Psychology PhD studentship

Psychology Doctoral Research Studentship - Routes to conceptual learning and generalisation (2023)

This studentship covers Home or International level PhD tuition fees, a stipend (currently £17,668 pa) plus some research and training costs.

What you get

  • A stipend for 3 years (rising in line with UKRI studentship rates, currently £17,668 p.a.) to cover living costs.
  • Home fees or International fees and research/training costs are also covered for 3 years.
  • You will also be expected to take up Doctoral Tutoring during your 6 semesters (3 years) of funding. This work is paid at Grade 5.1 (currently £13.88 per hour), and covers contact time, preparation and marking. You will be expected to work approximately 165 hours per year, dependent on modules selected and availability.

Type of award

Postgraduate Research

PhD project

Subject area: Cognitive neuroscience of learning, memory, and decision-making

This PhD project will be supervised by Dr Sam Berens and at least one other academic from the University of Sussex (to be decided once the research proposal is confirmed). 

How do we learn to solve problems for which we have little prior experience? Imagine you are foraging for dinner in an unfamiliar forest. You discover a delicious fruit that grows atop a particular type of tree. In order to have enough to eat, you must visit many different trees, yet there is a problem; the largest trees bear the most fruit but take the longest time to climb. You must quickly learn which trees are worth climbing and which are not. How do we learn new concepts like ‘a worthwhile tree’ and generalise this information to make good decisions in different situations? Neural network models provide a powerful framework for understanding this kind of learning. However, the (often surprising) predictions that they make have yet to be tested in humans. Furthermore, it is unclear when and how artificial neural networks and humans can generalise what they have learnt to novel situations (so-called out-of-distribution generalisation). During this PhD, you will examine the mechanisms which allow us to learn generalisable concepts that provide a basis for flexible decision-making. This work will involve a variety of techniques, including computational modelling, behavioural data analysis, and functional neuroimaging (fMRI).

Keywords: Learning, Memory, Generalisation, Inference.

Methods: Statistical modelling, Computational modelling, Machine learning, Functional MRI (fMRI), Electroencephalography (EEG

Relevant experience: Cognitive neuroscience, computer programming, data analysis, machine learning, neuroimaging

Relevant publications

Berens, S. C., & Bird, C. M. (2022). Hippocampal and medial prefrontal cortices encode structural task representations following progressive and interleaved training schedules. PLoS computational biology, 18(10), e1010566.

Berens, S. C., Joensen, B. H., & Horner, A. J. (2021). Tracking the emergence of location-based spatial representations in human scene-selective cortex. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 33(3), 445-462.

Berens, S. C., Richards, B. A., & Horner, A. J. (2020). Dissociating memory accessibility and precision in forgetting. Nature Human Behaviour, 4(8), 866-877.

Berens, S. C., Bird, C. M., & Harrison, N. A. (2020). Minocycline differentially modulates human spatial memory systems. Neuropsychopharmacology, 45(13), 2162-2169.

Berens, S. C., Horst, J. S., & Bird, C. M. (2018). Cross-situational learning is supported by propose-but-verify hypothesis testing. Current Biology, 28(7), 1132-1136.

Doctoral Tutor role

You will also be expected to take up Doctoral Tutoring during your 6 semesters (3 years) of funding. This work is paid at Grade 5.1 (currently £13.88 per hour), and covers contact time, preparation and marking. You will be expected to work approximately 165 hours per year, dependent on modules selected and availability.

Doctoral Tutors will be encouraged to study for a formal teaching accreditation (Associate of the Higher Education Academy), including enrolling on a ‘starting to teach’ module in the first term. Candidates who demonstrate interest in and suitability for the Doctoral Tutor role will be preferred. 


  • This award will pay fees at the Home or International rate (as required by the applicant's fee status). International students must move to Sussex for the duration of the PhD and will not be permitted to register as Distance Learners. The studentship does not include additional funding towards the costs of visas or travel to the UK for international students.
  • Candidates must have, or expect to obtain, a First or a high Upper Second Class Honours undergraduate degree, or equivalent qualification, and/or a  Merit (an average of 60% overall) in a Master’s degree in Psychology or other relevant discipline.
  • The University of Sussex believes that the diversity of its staff and student community is fundamental to creative thinking, pedagogic innovation, intellectual challenge, and the interdisciplinary approach to research and learning. We celebrate and promote diversity, equality and inclusion amongst our staff and students. As such, we welcome applications from all, regardless of personal characteristics or background. 

Number of scholarships available



17 January 2023 23:59

How to apply

  • In the 'Supervisor suggested by applicant' section of your application, put 'Sam Berens'.
  • In the 'Proposed source of funding' section of your application, please put 'Psychology Doctoral Research Studentship - Berens'. 

Candidates should provide: 

  • A research proposal that outlines your knowledge of the research area, hypotheses that could be addressed in your PhD, and an outline of potential methods. The research proposal should be approximately 1,000 to 1,500 words in length and not exceed 3 pages, including references. It should be set at a minimum of 10 font type with margins a minimum of 1cm. Applicants are encouraged to contact the supervisor for more information about the project before writing their proposal.
  • Current degree transcript(s) with full details of performance on all completed courses. 
  • Two academic references.
  • An up-to-date CV.
  • A document summarising any teaching experience you have and illustrating your suitability for a Doctoral Tutor role. 

Contact us

For queries with respect to the application process:  

To discuss the details of your research interests further, please contact Dr Sam Berens.



Deadline: Tuesday 17 January 2023  (23:59 GMT)

Interviews (on Zoom): February 2023


At level(s):
PG (research)

Application deadline:
17 January 2023 23:59 (GMT)


The award is available to people from these specific countries: