Leverhulme Studentship- “The cognitive constraints on children’s ability to manage a conversation topic”

Developmental Psychology Studentship 2023

Applications are invited for a 3-year PhD studentship in the School of Psychology at the University of Kent, funded by the Leverhulme Trust (Principal Investigator: Dr Kirsten Abbot-Smith; Co-Investigators: Dr Danielle Matthews, Dr Michael Forrester, Prof Susan Leekam). The studentship commences in September 2023. 


This studentship is suitable for applicants who have or will completed a Master’s degree or equivalent to high merit or distinction level in either Psychology, Psycholinguistics, Cognitive Science or Human Communication Sciences by September 2023. 

The studentship award covers for a period of three years a) your tuition fees at the ‘Home (UK) Student’ rate (i.e. if you are a UK student, you will not pay fees) and  b) additionally provides you with a tax-free stipend (approx. £17,668 per annum (based on 2022-23 rates) for maintenance. 

Research Project 

The studentship, starting in September 2023, will be part of the Leverhulme-funded grant project titled “The cognitive constraints on children’s ability to manage a conversation topic” which aims to determine how the cognitive constraints of interest intensity, cognitive flexibility (switching), autistic traits and core language processing efficiency impact conversation topic management in children. 

The studentship will primarily focus on how children manage topic-switching and task-switching and how this relates to behaviours commonly classed in the category of ‘Repetitive Behaviours and Restricted Interests’ (RRBIs).  Initially, the applicant would collect and / or analyse data on how primary-school-aged children deal with the following: a) switching conversation topics, b) topic-switching by others c) special interests, d) performance on measures of cognitive flexibility and e) parent-rated difficulties with changes to routine. 

Following the pre-defined studies to be conducted in year 1, the PhD student will gain independence in years 2 and 3 by developing and running his / her own further experiments to examine the how children respond to topic-switching and / or how they manage topic transition themselves. In addition, the student will also further analyse RRBIs and will explore relationships between language-related RRBIs (e.g. topic perseveration) and non-language RRBIs. The student will be closely supervised to ensure that planned experiments are appropriately designed and fit with the core objectives of the project. 

Thus, the PhD will require (a) designing experimental studies, (b) collecting data in schools and / or via Zoom, (c) analysing data, and (d) supporting the project investigators and the project’s post-doctoral research assistants in their data collection and analysis. 

The applicant for the studentship will be involved in the dissemination of the project findings (conference presentations, publications). 

The student will work closely with and be supervised by Dr Kirsten Abbot-Smith throughout the research process (developing methods, data collection, analysis) and will work in close collaboration with Co-Investigator Dr Danielle Matthews (University of Sheffield). The student will also work closely with the post-doctoral research associate, Dr Katie Carpenter, during the first half of the studentship. There will be monthly contact with CIs Dr Michael Forrester and Prof Susan Leekam via reading groups, as well as written comments on the student’s draft work.  

The student will be enrolled in the School of Psychology’s PhD programme where he/she will join a circa 50- strong community of PhD students. The school’s PhD programme forms part of an ESRC-funded doctoral training programme and includes monthly progress reports as well as training in advanced statistical methods and other transferable skills. The PhD student will participate in formal statistical training, the length of which will depend on his/ her prior statistical training and understanding. The PhD student will prepare at least three peer-reviewed journal publications on which s/he is first author. The student will be part of the Kent Child Development Unit at the School of Psychology located on the Canterbury campus of the University of Kent. 


The competition is open to applicants of all student fee paying statuses; however, this studentship covers fees at the Home (i.e. UK) rate only. This means that EU and International students are required to make up the difference in fees. Because the planned studies involve conversing with primary-school-aged children, applicants will need to speak British English at a level of native-like fluency and will need to be able to understand with ease British regional accents as spoken by children. Applicants will also need to have substantial experience interacting with primary-school-aged children. Applicants will need to have a natural empathy for these participants and an ability to make conversational interactions enjoyable even for shy children. 

Please note that current Kent PhD students are not eligible for this award. 

How to apply 

All completed applications received by 17.00 (UK time) on Sunday 4th June 2023 will be considered. 

Completed applications must comprise all of the following: 

  • Submission of a KentVision application for a Psychology PhD place in the School of Psychology at the University of Kent including: 
  • A transcript of degree undergraduate and postgraduate marks to date and certificate, if available, in pdf format. 
  • The names and email addresses of two academic referees. References must also be received by 18.00 (UK time) on Sunday 4th June 2023. Please leave a suitable amount of time for your referees to respond to the reference request which is sent automatically upon submission of the PhD application in KentVision. 
  • A current CV in pdf format. 
  • Submission of a 1-2 page covering letter which explains why you should be considered for the Developmental Psychology Leverhulme PhD Studentship 2022. This should be sent directly to hssadmissions@kent.ac.uk and should include the KentVision application ID number. If you have any specific questions about the scholarship, please write to Dr Kirsten Abbot-Smith at K.Abbot-Smith@kent.ac.uk 

Please note that the PhD application form in KentVision includes fields and word count guidelines that are not specific to consideration for this competition so please ensure that you follow the procedures listed above. In fields such as ‘Reasons for study’ and ‘Research proposal’ you are welcome to write ‘See Application for Psychology Leverhulme Conversation PhD Studentship’. 

Shortlisted applicants will be informed by 7th June that they are invited to interview and interviews will be held on a date TBC. All interviews will be via Zoom or Microsoft Teams.