Funded PhD opportunities

Training citizens to reduce burglary risk using Virtual Reality (VR)

  • Application end date: Applications currently closed
  • Funding Availability: Funded PhD project (UK students only)
  • Department: Department of Psychology
  • PhD Supervisor: Dr Claire Nee, Dr Jean-Louis Van Gelder (Vrije University, Amsterdam), and Dr Zarah Vernham

ESRC South Coast Doctoral Training Partnership (SCDTP) funded. Project code: PSYC3691018

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

Residential burglary is a common and costly crime, and is the crime the general public think is most likely to happen to them. A considerable gap in knowledge exists in the public about risks in their environment that increase opportunities for burglary, because burglars develop automatic cognitive schemas for assessing risk which are absent in householders. This mixed methods project will use findings from recent research using virtual neighbourhoods with experienced burglars. Using the same virtual environment it will: assess baseline cognitive and behavioural knowledge of burglary risk in householders; evaluate awareness raising and crime prevention techniques; aiming to reduce crime and fear of crime, and enhance community safety. 

Project in detail

While terrorism is high on the agenda, more typically, residential burglary is the crime that the general public fear most, perceiving it as the crime they will most likely become victim of (Ceccato, 2015). Burglary is a common and costly crime (Crime Survey for England and Wales, 2016) and psychological distress is high in victims in the weeks after with a quarter suffering prolonged negative effects on mental health (Kunst, Rutten & Knijf, 2013). We know that receiving crime prevention advice reduces distress in victims (Kobayashi & Saito, 1995) but our recent work with a national insurance company has sharply illuminated the significant lack of knowledge in the general public about burglary risk and preventing burglary before it happens. Burglars develop automatic cognitive schemas allowing them to instantaneously assess risk and these appear to be absent in householders (Nee & Meenaghan, 2006). Educating the public with key knowledge we have learnt directly from perpetrators of the crime has the potential to considerably reduce opportunities for burglary, reduce fear of crime, and enhance community safety and security.  Recent methodological innovations have allowed us for the first time to observe burglary in action through the use of virtual neighbourhoods (Nee et al, 2015; Van Gelder et al, 2016). This work has elucidated new and more accurate evidence on precisely how burglars scope a neighbourhood, choose/enter properties, navigate once inside, and select items to steal (Nee et al, under review). This ‘dysfunctional expertise’ (Nee & Ward, 2015) is in direct contrast to non-offenders, and using the virtual neighbourhood, the proposed project aims to qualitatively and quantitatively assess householders’ understanding of burglary risk regarding scoping, target choice, item choice and routes taken inside and outside the property.  Using the VR method, a variety of techniques for raising awareness and reducing risk including coaching and video training will be evaluated. Fear of crime will be measured qualitatively, quantitatively and physiologically.  Findings will make an innovative contribution to theory regarding cognitive and behavioural aspects of expertise, improve crime prevention policy and augment insurance company strategy to reduce risk.

Specific research questions:

  • To what extent do cognitive schemas and behavioural scripts differ between experienced burglars and householders in relation to understanding environmental risk for burglary?  
  • How effective are virtual reality methods for increasing understanding of burglary risk and changing behaviour in householders to reduce risk in the environment?

Candidate specification

The student will need to be competent in both multivariate data analysis using SPSS and qualitative methods of data analysis, show keen interest and clear motivation regarding how knowledge about offending behaviour can be used to educate end-user groups such as the general public. They will need good interpersonal skills for engaging and recruiting participants, be self-motivated and tenacious. 

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 supervision team as listed below, in advance of the deadline dates:

Dr Claire Nee -

Dr Zarah Vernham -

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 - PSYC3691018

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.