Funded PhD opportunities

The impact of stress on facial expression and social networks in older adults

  • Application end date: Applications currently closed
  • Funding Availability: Funded PhD project (UK students only)
  • Department: Department of Psychology
  • PhD Supervisor: Professor Bridget Waller, Dr Jerome Micheletta, and Dr Darren Van Laar

ESRC South Coast Doctoral Training Partnership (SCDTP) funded. Project code: PSYC3681018

Applications are currently closed for this project, though may re-open in the autumn. If you wish to submit an expression of interest, please contact

Project in brief

Older adults with larger and more supportive social networks are healthier and happier. The composition of an individual’s social network changes throughout life, however, and so new friendships must be formed to maintain a supportive network. Yet an individual’s ability to form new friendships is not well understood. This project will investigate both the societal factors and biological mechanisms associated with friendship formation in older adults, and determine whether physical and social stress that can be associated with ageing impacts on an individual’s ability to interact with others and form new friendships. This project is interdisciplinary between Social and Biological Sciences'

Project in detail

Better mental and physical health in later-life is associated with larger social networks and better social cohesion (Diendl et al, 2016).  Older adults with larger social networks have better cognitive functioning (Sorman et al, 2017), get more exercise (Loprinzi and Joiner, 2016), feel less lonely and are less likely to be depressed (Domenech-Abella et al., 2017). Older adults, however, have significantly smaller social networks than younger adults (Dickens and Perlmann, 1981). It is possible that older adults have difficulty extending or maintaining a supportive social network through social interaction. Adults may find social communication with others more difficult as they age, and/or the physical and social stress associated with ageing might impact upon the ability to communicate with others. We know that stress affects facial expression recognition (Daudelin-Peltier et al, 2017), but we don’t know how it affects facial expression production within spontaneous social interaction. To understand the link between real-world patterns of friendship in society and the underlying psychological and biological causal mechanisms of friendship formation, we need to take an interdisciplinary perspective. First, we will assess the relationship between stress, health, region and social networks in older adults using existing ESRC datasets (The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing). Second, we will conduct a laboratory based experiment to investigate the biologically based emotional and communicative mechanisms that underpin individual differences in the ability to form and maintain friendships. We will assess the impact of physical and social stress (using established psychophysiological methods) on facial muscle expressivity during social interaction in older adults.  Facial muscle movement will be recorded using a sensitive anatomically based observational tool (FACS, Facial Action Coding System: Ekman et al, 2002). The findings will help target interventions to facilitate friendship formation in older adults and also help better understand the mechanisms of social interaction and friendship.

Specific research questions:

  • How is physical and social stress related to the size of social networks in older adults?
  • How do older adults use facial expression as a mechanism to form friendships?
  • Does physical and social stress impact on older adults’ facial expression, and thus their ability to form friendships?

Candidate specification

The student will need to have an undergraduate degree and/or Masters degree in Psychology, Behavioural Biology, Behavioural Science or related discipline with a clear quantitative and experimental component. If they have not had sufficient social science training they will need to undertake an MSc Research Methods. 

For all funding, students must have qualifications of the standard of a good honours degree at first or upper second-class level, from a UK academic higher education institution. Degree qualifications gained from outside the UK, or a combination of qualifications and/or experience that is equivalent to a relevant UK degree, may be accepted.

How to Apply

Before you apply, please make sure you meet the candidate specification.

Candidates do not need to submit a project proposal, however are required to submit a 500 word personal statement to include:

  • Details of how your skills and interests match the project
  • Background and previous experience
  • Research interests

If you need to discuss this project and your application further then please contact a member of the supervsiion team as listed below, in advance of the deadline dates:

Professor Bridget Waller -

Dr Jerome Micheletta -

Dr Darren Van Larr -

There are two stages to the application process:

(1) The first application form you need to complete is for your chosen programme of study at the University of Portsmouth.

Apply to the University of Portsmouth through our standard online application form and follow the instructions given under the 'Research Degrees' heading on the following webpages before you submit your SCDTP application:

When applying to the University of Portsmouth, you will need to enter project code - PSYC3681018

The closing date for University of Portsmouth applications is 21 July 2017, 12.00 noon.

(2) The second application form which requires completion is the South Coast DTP Funding Application Form.  There are two versions of this form which can be downloaded. In accordance with the SCDTP guidance, please ensure you use the correct form (in this case the 'South Coast DTP Project Specific Application Form').

The 'South Coast DTP Project Specific Application Form', and more information on the South Coast Doctoral Training Partnership can be found at:

You will then need to submit your funding application to the SCDTP by 28 July 2017

Funding notes

As well as covering all tuition fees, the studentship also includes an annual maintenance grant, of £14,553 (2017/18).

Please note, students applying without a Master's qualification containing a substantial Social Sciences methods component may be required to complete such a Master's beforehand. The Master's will be fully funded by the SCDTP.