PhD Studentship: Empathy Across The Species Barrier: A Study Of Emotional Communication Between Humans And Animals

University of Sussex - School of Psychology

PhD studentship available for September 2018

Project title: Empathy Across The Species Barrier: A Study Of Emotional Communication Between Humans And Animals

Supervisor:  Prof Karen McComb (University of Sussex) and Prof Robin Banerjee (University of Sussex)

While recent studies of non-human animals have revealed impressive abilities for discerning and predicting the consequences of emotional states in others, the extent to which any animal experiences “empathy” remains largely unresolved. One obstacle to investigating the potential for empathetic responses in animals has been the lack of clear definitions that could realistically be applied to studying animal emotions. A useful advance in this respect is the appreciation of the distinction between empathetic distress and pro-social empathy – both of which are part of a spectrum of empathetic responses shown by humans, with the latter being seen as true empathy or compassion. The PhD would focus on designing experiments to study if another’s distress can result in equivalent pro-social behaviours in animals, in particular where horses or dogs respond to distress in humans. These species have proved adept at reading human emotional cues and the domestic environment offers the possibility of conducting controlled but naturalistic experiments. The study may extend to other animals, where strong bonds between animals and keepers exist in sanctuaries or orphanages. The student would join a research group with a strong track record of studying animal cognition and emotional communication both in domestic and wild mammals, as well as linking up with a team of researchers carrying out related projects on human empathy.

Applications should be made by Sunday 21st January 2018

  • Studentship awards will be based on a competitive process, including interview. There are two types of awards available: +3 studentships, which fund a three-year full-time PhD, and 1+3 studentships, which fund a one-year Master’s degree followed by a three-year full-time PhD. Full-time studentship covering tuition fee, and a maintenance allowance (currently £14,553 per annum).
  • The competitive awards are funded by the School of Psychology (+3, eligibility: Home or EU residency); the ESRC (1+3 or +3, eligibility at South-East Network for Social Sciences (SeNSS); or the Chancellor’s International Research Scholarship (+3, eligibility at Chancellor's International Research Scholarship (2018).
  • Candidates must have, or expect to obtain, a First or a high Upper Second Class Honours undergraduate degree, or equivalent qualification, and/or a Master's degree in Psychology or a related discipline.

Guidance for applicants:

  • Application procedures can be found here.
  • Please submit your application online for the ‘PhD in Psychology’ programme for September 2018 through this link
  • In the ‘Supervisor suggested by applicant’ section of your application form, please put name of supervisor
  • In the ‘Proposed source of funding’ as School of Psychology and/or SeNSS, or CIRS).

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. Your answer should not exceed 2 pages including references, be set at minimum 10-font type with margins a minimum of 1cm.
  • An up-to-date CV.
  • Current degree transcript(s) with full details of performance on all completed courses.
  • Two academic references.

For queries with respect to the application process please send an email to 'Postgraduate Coordinator' to:

To discuss the details of this PhD project further, please contact Prof Karen McComb:

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