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2 x fully funded PhD positions- Comparative Investigation into the Development of empathy

Hiring Organization:
Durham University

Date Posted:

Position Description:
Two fully-funded PhD studentships (UK/EU) are available to work on a large-scale project investigating the development of empathy in wild bonobos as compared to human infants. This research is funded by the European Research Council. Each PhD student will focus either on collecting longitudinal data from wild bonobos (PhD Project 1) or data from human infants living in the South Pacific - Samoa and Vanuatu (PhD Project 2).

Empathy -sharing and understanding others' emotions and thoughts - is a defining feature of what it means to be human. However, we lack knowledge about its origins and to what extent the sub-components of empathy reflect species and cultural universals. Studying infants and great apes enables us to identify the developmental and evolutionary origins of empathy and the extent of its human uniqueness. Nevertheless, we know little about how empathy develops in early life and how its emergence might compare to that in other animals. In this project, we will address this by conducting the first comparative investigation into the development of empathy in humans and bonobos, our closest living relatives. Rich datasets on infant development and caregiver interactions in bonobos will be compared to those from human infants from two small-scale, collectivist, traditional societies in the South Pacific- Vanuatu and Samoa.

Aims of the project
Combining rigorous behavioural observations, novel techniques and innovative experiments, this project seeks to advance our understanding of the origins of empathy, one of our most remarkable capacities, and to challenge current perspectives about its human uniqueness. Longitudinal data across the first two years of life will be collected on bonobo infants and compared to that of human infants from traditional, small-scale societies in the South Pacific- Samoa and Vanuatu. These comparative datasets will be used to assess the extent to which empathy and its subcomponents are species-specific, culturally-specific or universally shared. Data on caregiving interactions and the infant?s environment will also be collected in order to determine which conditions are needed for empathy to emerge. In a final component, conducted primarily by post-doctoral researchers, the project will integrate emerging technologies to create novel non-invasive techniques to study empathy comparatively.

Further details
Being longitudinal, both PhD projects will involve substantial lengths of time in the field, (e.g. approx. 25-30 months spread over three years) living and working in challenging, remote and basic field conditions. Both projects will involve working with field assistants. Project 1 will take place at wild bonobo field sites in remote locations in the DR Congo; Project 2 will take place in Samoa and Vanuatu.

Both positions: Good BSc degree in Psychology, Biology or Biological/Evolutionary Anthropology with excellent project mark (completed or expected by October 2019); Experience of fieldwork in remote/ basic third world conditions; Excellent communication skills; Evidence of working effectively in a team

Project 1 (bonobos): Experience conducting behavioural research with animals
Project 2 (cross-cultural): Experience interacting with human infants; Eligibility to attain full DBS clearance

All positions: Relevant Masters degree; Proficiency in learning new languages; Experience with behavioural research; Capacity for leadership

Project 1 (bonobos): Experience conducting research with great apes; Proficiency in French
Project 2 (cross-cultural): Experience in child/infant research; Experience of cross cultural research

Alongside the core project, I encourage/expect PhD students to suggest additional, complementary research questions that could be answered with data collected on their study groups.

I expect to be able to offer full funding (UK/EU fees plus stipend of ~£14,000/year) for up to four years. Please note that only UK/EU students are eligible for funding. Due to the longitudinal nature of this study, full funding will be available for 3 years plus a writing-up year (4 years total), but the PhD must still be completed within the 4-year period. Fieldwork and field travel costs will be paid for. Further details will be confirmed in March 2019.

Interested candidates should apply by emailing me the following documents to

1. CV
2. Cover letter indicating how you meet the essential and desirable requirements, stating which position you are most interested in.
3. Brief Research proposal consisting of:
a. An outline of how could we investigate the development of empathy in a comparable way with your study groups. Max 300 words
b. An outline of complementary research question/s that could be additionally answered using data collected on your study groups. Please state what the research question(s) would be, why it is important and novel and what methods you might use to tackle it. Max 300 words.

Support provided for internship/volunteer positions (travel, meals, lodging):
Field-work costs and field travel will be paid for. This PhD includes UK/EU fees along with a student stipend (~£14,777/year) for 4 years.

Term of Appointment:
October 2019

Application Deadline:
1200 (midday UK-time) Monday 11th February 2019.

I will invite the top candidates for interview (in person, or skype) in late February/early March, with a view to offering positions in March 2019.

Contact Information:
Zanna Clay
Department of Psychology, Durham University
Durham, Durham DH1 3LE
United Kingdom

Telephone Number:
+44191 334 9114


E-mail Address:

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