Funded PhD Opportunity Studying professional decision making in care of older people using innovative factorial survey methods

This opportunity is now closed.

Subject: Social Work and Social Policy


Professional judgement is increasingly challenged within modern societies. A concern about risks of harm has led to increased scrutiny of the power of professionals and the decisions that they make. There are particular concerns in relation to the domains in which social workers make decisions such as the allocation of finite publicly-funded social care services to adults in need by virtue of age, disablement or chronic health conditions (Taylor, 2017a). The study of decision making is relatively under-developed, particularly within social work.

Gaining access to the cognitive processes used by individuals in making a particular judgement is particularly challenging. The factorial survey experiment is an innovative research design studying the cognitive judgement processes of individuals such as moral issues (for example fair sentencing) in society (Auspurg & Hinz, 2014). This proposal develops the application of the factorial survey method to the study of professional judgement.

The factorial survey experimental method involves presenting decision makers with a vignette (case scenario) of a realistic situation of the type for which the respondent regularly makes decisions (Killick & Taylor, 2012). The factors (variables) in the vignettes are randomly varied within a set sentence structure. Each respondent indicates their judgement on 10-20 unique vignettes. The method thus combines the cost-effectiveness of a survey with the rigour of an experimental design in attributing causality to the relationship between the vignette factors and the decision made.

Respondents are community-based health and social care staff working with older people in Northern Ireland (approx. 300 professionals) and also across Ireland if feasible. The study would be based soundly in existing research through a systematic narrative review with an explicit and rigourous method of study identification (Stevenson et al., 2016). Overall the study design would be mixed-methods, with initial qualitative work using focus groups and interviews used to ensure that the variables in the vignettes (IVs) are true to life, and that the decision options (DVs) reflect realistic care plan options.

The vignettes would embody risks identified through previous research, such as falls, depression, medications mismanagement, wandering unsupervised, financial mismanagement, abuse by others, risks to others and alcohol abuse (Taylor et al, 2018). Qualitative data would be analysed using grounded theory, and quantitative data using multiple regression and ANOVA. Innovation in methodology would be developed through the use of D-efficient sampling (Auspurg & Hinz, 2014) andadministration of the survey using Qualitrix software. Theoretical models of professional judgement on which the supervisors have published would be used to conceptualise the data in generalisable terms (Taylor 2012, 2017b).

This project relates to Theme 2 Method, Evidence and Theory for Practitioners of the School Thematic priorities. This project involves innovation in developing the rigour of the factorial survey research method combined with a robust theoretical approach to the study of professional judgement. The project is relevant to the contemporary social and political challenge facing social work policy makers, public administrators and service providers in justifying the social work decisions in complex, ‘risky’ situations.

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)
  • Research proposal of 2000 words detailing aims, objectives, milestones and methodology of the project

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.

  • A comprehensive and articulate personal statement


    Vice Chancellors Research Scholarships (VCRS)

    The scholarships will cover tuition fees and a maintenance award of £15,009 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 £15,009 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

Launch of the Doctoral College

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Key Dates

Submission Deadline
Monday 18 February 2019
Interview Date
25 to 27 March 2019


Magee campus

Magee campus
A key player in the economy of the north west

Contact Supervisor

Professor Brian Taylor

Other Supervisors

Apply online

Visit and quote reference number #344174 when applying for this PhD opportunity