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PhD in Applied or Computational Causal Epidemiology: Exploring the landscape of causal effects across the phenome and the life-course

Project Description

We are offering an exciting PhD opportunity for candidates interested in developing and applying innovative causal methods to improve health outcomes. The successful candidate will benefit from a highly multidisciplinary supervisory team and research training environment in the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit (

This 3- or 4-year studentship* is ideal for a talented person with an interest, and some relevant educational experience, in epidemiology (health research) biostatistics and/ or computer science (specifically in relation to software development and wishing to develop strong interdisciplinary skills at the interface of Computer Science and Epidemiology). We offer a fully-funded studentship (starting any time between July and December 2019). This will be based in the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol, a leading centre for research excellence in population health science. The successful candidate will have access to an excellent training portfolio of short courses and transferable skills training and be part of a cross-disciplinary cohort of PhD students.

The successful applicant will be supervised by Dr Louise AC Millard and Prof Deborah A Lawlor, with additional support from Dr Andy Skinner, Prof Kate Tilling and other relevant academics in the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit. If you are interested please get in touch with Dr Millard or Prof Lawlor for an informal chat.

* Depending on the qualifications, experience and skills of the person offered the studentship this will be a 4- (1 + 3) year or 3-year studentship. If offered as 4-year studentship the student will complete 3 ‘mini-projects’ in different areas to develop their multidisciplinary skills before starting their main PhD project.


Assessing whether one trait affects another has typically been difficult in epidemiology since it is difficult to separate non-causal correlation from a causal effect of one trait on the other. Mendelian randomization is a method for exploring causal effects by using genetic variants as instrumental variables for modifiable non-genetic risk factors. This method was pioneered by academics here at the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit, where it continues to be developed. While Mendelian randomization studies usually test specific hypotheses, the hypothesis-free Mendelian randomization approach instead searches for causal effects across many outcomes, and has also been pioneered here in Bristol, by Dr Louise AC Millard and colleagues. Unlike hypothesis-driven analyses that test specific hypotheses, hypothesis-free Mendelian randomization provides an unbiased view of the landscape of possible causal effects of an exposure on a large number outcomes. Recently, Dr Louise AC Millard developed an automated tool called PHESANT that can be used to run a hypothesis-free Mendelian randomization phenome-wide scan on over 20,000 health-related and disease outcomes in the UK Biobank cohort. To date this tool has been used in Bristol and worldwide, for example, searching for the causal effects of body mass index and age at menarche, and can lead to the identification of new risk factors for health outcomes. Any suggested causal effects in this hypothesis free approach need further, more detailed, Mendelian randomization analyses (including sensitivity analyses to determine instrument validity) as well as triangulation with other causal methods that have different key sources of bias to Mendelian randomization. This could identify novel risk factors for which it might be possible to develop interventions that improve health.
For more information on the central aims of this PhD please email

Applications must be completed online at , choosing “ Faculty of Health Sciences” and the “Population Health Sciences” PhD programme, and entering “MRC IEU” as the fee payer.

Closing date is 5pm, 31st October 2019.

Funding Notes

The studentship offers a stipend at standard MRC rates (£14,777 in 2018/19), covers the cost of UK tuition fees and provides £1000 per year training costs. Standard MRC eligibility criteria apply. Only applicants from the EU and UK are eligible for this programme.
Closing date is 5pm, 31st August 2019. .

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