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Funded PhD Opportunity

Sexual Consent and Unwanted Sexual Experiences: Perceptions, Understanding and Mental Health Impacts among University Students

Subject: Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience


The majority of UK university students will have a positive experience at university, both academically and in terms of the wider university experience 1. That said, unwanted sexual experiences (USE) including sexual harassment, attempted rape and rape are prevalent within wider society and much like many social issues, universities are affected by these same problems.

The pervasiveness of unwanted sexual experiences (USE) among university students has been well documented in the United States2; less is known or understood with regards to such experiences among students studying at UK universities 3.  Research which has addressed USE among universities students continue to demonstrate the links between such experiences and significant adverse outcomes including various forms of psychological distress (e.g. post traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety) 4.

Whilst empirical evidence relating to the nature, rate and frequency of USE as well as insight into the impacts of such experiences is sparse within the UK context, university policies and programs to prevent and respond to unwanted sexual incidents within university settings are beginning to emerge 1.  Such policies and programs run the risk of being tokenistic without clear research evidence on the prevalence and risk correlates of victimization and perpetration, as well as insight into university student’s perceptions and understanding of the issue. Additionally, recent social and student activist movements across the globe have highlighted more so than ever issues associated with USE including the importance of understanding sexual consent 5.  Such an understanding is important for both males and females regardless or sexual orientation.

This PhD will address the current evidence gap by implementing a mixed methods study which will include

i) completion of a high quality systematic review of the literature

ii) design and implementation of a large scale online survey measuring rates of university students USE, known mental health correlates and knowledge, attitudes and beliefs about USE and sexual consent and

iii) design and implementation of focus groups with university students in order to capture a more contextual understanding of university students knowledge, attitudes and beliefs about USE and sexual consent.

It is envisaged that the current project will also include an advisory board comprised of key stakeholders, including university, statutory voluntary sector representatives from across Northern Ireland tasked with responding to incidents of USE in order to ensure that the research is relevant, useful, and impactful.

1.Universities, U. K. (2016). Changing the culture: Report of the Universities UK Taskforce examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students. London: UUK.

2.Fisher, B.S., Daigle, L.E., & Cullen, F.T. (2010). Unsafe in the ivory tower: The sexual victimization of college women. Sage: Los Angeles.

3.National Union of Students (2010). Hidden marks: A study of women students’ experiences of harassment, stalking, violence and sexual assault. National Union of Students:  London, England. Retrieved August 7, 2018 from

4.Campbell, R., Dworkin, E., & Cabral, G. (2009). An ecological model of the impact of sexual assault on women’s mental health. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 10, 225-246. doi: 10.1177/1524838009334456

5.Heldman, C., Ackerman, A. R., & Breckenridge-Jackson, I. (2018). The New Campus Anti-Rape Movement: Internet Activism and Social Justice. Lexington Books.

Essential criteria

  • Upper Second Class Honours (2:1) Degree or equivalent from a UK institution (or overseas award deemed to be equivalent via UK NARIC)
  • Experience using research methods or other approaches relevant to the subject domain
  • Sound understanding of subject area as evidenced by a comprehensive research proposal
  • A comprehensive and articulate personal statement

Desirable Criteria

If the University receives a large number of applicants for the project, the following desirable criteria may be applied to shortlist applicants for interview.

  • Masters at 65%
  • Experience using research methods or other approaches relevant to the subject domain
  • Sound understanding of subject area as evidenced by a comprehensive research proposal


    Vice Chancellors Research Scholarships (VCRS)

    The scholarships will cover tuition fees and a maintenance award of £14,777 per annum for three years (subject to satisfactory academic performance). Applications are invited from UK, European Union and overseas students.


    The scholarship will cover tuition fees at the Home rate and a maintenance allowance of £ 14,777 per annum for three years. EU applicants will only be eligible for the fees component of the studentship (no maintenance award is provided).  For Non EU nationals the candidate must be "settled" in the UK.

Institute of Mental Health

Other information

The Doctoral College at Ulster University


Completing the MRes provided me with a lot of different skills, particularly in research methods and lab skills.

Michelle Clements Clements - MRes - Life and Health Sciences

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Key dates

Submission deadline
Monday 18 February 2019

Interview Date
11 to 29 March 2019


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Coleraine campus

Coleraine campus
Our coastal and riverside campus focussing on science and health

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