Variability in the brain

Save to favorites

    Cardiff University
    United Kingdom
    Social sciences


We are searching for a PhD student to help tackle a fundamental mystery about how our brains function: across all types of behaviour, however simple or practiced, we sometimes make errors and often take much longer than we should. Beyond theory, this mystery also matters in practice: swiftly looking at the right place or performing precision motor action effectively is critical to most daily activities. For instance, poor action selection is the leading cause of car accidents (e.g. not looking properly, sudden braking, signalling errors), well before all other external factors such as alcohol or adverse weather.

This intra-individual variability deeply determines how psychology and neuroscience study behaviour, how we think about mental disorders, free-will, decisions and self-control. But in truth we know very little about it. In the lab, the investigation of many cognitive functions requires some form of repeated action selection in response to sensory information. When asked to perform an action as simple as moving the eyes or pressing a button in response to a flash, the time taken to execute this action can either be as short as neural conduction time will allow, or up to five times longer. Some people are systematically faster and more consistent than others. Are their decisions more efficient? Their sensory or motor brain pathways faster? Are they better able to focus their attention, or less distracted by intrusive thoughts? How do these pieces of the jigsaw fit together? Hyper-variability is a prominent feature of multiple neurological or mental disorders. Understanding its mechanisms is essential to better characterise poor performance in health and disease.

The candidate would work under the direct supervision of Dr Aline Bompas and join the active Cognitive Neuroscience group, comprising many researchers interested in action decisions, such as Prof Petroc Sumner, Dr Jiaxiang Zhang, Dr Craig Hedge, Dr Georgina Powell, Prof Krish Singh, Dr Holly Rossiter and Prof Derek Jones. The team is proficient in many complementary approaches (behavioural testing, eye-tracking, computational modelling, personality and mental health disorders, metacognition, human electrophysiology and non-invasive brain anatomy), offering the candidate unique training opportunities. The PhD will combine behavioural measures with Magnetoencephalography (MEG) and brain microstructure using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) on the Connectom scanner. MEG offers premium access to neural activity in healthy participants, with the high temporal resolution necessary to observe how action decisions unfold in the brain. Microstructural MRI offers a great opportunity to link individual differences in speed to the properties brain pathways such as axon conduction velocity. The ideal candidate would show a strong interest for cognition, ability to think independently and desire to train into these technically demanding approaches. CUBRIC is a world-leading facility, and ample on-site training will be available.

What is funded

The studentship will commence in October 2020 and will cover your tuition fees (at UK/EU level) as well as a maintenance grant. In 2019-2020 the maintenance grant for full-time students was £15,009 per annum. As well as tuition fees and a maintenance grant, all School of Psychology students receive conference and participant money (approx. £2250 for the duration of the studentship).They also receive a computer, office space and access to courses offered by the University’s Doctoral Academy and become members of the University Doctoral Academy.

This studentship is open to Home, EU or international students.

The award offered will cover Home/EU fees and maintenance stipend.

International candidates are welcomed but will need to self-fund the difference between Home/EU and International fees.


As only one studentship is available and a very high standard of applications is typically received, the successful applicant is likely to have a very good first degree (a First or Upper Second class BSc Honours or equivalent) and/or be distinguished by having relevant research experience.

How to Apply

You can apply online - consideration is automatic on applying for a PhD in Psychology, with an October 2020 start date (programme code RFPDPSYA). Please use our online application service and specify in the funding section that you wish to be considered for School funding.

Please specify that you are applying for this particular project and the supervisor.


The responsibility for the funding offers published on this website, including the funding description, lies entirely with the publishing institutions. The application is handled uniquely by the employer, who is also fully responsible for the recruitment and selection processes.