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Funded PhD Opportunity

Exploration of experiences of social interactions for patients and their families following head and neck cancer as a result of eating difficulties

Subject: Nursing and Health


Eating difficulties are common following treatment for head and neck cancer (HNC), with over 50% of long-term HNC survivors indicating problems with eating (Funk et al 2012).  For many of these people, eating has entirely lost its social dimension, becoming a purely private, isolating, daily chore instead of a pleasurable part of life, remaining long after completion of treatment. Losing the ability to eat well, reduces quality of life by diminishing social interactions, which negatively impacts health and wellbeing (Burges Watson et al 2018).

Findings from Ganzer et al’s (2015) systematic review of qualitative studies demonstrated the devastating impact on the experience of eating and changed meaning of food, following treatment for HNC.  This study concluded there was a clear lack of exploration on the social context of eating. Family meals are widespread and commonplace in all cultures.  Commensality, or eating together, especially at the same table, plays a fundamental role in creating and reinforcing social relationships. Research has shown that through eating shared meals that we express love, obtain psychological comfort, which promotes a sense of closeness, connectedness and stability (Whitbourne 2015). To-date, within HNC, researchers have primarily focused on shorter-term, treatment–related toxicities impacting altered eating and managing its nutritional consequences.

There is a paucity of studies exploring the impact surrounding the social context of eating with the family following treatment for HNC and how this changes over time.  A more ‘person-centred’ and less ‘disease-focused’ approach is required to address this broader and pertinent challenge of how HNC-related eating difficulties curtails and impacts peoples’ social enjoyment, interactions and relationships with their family members. This project is clearly aligned to the recent National Cancer Research Initiative (2018) top UK research priorities for living with and beyond cancer.

Aim: The overall aim of this project is to explore how eating difficulties influences social interactions for patients and their family members, throughout the first year of treatment for HNC.

Methods: A longitudinal qualitative methodology, utilising semi-structured interviews will be employed.  Using purposeful sampling, patients, family members and healthcare professionals (HCPs) will be recruited. Patients will be recruited who are embarking on treatment for HNC with curative intent, being interviewed with at least one significant family member at pre-treatment (baseline), 3-months (early) post-treatment and 12-months (later) post-treatment. The final data collection time point (12 months) is strongly correlated and representative of long-term impact or ‘new normal’ after HNC treatment.  HCPs delivering care to this patient population will be interviewed once. Interviews will take place within the Healthcare trust and/or the patients’ homes.

Data will be analysed using thematic analysis as recommended by Miles and Huberman (1994).

Essential criteria

  • Upper Second Class Honours (2:1) Degree or equivalent from a UK institution (or overseas award deemed to be equivalent via UK NARIC)

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.

  • Relevant professional qualification and/or a Degree in a Health or Health related area


    Vice Chancellors Research Scholarships (VCRS)

    The scholarships will cover tuition fees and a maintenance award of £14,777 per annum for three years (subject to satisfactory academic performance). Applications are invited from UK, European Union and overseas students.


    The scholarship will cover tuition fees at the Home rate and a maintenance allowance of £ 14,777 per annum for three years. EU applicants will only be eligible for the fees component of the studentship (no maintenance award is provided).  For Non EU nationals the candidate must be "settled" in the UK.

Other information

The Doctoral College at Ulster University


Ulster University has very enhanced independent  learning.  I strongly recommend my students to go abroad to broaden their vision to get  new motivation.  I tell them that when studying at Ulster University, they will receive an abundance of knowledge, new experiences and strong technology to enhance their life.

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I am currently the Director for the Department of Nursing-midwifery and Women's Heath at NTUNHS.  I studied at Ulster University for 3 years and it was a very happy time.  Ulster is very good for study, not only in academic work but it also shows you how to be a good teacher.

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Key dates

Submission deadline
Monday 18 February 2019

Interview Date
Mid March 2019


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Jordanstown campus

Jordanstown campus
The largest of Ulster's campuses

Contact supervisor

Dr Cherith Semple

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