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  Higher education and employment journeys for young adults and the impact on their mental health

   Bristol Medical School

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  Dr Annie Herbert  Applications accepted all year round  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

Young adulthood is a period characterised by profound life transitions, and the peak period for emerging mental health problems.(1-3) Difficulties at this stage can potentially set in motion chains of events adversely impacting the ability of young people to meet their potential. One important transition during this time is leaving school and either going into further education or employment, potentially involving positive experiences and opportunities, such as increased independence. However, some may not do either – being Not in Education, Employment, or Training (‘NEET’) at all, losing a job, or leaving university before graduating, have previously been linked to poor mental health via cross-sectional studies.(4, 5) However, the extent to which poor mental health drives these events, or these events drive poor mental health, is not well understood. A better understanding can inform where policymakers may be able to intervene to improve later outcomes. This is a key policy priority, evidenced by recent UK government enquiries into NEET and mental health among young people, respectively.(6, 7) In this exciting project, the student will use two large cohorts linked to other data sources, to research the interplay between education/employment patterns and mental health trajectories among young adults.

Aims and objectives

Aim: Better understand education/employment journeys in young adults and pathways to mental health.

Objectives (research questions):

  1. What are the typical patterns of education/employment during young adulthood?
  2. To what extent does adolescent mental health cause different employment/education patterns during young adulthood?
  3. Is there a bi-directional causal relationship between education/employment patterns and mental health during young adulthood?
  4. Are there modifiable factors on the causal pathway between education/employment patterns and mental health, that could help mitigate against poor mental health?

Key hypothesis: Adverse education/employment is more likely for those with poor mental health trajectories; adverse education/employment worsens these trajectories.


The student will use two UK cohorts (Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children [ALSPAC]; Next Steps) on >30,000 people,(8, 9) including rich genetic, questionnaire, and clinical data, and linked administrative data. They will employ cutting-edge statistical/epidemiological methods (including genetic and longitudinal modelling, e.g. Mendelian Randomisation, difference-in-difference, mediation and multiple imputation analyses); given the volume of these data, this will often be within high-performance computing environments. They will be encouraged to get the full experience of enriching their research and ensuring its relevance, by engaging with relevant academics and policymakers (with which the supervisory team have strong links), and public engagement activities (the Medical Research Council Integrative Epidemiology Unit [MRC IEU] has a dedicated public engagement officer organising a range of opportunities). That is, the student will become expert in a range of skills adaptable for a future career in academia, public health, or industry. Given the context of the research in a time of economic and mental health crisis, the student will be carrying out research in an exciting area where national policy focus and funds are being prioritised.

Supervisors: Dr Annie Herbert (primary supervisor), Professor Laura Howe, Professor Frances Rice, Dr Matt Dickson

How to apply for this project

This project will be based in Bristol Medical School - Population Health Sciences in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Bristol. Use this information to search for the relevant programme in our online application system.

Medicine (26) Nursing & Health (27) Psychology (31)


1. Arnett JJ. Emerging adulthood : the winding road from the late teens through the twenties. Second edition.
2. Schulenberg J, Schoon I. The Transition to Adulthood across Time and Space: Overview of Special Section. Longit Life Course Stud. 2012;3(2):164-72.
3. Solmi M, Radua J, Olivola M, Croce E, Soardo L, Salazar de Pablo G, et al. Age at onset of mental disorders worldwide: large-scale meta-analysis of 192 epidemiological studies. Molecular Psychiatry. 2022;27(1):281-95.
4. Bynner J, Parsons S. Social Exclusion and the Transition from School to Work: The Case of Young People Not in Education, Employment, or Training (NEET). Journal of Vocational Behavior. 2002;60(2):289-309.
5. Scott J, Fowler D, McGorry P, Birchwood M, Killackey E, Christensen H, et al. Adolescents and young adults who are not in employment, education, or training. 2013;347:f5270.
6. Powell A. Research Briefing. NEET: Young People Not in Education, Employment or Training. In: House of Commons Library. 2021.
7. Health and Social Care Committee. Children and young people’s mental health. In: House of Commons Library. 2021.
8. Boyd A, Golding J, Macleod J, Lawlor DA, Fraser A, Henderson J, et al. Cohort Profile: the 'children of the 90s'--the index offspring of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. Int J Epidemiol. 2013;42(1):111-27.
9. Calderwood LS. Next Steps (formerly known as the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England). Open Health Data. 2016.

Where will I study?

 About the Project