Banking on cooperation: testing evolutionary theories of human cooperation via microfinance loans Biosciences – MPhil/PhD (Funded) Ref: 2657

About the award


Dr Shakti Lamba, University of Exeter
Dr Alex Mesoudi, University of Exeter

The University of Exeter’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences is inviting applications for a PhD studentship funded by the Royal Society to commence on 1 January 2019 or as soon as possible thereafter.  For eligible students the studentship will cover UK/EU tuition fees plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £14,777 for 4 years full-time. The student would be based in Dr Shakti Lamba’s research group in the College of Life and Environmental Sciences at the Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

The student will test hypotheses on the evolution of cooperation in humans using the vast, worldwide, long term datasets available on microfinance.
Microfinance refers to informal and formal arrangements offering financial services, mainly loans, to those who are otherwise excluded from mainstream banking services. Microfinance institutions (MFIs) cater to people who cannot generate collaterals necessary to obtain credit from mainstream banks. They do so by offering loans to groups of individuals who are jointly liable for their repayment. This model of ‘group lending with joint liability’ creates a high stakes cooperative dilemma because if any member of a loan group defects and does not repay her/his share of the loan, the other members of the group are liable to repay it for her/him. Thus, successful repayment of a loan is contingent upon at least some members of the loan group cooperating to repay it.
This project builds on a book chapter [1] by Dr. Lamba which qualitatively compares drivers of MFI loan repayment as per the economics literature to hypothesised drivers of cooperation in the equally prolific evolutionary literature. The student will extend this comparison quantitatively via a combination of meta-analyses of the economic literature on loan repayment, analyses of raw datasets obtained from MFIs and experimental testing via randomised control trials.
This PhD involves large-scale data analyses working with several partners including microfinance institutions and economists. The student is expected to develop considerable statistical and analytical expertise including meta-analyses, multilevel modeling and possibly social network analyses.
Over 190 million families across the world are served by microfinance which is considered a major tool of poverty alleviation. Hence, this project will help us understand how we can improve cooperation between people around very high-value resources and will contribute towards a rigorous evolutionary applied science of contemporary human behaviour that speaks to society and to policy makers. The work contributes to Dr Lamba’s long-term interests in the evolution of large-scale cooperation in humans [2-4].

[1] Lamba 2014, A comparison of the economic literature on microfinance and the evolutionary literature on 
cooperation. In Applied Evolutionary Anthropology (eds Gibson & Lawson), pp. 39–57. Springer NY
[2] Lamba & Mace 2011 Demography and ecology drive variation in cooperation across human populations. 
Proc Natl Acad Sci 108, 14426-14430 

[3] Lamba & Mace 2013 The evolution of fairness. Proc R Soc B Biol Sci 280 

[4] Lamba 2014 Social learning in cooperative dilemmas. Proc R Soc B Biol Sci 281 

This award provides annual funding to cover UK/EU tuition fees and a tax-free stipend.  For students who pay UK/EU tuition fees the award will cover the tuition fees in full, plus at least £14,777 per year tax-free stipend. Students who pay international tuition fees are eligible to apply, but should note that the award will only provide payment for part of the international tuition fee and no stipend.
The studentship will be awarded on the basis of merit for 4 years of full-time study to commence in January 2019. Due to the terms and conditions of the funding body this award is not available on a part-time basis.

Entry requirements

Applicants for this studentship must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an appropriate area of science, technology, statistics or economics. A Masters degree in a relevant discipline would be an advantage. Evidence of quantitative and/or experimental skills would be an advantage.
If English is not your first language you will need to have achieved at least 6.5 in IELTS and no less than 6.0 in any section by the start of the project.  Alternative tests may be acceptable (see

How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents.  Please note our preferred format is PDF, each file named with your surname and the name of the document, eg. “Smith – CV.pdf”, “Smith – Cover Letter.pdf”, “Smith – Transcript.pdf”.
• CV
• Letter of application (maximum 2 pages) outlining your academic background and interests, your prior research experience and why you are interested in this project. Please write this letter with care and stick to the page limit as it is an important document used to evaluate, shortlist and interview applicants.
• One representative writing sample demonstrating your ability to write on a scientific topic.You can submit any piece of writing that you have done previously, an essay for an assignment, an article you have written, any written work that you think demonstrates your thinking and writing abilities. Please do not submit a whole research project thesis.
• Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained (this should be an interim transcript if you are still studying)
• Names of 2 referees familiar with your academic work. We will only contact your referees if you are short-listed for this studentship. If requested, deadline for submitting references will be 30 November 2018.
• If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your proficiency in English
The closing date for applications is midnight on 16 November 2018 . Interviews will be held on the University of Exeter Penryn Campus in Cornwall the week commencing 3rd December 2018. Please note that the post may be readvertised until a suitable candidate is identified.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email or phone +44 (0)1392 725150/722730.  Project-specific queries should be directed to the main supervisor.


Application deadline:16th November 2018
Number of awards:1
Duration of award:per year
Contact: Postgraduate Research Office