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Achieving independence: Exploration and wayfinding in Virtual Reality and real- world environments and its impact on spatial knowledge (Ref FHMS - FF - 04 PSY)

   Faculty of Health & Medical Sciences

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  Prof Emily Farran  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Applications are invited for a fully funded PhD in Psychology. The successful candidate will be a member of CoGDeV lab, and will be supervised by Prof. Emily Farran and Prof Prashant Kumar (Surrey), and Prof Jan Wiener (Bournemouth). The studentship also features international collaboration with Dr Jane Herbert (Wollongong, Australia).

Navigation is a defined as the ability to find places and to learn and retrace routes (Newcombe, 2019). The ability to find our way provides opportunities for discovery and enables us to achieve independence from caregivers (and ultimately to survive). Despite the logical impact of exploration experience on successful navigation, we know little about this aspect of wayfinding. This is current due to the increase in car use and related reduction in Childhood Independent Mobility (CIM) in contemporary western society (Shaw et al., 2015). You will use Wiener et al.’s (2019) taxonomy of wayfinding to answer questions such as “How do individual differences in exploration strategies relate to known individual differences in spatial knowledge?” “What are the impacts of cognitive (e.g., executive function, working memory) and environmental factors (e.g., CIM, VR gaming, navigation anxiety) on navigation?” You will have the opportunity to use Virtual Reality, online games (e.g., Sea Hero Quest) and real-world GPS tracking to investigate exploration and navigation in children and adults. Study 1: you will use mixed methods to determine the search strategies employed during exploration in adults. Studies 2 and 3: You will work with children and adults to compare individual difference in exploration strategy and spatial knowledge (see Farran et al., 2015; 2021), and the impact of cognitive and environment factors on these individual differences. Study 4: You will conduct a cross-cultural study of the relationship between CIM and navigation success in Australia (remotely or face-to-face) and England. Understanding of the mechanisms and strategies which support spatial knowledge can be used to counteract the cognitive impacts of low CIM, to address lifelong health (e.g., getting lost and dementia), to design spatial cognition training and to positively impact STEM competence. You will benefit from opportunities for co-production, citizen science and public engagement via the Discovery Space (Wollongong, Australia), Guildford Living Lab and Winchester Science Centre.

Principle Supervisor: Emily Farran

EF is an expert in spatial cognition. She directs the Cognition Genes and Developmental Variability lab (https://www.surrey.ac.uk/cognition-genes-and-developmental-variability-lab). EF’s navigation research spans fifteen years and has focussed on typical and atypical development of wayfinding competence. EF has access to a network of schools suitable for recruiting child participants. EF has seen twelve PhD students to completion.

PK’s interdisciplinary work builds the interfaces of the air pollution and climate change with the health of the public and the environment. He is founding Director of the Global Centre for Clean Air Research (GCARE) and founder of the Guildford Living Lab. The PGR will get access to the cohort of GCARE PGRs and become member of the Guildford Living Lab. PK has supervised over a dozen students to completion.

JW is an expert in navigation research with a particular focus (1) on cognitive strategies and heuristics people employ to solve complex wayfinding tasks, and (2) on the effects of typical and atypical ageing on navigation and orientation skills. JW is co-head of the Ageing and Dementia Research Centre (ADRC) at Bournemouth University and has supervised 8 PhD students to completion.

[Email Address Removed]

Entry requirements

Open to UK and international students with the project starting in October 2023. Note that a maximum of 30% of the studentships will be offered to international students.

You will need to meet the minimum entry requirements for our PhD programme https://www.surrey.ac.uk/postgraduate/psychology-phd#entry.

How to apply

Applicants are strongly encouraged to contact the relevant principal supervisor(s) to discuss the project(s) before submitting their application.

Applications should be submitted via the https://www.surrey.ac.uk/postgraduate/psychology-phd#apply programme page (N.B. Please select the October 2023 start date when applying).

You may opt to apply for a single project or for 2 of these Faculty-funded studentship projects.

When completing your application, in place of a research proposal, please provide a brief motivational document (1 page maximum) which specifies:

  • the reference numbers(s) for the project or two projects you are applying for
  • the project title(s) and principal supervisor name(s)
  • if applying for two projects, please also indicate your order of preference for the projects
  • an explanation of your motivations for wanting to study for a PhD
  • an explanation of your reasons for selecting the project(s) you have chosen

Additionally, to complete a full application, you MUST also email a copy of your CV and 1-page motivational document directly to the relevant project principal supervisor of each project you apply for. Due to short turnaround times for applicant shortlisting, failure to do this may mean that your application is not considered.

Please note that online interviews for shortlisted applicants are expected to take place during the week commencing 30th January.

Funding notes

Funding is for 3.5 years and includes UKRI-aligned stipend (£17,668 pa for 2022-23), approved University of Surrey fees and a research budget. This studentship is funded by Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, University of Surrey.


Newcombe (2019) https://doi.org/10.1242/jeb.186460
Farran et al. (2015) https://doi.org/10.1186/s11689-015-9133-6
Farran et al. (2021) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogdev.2022.101153
Shaw et al. (2015) https://westminsterresearch.westminster.ac.uk/item/98xyq/children-s-independent-mobility-an-international-comparison-and-recommendations-for-action
Wiener et al. (2009) https://doi.org/10.1080/13875860902906496
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