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For information on how to apply for postgraduate study in the Department of Psychology for 2022-23, please view our webpages

For further information about any of the projects listed below, please contact the supervisor directly. Applicants are welcome to approach supervisors with their own ideas - the list below is not exclusive and does not include all supervisors.

Pinsent Darwin Funding


The Pinsent Darwin - SBS DTP PhD Studentship 2023 will support a student carrying out a research project centred around Mental Health: addressing problems which may have a bearing on mental health, diseases, or disorders.  

The Award

A maintenance award for 4 years at the UKRI level (£17,668 in 2022); university fees; research consumables for 4 years (£18,000 in total).

You will also undertake a 3- month long Professional Internship for PhD students (PIPS) at some stage during your study and will participate in training and cohort-building events alongside other funded students.  

How to apply

Contact potential supervisors (by email) to discuss the possibility of carrying out PhD research under their supervision. Applicants are welcome to approach supervisors with their own ideas within the field of Mental Health or can contact a supervisor from the list below.

Applicants should submit an application by the 4 January 2023 to be considered for this funding. Please note, if you wish your application to also be considered for the main University funding round, the deadline is the 1 December 2022.

Supervisors: Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (Psychology) and Dr Eleanor Winpenny (MRC Epidemiology Unit)

Title: The impact of adolescent social development on diet and its links to mental health

Brief description

Adolescence, defined as 10-24 years, is a period of physiological and psychological development, when individuals gain independence and develop their self-identity. In addition, this is a critical period of vulnerability for mental health problems, with 75% of all mental health disorders first emerging before the age of 24.

Adolescence is the period of life during which most people move from family relationships towards stronger peer networks, gradually developing into an independent and autonomous adult. This developmental period is associated with changes in behaviour and decision making, including diet choice and eating behaviours. There is evidence that diet becomes less healthy during adolescence, which can lead to health risks, poorer academic performance and decreased mental health. At the same time, mental health can influence diet and eating behaviours. Given the bidirectional links between diet and mental health, it is important to understand the social and cognitive aspects of diet-related behaviours in adolescence and how these factors interact with mental health.

Previous studies that have investigated the social influences on diet in adolescence have primarily used epidemiological methods to investigate the relationships between social exposures and aspects of diet or eating behaviours. Analysis of dietary data from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey has shown that, among adolescents, junk food contributes a greater proportion of food consumed when eating with friends than when eating alone, with parents or with family.

Experimental research has demonstrated that adolescents show a heightened propensity for peer influence. For example, adolescents exhibit increased risky behaviour and increased prosocial behaviour when in the presence of their peers compared with when alone or with adults. There is a paucity of experimental research that measures peer influence on dietary choices in adolescents and directly links this to mental health outcomes. It is hypothesised that peers will have a significant impact on the diet and eating behaviours of adolescents and those with poorer diet quality will have poorer mental health outcomes. We will also investigate whether young people with poorer mental health are more likely to be influenced by others in terms of food choices.

By taking an experimental approach, as informed by psychological theory, this project will explore the interaction between adolescent social development and dietary choices and behaviours and how these interact and link to mental health. This will be integrated with traditional epidemiological methods using existing data to provide insights into the longer-term consequences of the social environment and cognition on diet behaviour and mental health and whether mental health moderates social influence on diet. The combination of these methods allows for deeper insight into how the social environmental and development of young people can influence mental health, through the modifiable risk factor of diet quality. Ultimately, this can help to inform strategies aiming to protect the physical and mental health of young people.

Explanation of what the successful candidate should expect to learn and do while conducting the project

The successful candidate should expect to learn how to conduct high quality experimental research with adolescent participants. This includes completing ethics applications, collecting data, designing experiments, recruiting and testing participants, pre-processing and analysing data using appropriate methods and software (e.g. R), as well as writing up papers for publication in peer review journals. They will be expected to programme behavioural tasks and questionnaires using appropriate software (e.g. PsychoPy, Qualtrics, Gorilla). They can expect to engage in public science communication at schools, such as giving talks as part of recruitment. The successful candidate will have the opportunity to collaborate with experts in the field and to attend and contribute to weekly lab meetings. They will be able to attend Departmental and University seminars and meetings and present at relevant conferences. They will receive training where necessary, including the core training modules (SSRMP) and lectures, as well as additional training on a need’s basis.

Supervisor - Professor Nicky Clayton -

Title: Mental Time Travel: An Investigation into the Narrative Architecture of Memory

Mental Time Travel is our ability to relive memories and imagine future scenarios. Recent research has revealed that memory does not merely exist to recall the past, but more so, that memory is a reconstructive and imaginative process that structures the prospective future. Researchers have also long observed that humans perform extensive ‘narrative sense making’ from spatiotemporal information to derive meaning. Thus, mental wandering through space, time, and into the minds of others (Theory of Mind) forms the basis of narrative storytelling. However, autobiographical memories (AM), which rely on both episodic and semantic memories, are especially prone to change, embellishment, or fabrication. As such, AM impairment has a well-documented link with numerous psychopathologies, most notably post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, many questions remain regarding narrative processing within the AM system and its implications in PTSD due to incomparable datasets and unclear concepts. This proposed research aims to more clearly elucidate how the narrative architecture of memory structures past and future thinking, particularly when making meaning of challenging or traumatic experiences, through a series of innovative study designs that utilize unconventional methodologies. The results of this research will hopefully yield important implications for improving PTSD interventions.

Supervisor - Professor Pasco Fearon -

The recent availability of genetic data in several large-scale longitudinal research studies has led to a resurgence of interest in the study of gene-environment interaction (GxE). The proposed PhD project aims to capitalise on the exciting opportunities this presents to explore GxE in mental health as it unfolds across development.  

The proposed research aims to establish whether genetic risk for depression/psychopathology moderates associations between environmental risk and depression/mental ill-health in adolescence. In collaboration with colleagues from the University of Oslo, the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at UCL, and the Child Study Centre at Yale University, the proposed work will draw on data from three key research studies: (1) The Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), (2) The Norwegian Mother, Father and Child Cohort Study (MoBa), and (3) The Early Growth and Development Study. 

In MCS, several environmental risks have been identified as predictors of mental ill-health in adolescence. In both boys and girls, being overweight, not getting along with peers, and being bullied, predicted high depression symptoms at age 14. In girls only, low family income, parent mental ill-health, and higher childhood cognitive scores predicted poorer mental health and lower wellbeing at age 14. This proposed project will test (in two longitudinal birth cohorts—MCS and MoBa) whether these associations are moderated by genetic risk for psychopathology. Genetic risk will be indexed using polygenic scores, which aggregate the cumulative effects of many genetic variants across the genome. Strong evidence requires triangulation of findings from different methods and samples. In light of this, the student will address the same research questions investigated in MCS and MoBa in the EGDS parent-offspring adoption study. Specifically, they will leverage the adoption design to examine whether associations between environmental risk and adoptee psychopathology are moderated by birth parent psychopathology (a proxy for genetic influences on adoptees). The student will also use longitudinal latent variable models to examine, in each of the three projects, the developmental trajectories of depression and emotional problems.

The student will be based at the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge. They will have the opportunity to collaborate with leading researchers in the UK, USA and Norway. The student will learn how to work with genotyped genetic data and create polygenic risk scores. They will also learn how to run longitudinal models, such as structural equation models and multilevel models. 

Supervisor - Professor Simone Schnall

Title: Exploring the mental health benefits of Cold Water Swimming

Cold water immersion in the form of outdoor swimming in winter temperatures (below 14 degrees Celsius) has become more and more popular recently, in part due to a people seeking out new ways of exercise during lockdowns when indoor options were limited or non-existent. Cold water immersion, that is, the intentional exposure to very low water temperature, has been shown to result in various physiological changes in the body, ranging from increased levels of noradrenaline and dopamine, to proteins implicated in slowing cellular aging. Some anecdotal reports suggest that cold water swimming has mental health benefits, with a case study describing a patient with depression and anxiety being able to discontinue their mediation after taking up regular cold water swims. However, there is very little research on specific, objective effects on mental health. This PhD project will be conducted in collaboration with a group of regular swimmers at the Jesus Green Lido in Plymouth, to systematically explore effects on mental well-being, physiological stress responses and social relationships. If the hypothesised effects are confirmed, it would open up low-cost public health interventions that could be scaled up easily in leisure facilities that are already widely available across the country.  

Supervisor - Professor Jon Simons -

Title: Human memory across the lifecourse

Improving healthy ageing across the lifecourse is one of the principal challenges facing society, and a key strategic priority for funders.  The ageing process is typically characterised by neural degeneration in a number of brain regions associated with cognitive abilities such as attention, planning, problem solving and processes that control how information is stored and retrieved from memory.  However, the ageing brain may be more resilient than previously thought, with evidence that activity decreases in some areas may be accompanied by increased activation in other cortical regions.  By capitalising on the cognitive abilities that are comparatively resistant to the ageing process, it may be possible for older adults to develop effective strategies that will allow them to make the most of their memories as they age.  PhD students will have the opportunity to gain experience in a wide range of interdisciplinary cognitive neuroscience methods used in the Memory Laboratory, including behavioural studies, functional and structural neuroimaging (f/sMRI), electrophysiology (EEG/MEG), and brain stimulation (TMS/tDCS). The results of this project could be applied to explore memory-related cognitive training techniques with the potential to enhance remembering in older adults.

Supervisor - Dr Deborah Talmi - Dr Flavia Mancini and Dr Emma Harrold

Title: Computational modelling of individual differences in the potency of pain expectations in patients with chronic pain

How patients with chronic pain make sense of their experience and what they expect from the treatment they are offered substantially influences treatment outcomes. The predictive processing model of pain perception explains the potency of expectations, with emerging behavioural and neural evidence. According to this model, pain perception is co-determined by prior, top-down expectations about imminent pain, and a noisy representation of ascending sensory input. The relative impact of expectations and objective tissue damage on the eventual percept is thought to be a function of the precision of each of these constructs.

This project aims to predict how potent expectations and prior beliefs are at the level of the individual. This is an important goal because it can help understand individual differences in pain perception, with clinical relevance.

The proposed methodology builds on previous work where we developed non-invasive laboratory procedures and probabilistic computational models to extract a quantitative index of the potency of expectations and the noisiness of the representation of sensory inputs. Our approach has been replicated independently, and there is emerging evidence for the reliability and validity of model parameters. However, the approach has not been applied in clinical settings, or with pain patients. The aim of this project is to address this gap.  

The project will examine the feasibility of the approach in pain patients using a co-production research design. The student will extract a profile of the relevant computational parameters in a population of patients with Chronic pain in Addenbrooke’s hospital and examine their construct validity against an established battery of self-report instruments. Patients will be compared to matched controls without chronic pain to test the hypothesis that pain expectations in patients will be more precise but their representation of incoming noxious stimulation will be less precise. The predictive validity of this measure on the outcome of therapy and the magnitude of the placebo analgesia effect (using an open-label approach) will also be examined. The project will examine the translational potential of a new laboratory procedure in a tertiary pain clinic to decide whether it may support patients and their clinicians.



Funding Round Deadline
Gates Cambridge (USA) Wednesday 12 October 2022
All other funding rounds Thursday 1 December 2022

The Department will continue to accept applications up until Wednesday 26 April 2023 for October 2023 start date. 

Any application submitted after 1 December 2022 will not be considered for the funding round.


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