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University of Exeter funding: Co-evolution of social relationship

Co-evolution of social relationships and cognition: a theoretical investigation - PhD (funded) studentship in Biological Sciences Ref: 3933

About the award


Academic Supervisors

Dr Sasha Dall, Associate Professor of Mathematical Ecology; College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter.

Dr Alex Thornton, Associate Professor of Cognitive Evolution; College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter.

The University of Exeter’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences is inviting applications for a PhD studentship fully funded by the Leverhulme Trust to commence in April 2021.  For eligible students the studentship will cover UK/EU tuition fees plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £15,285 for 3.5 years full-time, or pro rata for part-time study.  The student would be based in the Centre for Ecology and Conservation in the College of Life and Environmental Sciences at the Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

Location: Centre for Ecology & Conservation, Penryn Campus, Cornwall.

Project Description

Relationships can be hard work. Indeed, the challenges of maintaining social relationships are widely thought to drive the evolution of large brains and intelligence in humans and other animals such as primates, cetaceans and corvids. This idea, known as the Social Intelligence Hypothesis, has been hugely influential in biology, psychology and anthropology for over 50 years. However, it remains highly controversial and lacks predictive power, largely because it is based on verbal arguments rather than formal models with explicit assumptions. In this PhD, part of the Leverhulme-funded project “The role of social relationships in cognitive evolution” you will develop a novel theoretical framework to analyse whether and under what circumstances social relationships generate cognitive demands and how those demands in turn influence social evolution.

By integrating game theoretical approaches with recent advances in the ecology of information use, you will develop mathematical and/or computational models to analyse the implications of evolutionary costs and benefits of tracking information from social partners to make decisions across differing social and ecological conditions. These models will generate explicit predictions of whether and under what circumstances social relationships generate cognitive demands for monitoring and responding to partner behaviour, and how those demands in turn influence social evolution. Predictions from the models will be tested using data from co-supervisor Alex Thornton’s long-term field studies of wild corvids and meta-analyses of published data.

The successful candidate will be supervised by Dr Sasha Dall and Dr Alex Thornton at the lively research environment of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation, at the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall. Prof, John McNamara FRS (Mathematics: University of Bristol) will be involved with the project as an external partner. You will be an active member of both Thornton’s Wild Cognition Research Group, and the wider Behaviour Discussion Group, one of the largest concentration of behavioural biologists in the world.

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 £15,285 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.

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 or technology (e.g. biology, psychology, mathematics, computer science).  A Master’s degree in a related area is desirable.
Applicants must have strong mathematical and/or computational skills and research interests in the evolution of cognition and behaviour. Experience of theoretical modelling would be a strong 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. 
• CV
• Letter of application (outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake the project).
• Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained (this should be an interim transcript if you are still studying)
• Two references from referees familiar with your academic work. If your referees prefer, they can email the reference direct to quoting the studentship reference number 3933.
• 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 8 January 2021.  Interviews will be held on the University of Exeter Penryn (or via video chat)  the week commencing 1 February 2021.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email or phone 0300 555 60 60 (UK callers) +44 (0) 1392 723044 (EU/International callers).  Project-specific queries should be directed to Dr Sasha Dall (main supervisor; or Dr Alex Thornton (co-supervisor;


Application deadline:8th January 2021
Value:£15,285 for 3.5 years full-time, or pro rata for part-time study
Duration of award:per year
Contact: STEMM PGR Admissions