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Vicarious trauma: a guide for doctoral students

This guide highlights the serious issue of how researchers can be adversely affected by the nature of their research

Vicarious Trauma and what to look out for

Vicarious or Secondary Trauma (and associated conditions) occurs when individuals are adversely affected when exposed indirectly to the trauma experienced by others. Examples might include interviewing witnesses or victim-survivors of traumatic experiences, investigating people undergoing serious health conditions, or analysing secondary data analysis on these or other related issues (with no direct contact with victim-survivors).

This indirect exposure can produce a wide variety of symptoms of distress that fall on a continuum of mild to extremely severe. These may be emotional, physical, behavioural, cognitive, spiritual or interpersonal effects.

As a researcher it is important that you are aware of the symptoms – not only for yourself, but also should colleagues start to exhibit symptoms.

The support available

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms associated with Vicarious Trauma or you are worried about a friend or colleague, please do contact our Wellbeing Team who will be able to advise you about how they can best support you. You may also wish to approach the Wellbeing Team when planning research activities, to discuss various preventative approaches or, in cases where there might be a severe risk of serious Vicarious Trauma, you may need them to identify potential clinical psychologist support (noting that this will require funding).

If you need somebody to talk to more urgently then call our 24 hour Be Well, Talk Now service or contact the Samaritans on 116123. Alternatively do contact your GP.

At certain times throughout the year the Wellbeing Service will run a workshop on Vicarious Trauma, which will introduce you to what it is and, more importantly, how to reduce the risk of this developing. It will include how to resource and insulate yourself when working with traumatic material or working within potentially traumatic situations. Details of the course will be in DoctoralSkills and we will promote through departments nearer the time.

How to prepare for and mitigate the risk of Vicarious Trauma

Where the nature of the research indicates that VT may be an issue, it is crucially important that doctoral students and supervisors:

  • identify the issues before starting the research. Ideally issues will have been identified during the admissions process, with discussions during recruitment. See the University’s Risk Assessments (which now include stress and mental health risks)
  • determine how detrimental effects can be minimised through the design of the project
  • ensure that appropriate support is provided, and that this is sufficiently funded
  • ensure regular monitoring is in place throughout the studies to continually review preventative and supportive approaches, as well as identifying any effects on the researcher, recognising that the nature of the support may vary with the activities through the student journey
  • also be aware that these issues might arise later in a project where the potential for vicarious trauma had not been previously identified – so it’s important to be aware of the symptoms.

These reviews should, as a minimum, be aligned with:

  • Candidature, including:

    • methodological design to minimise risks of vicarious trauma
    • ethical aspects of the research
    • composition of the supervision team – at the very least all members of the supervisory team needs to be aware of the risks and therefore the need to support the student, there may need to be someone appointed specifically to support the student’s welfare/pastoral support
    • in some cases it may be necessary to appoint a Clinical Psychologist to focus solely on the psychological support to the student
  • regular meetings with the supervisory team (with notes being taken to record recommendations)

  • six-monthly Progress Reports

  • Confirmation (for PhD students) and the Final viva voce, consideration should also be given as to the event itself e.g. need for breaks when discussing research findings

  • final review of the support provided over the years and looking for ways to develop the support in the future for the next generation of students.

Further reading

Further sources of support include:

Case study one

In her early 40s, having worked as a researcher looking at patients’ experiences of cancer for 20 years, Alice found herself struggling with a difficult project. Responsible for managing staff, as well as conducting difficult and upsetting interviews, Alice found herself struggling to cope. She started to drink more at the weekends to block out how she was feeling, and felt overwhelmed by the sadness and anger she was processing.

Despite being in a supportive team, having a manager who understood the potential impacts of conducting research in this area, and changing her work-life balance as ways to cope, she ended up one morning at the end of the project unable to get out of bed. Alice was signed off sick by her GP for three weeks.

During those three weeks Alice began a daily routine of getting up and going out for a walk – whatever she was feeling. She started to see a private counsellor for counselling and clinical supervision, at first on a weekly basis. After a few months Alice was seeing the clinical counsellor (self-funded) on a monthly basis and continues to do so. She has been able to continue to work in her research field.

Case study two

Imogen, a student in her 30s, was undertaking a PhD exploring the experiences of people who provide support to survivors of domestic violence and abuse. Part of Imogen’s motivation for undertaking the PhD was that she herself had recently supported someone in this situation. She was also aware that a family member had been in an abusive relationship in the past.

From the start of the PhD, Imogen kept a journal about the experience of conducting the project and, for the first year, felt reasonably OK. At the point where Imogen was developing findings from a literature review, in parallel with conducting face-to-face interviews, she felt less OK. There were days when she felt like all the trauma she’d read about, and had heard about during the interviews, was waiting for her in her office. Imogen found it harder and harder to go into her office, she began to distance herself from her friends, and felt tearful a lot. It was like the world had become a very dark and unsafe place.

After trying to cope on her own for a while, Imogen decided to speak about this with her supervisors. Imogen had good supervisors - they reassured her that these were not unusual responses, decided to ‘check in’ with her more frequently, helped her to think about coping strategies, and recommended clinical supervision.

From then on, Imogen undertook clinical supervision in-person every two months, with the option to access telephone support more frequently if needed. Several of the face-to-face interviews that Imogen conducted contained very distressing content and, after hearing one particularly horrific account, her clinical supervisor suggested that Imogen access some more intensive support by engaging with the university’s student counselling service. Imogen had six counselling sessions, and subsequently resumed regular clinical supervision for the remainder of her PhD.

Imogen has now worked in this research field for 10+ years and continues to regularly access clinical supervision.

Case study three

Peter is a PhD student looking at mental health issues in vulnerable populations. He is in his third year and analysing/writing up the findings from his research. Peter has an ok relationship with his supervisors but they are very goal-orientated and he doesn’t feel comfortable talking to them about how the data analysis is making him feel.

He has become very down but is worried that if he talks to his supervisors about how he is feeling they might overlook him should a research post become available. He feels like everyone else is able to just get on with things, yet he is increasingly finding it difficult to concentrate on his work, has distanced himself from his friends, and avoids work get togethers. Peter has invested so much in his career so far that the prospect of not completing the PhD is making him anxious.


If you have any questions, please contact us.

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