By specializing in Public Health, you can address the unique health disparities faced by LGBTQ+ individuals, ranging from access to culturally competent healthcare to tackling higher rates of mental health issues. Research within this field can focus on developing targeted interventions for issues such as HIV/AIDS prevention, substance abuse, and comprehensive sexual health education. 

Public Health professionals can advocate for inclusive healthcare policies, ensuring that all individuals receive equitable and affirming healthcare services. With a doctorate in Public Health you can play a key role in shaping healthier and more supportive environments for the LGBTQ+ community.

Public Policy

If you’re passionate about enacting systemic change, pursuing a graduate degree in Public Policy could be a great option for you. 

Research in this field can explore legislative gaps, discriminatory practices, and policy reforms necessary to promote LGBTQ+ equality. A concrete example might involve analyzing the impact of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation on mental health outcomes or researching the efficacy of policies supporting LGBTQ+ youth in educational settings. By engaging with policy-making processes, you can contribute to the development of inclusive laws and regulations that protect and uplift the LGBTQ+ community.

Social Work

Earning your PhD in social work equips you to take a hands-on approach to making a positive impact on the lives of LGBTQ+ individuals. Through research and practical experiences, you can address issues such as homelessness, discrimination, and family dynamics. For example, you could explore the factors behind the disproportionately high rates of homelessness among LGBTQ+ youth.

Advanced degrees in social work empower individuals to become advocates, counselors, and change agents, working directly with the community to foster resilience and empowerment. This not only transforms the lives of those directly involved but also contributes to the broader goal of building a more compassionate and equitable society for everyone.