Capturing mental health problems in daily life: integrating experience sampling and ambulatory assessment methodologies

Summary

Mental health problems were traditionally viewed as relatively stable ‘diseases of the mind’ that were either present or absent within an individual. However, in recent years this way of thinking has been challenged – now researchers tend to think of mental health problems as dynamic systems of mutually reinforcing emotions, thoughts, and behaviours. These systems are continually interacting with our social and physical environments in complex ways, and these interactions can happen over very short spaces of time.

Researchers have started to question whether traditional methods of studying mental health and distress are suitable for this new way of thinking. For instance, one-off surveys typically give us just a snapshot of what is a constantly changing situation. Modern technology offers a range of promising alternatives for measuring mental health. Two of the most widely used are experience sampling (ESM) and ambulatory assessment (AA). ESM protocols require participants to complete short self-report questionnaires, often via smartphones, several times per day over a number of days. AA involves the continuous, non-intrusive collection of information via mobile phones and wearable devices (e.g. screen time, heart rate, sleep). These methods allow researchers to explore how various moods, thoughts, emotions, behaviours and contextual factors interact in real-time. However both methods have unique strengths and weaknesses, and despite this they are rarely used together to.

This PhD project aims to conduct one of the first comprehensive studies into the effectiveness of combining EMA and AA to identify mental health problems in young people. We will explore whether EMA and AA methods together are more effective at identifying clinical levels of mental health difficulties than either method alone. This project will help inform the design of future EMA studies that seek to uncover the dynamics of mental health.

Please note:  Applications from those holding or expecting to hold a 2:1 Honours Degree in Psychology are strongly encouraged to apply.  Applications for more than one PhD studentship are welcome, however if you apply for more than one PhD project within Psychology, your first application on the system will be deemed your first-choice preference and further applications will be ordered based on the sequential time of submission. If you are successfully shortlisted, you will be interviewed only on your first-choice application and ranked accordingly. Those ranked highest will be offered a PhD studentship. In the situation where you are ranked highly and your first-choice project is already allocated to someone who was ranked higher than you, you may be offered your 2nd or 3rd choice project depending on the availability of this project.

AccessNI clearance required

Please note, the successful candidate will be required to obtain AccessNI clearance prior to registration due to the nature of the project.

Essential criteria

Applicants should hold, or expect to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class Honours Degree in a subject relevant to the proposed area of study.

We may also consider applications from those who hold equivalent qualifications, for example, a Lower Second Class Honours Degree plus a Master’s Degree with Distinction.

In exceptional circumstances, the University may consider a portfolio of evidence from applicants who have appropriate professional experience which is equivalent to the learning outcomes of an Honours degree in lieu of academic qualifications.

  • Experience using research methods or other approaches relevant to the subject domain
  • A comprehensive and articulate personal statement
  • A demonstrable interest in the research area associated with the studentship
  • Evidence of academic writing skills (a short sample of academic written work of the applicant's choosing (Max 3 pages, A4, font 11))

Desirable Criteria

If the University receives a large number of applicants for the project, the following desirable criteria may be applied to shortlist applicants for interview.

  • Research project completion within taught Masters degree or MRES
  • Practice-based research experience and/or dissemination
  • Work experience relevant to the proposed project

Funding and eligibility

The University offers the following levels of support:

Vice Chancellors Research Studentship (VCRS)

Full award (full-time PhD fees + DfE level of maintenance grant + RTSG for 3 years).

This scholarship will cover full-time PhD tuition fees and provide the recipient with £18,000 (tbc) maintenance grant per annum for three years (subject to satisfactory academic performance).

This scholarship also comes with £900 per annum for three years as a research training support grant (RTSG) allocation to help support the PhD researcher.

Applicants who already hold a doctoral degree or who have been registered on a programme of research leading to the award of a doctoral degree on a full-time basis for more than one year (or part-time equivalent) are NOT eligible to apply for an award.

Applicants who already hold a doctoral degree or who have been registered on a programme of research leading to the award of a doctoral degree on a full-time basis for more than one year (or part-time equivalent) are NOT eligible to apply for an award.

Vice-Chancellor’s Research Bursary (VCRB)

Part award (full-time PhD fees + 50% DfE level of maintenance grant + RTSG for 3 years).

This scholarship will cover full-time PhD tuition fees and provide the recipient with £8,000 maintenance grant per annum for three years (subject to satisfactory academic performance). This scholarship also comes with £900 per annum for three years as a research training support grant (RTSG) allocation to help support the PhD researcher.

Applicants who already hold a doctoral degree or who have been registered on a programme of research leading to the award of a doctoral degree on a full-time basis for more than one year (or part-time equivalent) are NOT eligible to apply for an award.

Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fees Bursary (VCRFB)

Fees only award (PhD fees + RTSG for 3 years).

This scholarship will cover full-time PhD tuition fees for three years (subject to satisfactory academic performance). This scholarship also comes with £900 per annum for three years as a research training support grant (RTSG) allocation to help support the PhD researcher.

Applicants who already hold a doctoral degree or who have been registered on a programme of research leading to the award of a doctoral degree on a full-time basis for more than one year (or part-time equivalent) are NOT eligible to apply for an award.

Department for the Economy (DFE)

The scholarship will cover tuition fees at the Home rate and a maintenance allowance of £18,000 (tbc) per annum for three years (subject to satisfactory academic performance).

This scholarship also comes with £900 per annum for three years as a research training support grant (RTSG) allocation to help support the PhD researcher.

  • Candidates with pre-settled or settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme, who also satisfy a three year residency requirement in the UK prior to the start of the course for which a Studentship is held MAY receive a Studentship covering fees and maintenance.
  • Republic of Ireland (ROI) nationals who satisfy three years’ residency in the UK prior to the start of the course MAY receive a Studentship covering fees and maintenance (ROI nationals don’t need to have pre-settled or settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme to qualify).
  • Other non-ROI EU applicants are ‘International’ are not eligible for this source of funding.
  • Applicants who already hold a doctoral degree or who have been registered on a programme of research leading to the award of a doctoral degree on a full-time basis for more than one year (or part-time equivalent) are NOT eligible to apply for an award.

Due consideration should be given to financing your studies. Further information on cost of living

Recommended reading

Borsboom, D., & Cramer, A. O. J. (2013). Network Analysis: An Integrative Approach to the Structure of Psychopathology. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 9(1), 91–121. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-050212-185608

Mestdagh, M., & Dejonckheere, E. (2021). Ambulatory assessment in psychopathology research: Current achievements and future ambitions. Current Opinion in Psychology, 41, 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2021.01.004

Mohr, D. C., Zhang, M., & Schueller, S. M. (2017). Personal Sensing: Understanding Mental Health Using Ubiquitous Sensors and Machine Learning. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 13(1), 23–47. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-032816-044949

Myin-Germeys, I., Kasanova, Z., Vaessen, T., Vachon, H., Kirtley, O., Viechtbauer, W., & Reininghaus, U. (2018). Experience sampling methodology in mental health research: New insights and technical developments. World Psychiatry, 17(2), 123–132. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20513

Shiffman S., Stone A A., & Hufford M. (2008). Ecological Momentary Assessment. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 4, 1–32. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.3.022806.091415 PMID:18509902

The Doctoral College at Ulster University

Key dates

Submission deadline
Monday 6 February 2023
04:00PM

Interview Date
14 to 16 March 2023

Preferred student start date
18 September 2023

Applying

Apply Online  

Contact supervisor

Dr Eoin McElroy

Other supervisors

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