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New LT doctoral scholarship programme to fight childhood inequality with multidisciplinary research



The University of Oxford will be offering 15 doctoral scholarships from 2021-2023, thanks to a £1.35m grant from the Leverhulme Trust. Students will complete multi-disciplinary research on the impact of poverty and social inequalities in early childhood.


The Leverhulme Trust Biopsychosocial Doctoral Scholarship Programme, Moving Beyond Inequality, will be co-directed by Professor Melinda Mills, Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science and Nuffield Professor of Sociology (Oxford).

Professor Mills will supervise one of the programme's projects, The impact of COVID-19 during pregnancy on early life outcomes. Applications are invited from high calibre students to work with her on this project to help improve the life chances of disadvantaged children.


The impact of COVID-19 during pregnancy on early life outcomes project will use unique linked Finnish and Swedish register data, which includes information on biosocial medical pregnancy and birth data of children and parents in addition to education, occupation and income data. This project will examine the very early life course period from pre- and post-birth measurements using advanced quantitative and bio-statistical techniques.



Set-up and purpose of the Leverhulme Trust Biopsychosocial Doctoral Scholarship Programme, Moving Beyond Inequality


This ground-breaking programme of doctoral scholarships, spanning the social and biological sciences, will aim to reduce the impact of these disadvantages on children’s life chances.


Directed by Professor Jane Barlow, Moving Beyond Inequality is Oxford’s first doctoral programme that brings together expertise from diverse disciplines with the explicit goal of reducing the impact of social inequality in early childhood through the application of biological science.


Social inequalities and poverty have proved to be highly intractable, and continue to be significant predictors of poor outcomes for children. It is now recognised that the social adversity associated with such poverty, is ‘biologically embedded’ in children during ‘sensitive developmental periods’, and thereby that the origins of long-term social inequality lie in developmental and biological disruptions occurring during the early years of life.


Early social interventions aimed at improving the life-chances of young children exposed to such adversity have made a significant contribution to reducing the impact of poverty on children globally, but the overall benefit of these programmes is still limited. Emerging research suggests that this may be due to biological characteristics, which can influence the capacity of individual children to benefit from early interventions (i.e. known as ‘differential susceptibility’), and also that social interventions need to begin to address the early biological disruptions, now recognised to be a significant part of the problem.



Applications are sought from high calibre individuals who have an interest in building on recent scientific advances. They will have begun to apply knowledge developed between the biological and social sciences, with the aim of using a multiple level of analysis perspective to reduce social inequalities in early childhood.

About the Programme

This exciting new programme of scholarships will expose students to expertise and cutting edge mixed-methods research across the fields of psychology, sociology, neuroscience, endocrinology, genetics, and ethics, producing a new generation of scientists who have the necessary skills to be future research leaders in this important field.


Four lead departments are affiliated with the programme: Social Policy and Intervention, Sociology, Psychiatry and Experimental Psychology.


Students will complete a training programme tailored to their individual skills and project requirements, including attending activities offered to the full Leverhulme cohort. They will be formally admitted by the Department linked to their primary supervisor, and will have access to the diverse range of seminars, workshops and advanced training opportunities offered by that Department.

Programme Directors

The programme will be led by internationally renowned academics based in the four lead Departments. Projects will be offered by a range of supervisors across relevant subject areas.

Programme Director: Professor Jane Barlow, Social Policy and Intervention Co-director: Professor Melinda Mills, Sociology Co-director: Dr Liz Tunbridge, Psychiatry Co-director: Dr Lucy Bowes, Experimental Psychology Co-director: Illina Singh, Department of Psychiatry and Faculty of Philosophy

Projects for 2021 entry

We have suggested a number of topics for which we would very much welcome applications (see below). However, you would also be welcome to suggest a topic in a cognate area that is not listed below.

The impact of COVID-19 during pregnancy on early life outcomes

This project will use unique linked Finnish and Swedish register data, which includes information on biosocial medical pregnancy and birth data of children and parents in addition to education, occupation and income data. This project will examine the very early life course period from pre- and post-birth measurements using advanced quantitative and bio-statistical techniques.

Supervision - Professor Melinda Mills

The effectiveness of an early attachment-based intervention on children’s physiological regulation and epigenetic mechanisms.

This project will be located within an existing RCT of an intervention aimed at improving emotional and behavioural outcomes in infants and toddlers, and will involve the collection of a range of additional biological data to examine both the impact of the intervention and biological factors that modify its impact.

Supervision - Professor Jane Barlow

The role of biological mechanisms on the impact of adverse childhood experiences on risk for psychopathology

Adverse life events in the prenatal and perinatal period have been linked to the later emergence of depression and psychotic symptoms. We aim to investigate the biopsychosocial mechanisms through which early exposure to adverse events may lead to later poor mental health outcomes using data from large birth cohort studies.

Supervision – Professor Lucy Bowes

Scholarships and eligibility

Successful candidates will be awarded a 4-year scholarship covering tuition fees and a maintenance stipend at UK research council rates (£15,609 in 2021-22). They will also have access to research and training support funds.

While the Leverhulme Trust offers scholarships at ‘home’ fee levels only, where sufficiently strong overseas candidates apply, the University will consider offering them an award covering overseas fees.

These projects are advertised on a full-time basis. Applicants who are unable to study full-time may also apply; however, any offer to study part-time will be conditional on the University first receiving permission from the Leverhulme Trust.

Application process

All candidates will initially apply to the DPhil in Social Policy and Intervention via the link on the University Open Studentships page. This is solely for application purposes, successful Leverhulme candidates will be registered on the DPhil programme based in their supervisor’s Department. You should ensure you meet the eligibility requirements for this programme.


Candidates must complete a University application form and submit a research proposal, a CV, transcripts from previous study, and details of 3 referees. If you have already applied to the University’s admissions round for 2021 entry and are also interested in applying for the Leverhulme Programme, please contact admissions@spi.ox.ac.uk to discuss the process.

College affiliation will be arranged for the successful candidates, therefore we advise candidates not to list a college preference in their application.


The Directors and supervisors will select a shortlist of candidates for interview, from which the successful Leverhulme scholars will be selected.

Application deadline: 15 May 2021.

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