Cognitive flexibility in early development: new insights from advanced imaging technologies

Degree Level: PhD


Application deadline Wednesday 20 September 2023 Funding status Funded project UK
Primary Supervisor Professor Rebecca Lawson
Secondary Supervisor Dr Gemma Bale
Primary Host Dept Psychology
Secondary Host Dept Engineering
Primary Research Theme Adaptive Brain Computations
Secondary Research Theme Brains and Machines
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Essential information

The University of Cambridge ESRC Doctoral Training Partnership [DTP] is pleased to offer an interdisciplinary studentship available for admission in October 2023.

The studentship will be a three-year doctoral programme and will be co-supervised by Professor Rebecca Lawson (Department of Psychology) and Dr Gemma Bale (Department of Engineering).

DTP students will acquire a unique set of skills that will equip them for high-profile careers as leading social scientists, in academia or in other government, industrial, commercial and third sector organisations, either in the UK or elsewhere.

Project Description

Cognitive flexibility enables us to adapt behaviour to achieve goals in a novel or changing environment and underscores the ability to learn when to learn, so that we can see when what we are doing is not leading to success and make appropriate changes. This ability is fundamental to human flourishing. Good cognitive flexibility is associated with better resilience to negative life events, better quality of life in older adults, better social skills and higher educational attainment.

Despite the importance of cognitive flexibility for human behaviour, we know surprisingly little about the antecedents of this ability in early life. This is largely because of limitations in the methods that we have to study neural processing in infancy. This studentship will address this research gap by bridging across infant cognitive neuroscience and the development of new cutting-edge optical imaging methods to measure brain function non-invasively (high-density diffuse optimal tomography: HD-DOT). This will allow us to better understand the neural basis of cognitive flexibility in infants.

Over the course of this studentship, the student will examine the factors that predict cognitive flexibility at age 6 months (e.g., sociodemographic factors, parental mental health, diet, education, adversity) and, by running longitudinal follow-up experiments, the cognitive and educational outcomes that cognitive flexibility at 6 months is predictive of (e.g., at 18-month follow-up assessing standardised gross motor and cognitive development skills such as Mullen Stages of Early Learning (MSEL). This Interdisciplinary Scholarship will therefore lay the foundations for tests of cognitive flexibility in infancy that may predict individual support needs in primary education to facilitate early access to these services.

The successful candidate should have an interest in and aptitude for interdisciplinary skills across neuroimaging (e.g., physics, programming, signal processing, statistics) and also cognitive psychology (e.g., development, infancy, learning, flexibility). Cambridge ESRC DTP studentships are open to all students who meet the required academic conditions. As this project involves working with infants and very small children a full Disclosure Barring Service (DBS) check will be required.

An ESRC DTP studentship will cover Home rate fees and provide £17,668 p.a. in living costs (current rates). DTP students also receive a personal allowance for additional training costs, and can apply for further funding to pursue fieldwork, academic exchange, and collaboration with non-academic partner organisations.

The funds for this post are available for 3 years.

Find out more

You can find out more about the Cambridge ESRC DTP at: and read about some of the opportunities that will be available to you.

You can find out more about the Department of Psychology at and the Faculty of Engineering at

Please address any questions about this studentship to Dr Rebecca Lawson at Applications for this studentship should be made to the Department of Psychology. Please apply via The course code is BLPC22 (PhD in Psychology).

The closing date for applications will be 4th January 2023.

With your application you will be required to submit (i) a draft research proposal outlining your suitability, why you are interested in pursuing a PhD in this area, your background and research interests, familiarity with the populations targeted by this research. (ii) your CV stating your citizenship and years of residence in the UK (iii) copies of your academic transcripts (iv) details of two academic referees.

Further information