Skip to Content

School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work


The Immersive Technologies and Digital Mental Health Network is a trans-disciplinary partnership of academics, practitioners and technology companies focusing on therapeutic and pedagogical advances in mental health and social care through digital means. The aim of this themed call is to attract an enthusiastic and talented individual to join our doctoral research programme on a three year scholarship. 


Project Outline 

Immersive and digital technologies (e.g. Virtual Reality, Mixed Reality, Apps etc.) have shown the potential to enhance therapeutic practice as well as professional education and training. We are seeking a suitably motivated individual to extend the work of our existing network by focusing on one of these areas. Applicants are invited to submit an 800-1000 word proposal outlining their ideas for a PhD project using the following structure–


            (1) Research Problem

            (2) Role of technology to address the problem

            (3) Potential Research Design

            (4) Previous and current experience as relevant to doctoral level study


Proposals will be scored in line with applicant’s previous experience and qualifications. An award may be made on the basis of the proposal only however, if a number of suitable proposals are received then the panel may invite applicants for interview. 

PhD Supervisor: Dr Paul Best

Secondary PhD Supervisor: Prof Joanne Reid, Professor of Cancer and Palliative Care, School of Nursing and Midwifery, Queen’s University Belfast

Assistant PhD Supervisor: Dr Tracey McConnell, Marie Curie Senior Research Fellow, School of Nursing and Midwifery, Queen’s University Belfast

Queen’s has an excellent track-record of collaborating with private industry, public sector organisations, and the third sector to successfully deliver impactful, user-informed research. To support the development of these collaborations, the University will again commit to a number of studentships (funded via Department for the Economy and EPSRC) commencing in October 2021 for projects across the Institution that will significantly involve working with a non-academic partner.

As a non-curable condition, patients with Parkinson’s rely heavily on healthcare services to support them to live as full a life as possible. Access to regular and specialist physiotherapy is particularly important for those with Parkinson’s as it can help someone to live independently for longer as well as managing functional decline. However, access to these services can be difficult with some providers reporting a two-year waiting list. Covid-19 restrictions have further exacerbated this issue and the expected influx of post-lockdown referrals will do little to change this worrying trend. A new and transformative approach to service delivery is required, one that enables those with Parkinson’s to access specialist physiotherapy services while reducing the burden on already struggling services.

Virtual Reality (VR) technology is being used more and more in healthcare as an approach to treatment (phobias, dental anxiety, trauma etc.) or as a tool for training (surgical skills, undertaking CPR). The underlying principle is that Virtual Environments provide a sense of immersion and presence that make the user feel they are transported to a new environment. Therefore, responses to stimuli in the virtual world are similar to responses in real life. These advancements have opened up massive opportunities in relation to service development whereby situations and scenarios that are too costly or unique to replicate in the ‘real world’ are easily accessible in the virtual world. VR programmes that harness the knowledge of healthcare experts can enable the user to receive specialist advice and support every day and from the comfort of their own home.

Project Outline 

This project is a collaboration between QUB, Marie Curie and a technology company called ProPeer Solutions. The current project will see chartered physiotherapy staff from Marie Curie and ProPeer develop a series of VR-based exercises that replicate those received within face-to-face services. This involves a person with Parkinson’s putting on a VR headset and being guided through a series of tasks designed to strengthen muscles, mobilise joints and improve balance.

Some preliminary work has already been completed and delivered to a small group of patients and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. The current project seeks to extend this work by providing more patients with Parkinson’s an opportunity to try out these specialist VR exercises from home as part of a 6-week programme. The objectives will be to assess whether the VR exercises help manage functional decline, prevent falls as well as the impact on their mental well-being (stress and anxiety). We would also like to investigate what users thought about the VR experience and how they would like to see it improved. We wish to establish how many patients will sign up to receive the service (recruitment) and whether they complete the 6-week programme (retention). If successful, we wish to scale up the programme and offer it to more patients including those receiving services from other organisations. The overall goal is to provide a low cost, VR-based solution that will have a transformative impact on those with Parkinson’s.


PhD Supervisor: Dr Aisling O’Boyle


Queen’s has an excellent track-record of collaborating with private industry, public sector organisations, and the third sector to successfully deliver impactful, user-informed research. To support the development of these collaborations, the University will commit again commit a number of studentships (funded via Department for the Economy and EPSRC) commencing in October 2021 for projects across the Institution that will significantly involve working with a non-academic partner.


There are 79.7 million forcibly displaced people worldwide (UNHCR, 2020). Individuals and families fleeing conflict and persecution are often characterised by their vulnerabilities and need for support (Sheikh and Anderson, 2018). Language learning in contexts of migration include formal, non-formal and informal approaches. In the UK, statutory measures can afford access to formal classes but are often unable to consider factors such as long-term consequences of torture and post-traumatic stress common in refugee populations which affects a person’s ability to engage with formal learning (Salvo and Williams, 2017). In response, voluntary sectors provide informal approaches (Simpson, 2015). With reference to Northern Ireland, the community sector has long provided non-formal and informal language classes to meet socially embedded communicative needs (McNulty, 2019). However, as demand for programmes increases there remains a void in research on the impact of non-formal language education. There is an absence of research on learner outcomes, programme evaluation, management of volunteers and the notion of altruism embedded in these social contexts, which could provide answers to: How do initiatives emerge through community groups as compassionate responses to unfulfilled human needs? What impacts on the sustainability of volunteer-led initiatives? In a pandemic, how does a community fulfil the “intrinsic nature of our species’ heritage” (Rabben, 2016) to offer sanctuary? Answers to these questions require a partnership model of inquiry and international scope.

Project Outline 

This project is a collaboration between QUB and the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre (BURC). The Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre (BURC) set up in September 1984 provides support, education/ training and facilities to the unemployed and other groups suffering from social and economic disadvantage. Its purpose is to promote equality, through supporting the participation and inclusion of all individuals, groups and communities. The core values of the organisation are to deliver sustainable activities and services, through a flexible creative approach based on partnership, networking, accountability and leadership.

This studentship will examine and evidence the impact of community and volunteer-led social integration and language education initiatives for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, in order to develop future programmes of work in BURC. Working in collaboration with the partner organization with guidance and mentorship of experienced academic staff the studentship has three objectives: to undertake an international systematic review of the approaches to the evidenced-based evaluation of community volunteer-led language education initiatives for migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers; to evidence the phenomenon of volunteer-led language education through comparative case study of the partner organization (BURC) in NI and three comparable organizations in national and contexts, and to conduct empirical research with key internal stakeholders (e.g. learners, volunteers, volunteer managers, and governance leaders) and external stakeholders (e.g. statutory bodies; NGO; policy advisors; community leaders) at macro, meso, and micro levels of analysis.

CAST (Co-operative Awards in Science and Technology) PhD Studentship in association with the Department of Justice (NI) and the Crime and Social Justice Research Group, QUB.

SupervisorsDr Andrew Percy (SSESW) and Dr Michelle Butler (SSESW).

Context: Restorative Justice, where victims meet offenders in a face-to-face setting, has been shown to be effective in reducing reoffending and improving victim satisfaction. Northern Ireland is a world leading proponent of restorative justice services for young offenders and their victims. To date, Restorative Justice (RJ) has tended to be targeted at low level offences, such as criminal damage and minor assaults. However, evidence is emerging that RJ is also effective with more serious offences, particularly where the experiences of victims within the Criminal Justice System (CJS) are less than optimal and where current approaches may result in poor reoffending outcomes, such as the case with serious sexual offences.   

The Gillen Review into Law and Procedures in Sexual Offences (published in 2019), recommended that the Department of Justice consider the development of RJ services for serious sexual offences. Specifically, Recommendation 243 requested a victim led RJ scheme within the CJS dealing with serious sexual offences where the offender has admitted their guilt, the victim has requested RJ and the perpetrator has agreed to be involved. In addition, Recommendation 244 requested a victim-led voluntary self-referral RJ service to resolve certain serious sexual offences where the victim may not wish to participate in the formal CJS.

This PhD will examine the feasibility and viability of addressing these two recommendations. The research will assess the extent to which RJ may provide better outcomes for victims, offenders and society in relation to serious sexual offending. The PhD will:

  1. undertake a systematic review and meta-analysis of RJ interventions for sexual offending,
  2. assess the views and opinions of victims, offenders and CJS practitioners regarding the provision of Restorative Justice services for serious sexual offences,
  3. determine and describe the implementation and operational challenges associated with enacting these recommendations,
  4. document current provision for victims and perpetrators of serious sexual offences, specifically in relation to locating the proposed schemes within existing services, and
  5. provide guidance on ways forward to address the two recommendations.

This research builds on an existing collaborative relationship between Department of Justice and the Crime and Social Justice Research Group in the School of Social Science, Education and Social Work. The project aligns with current research priorities regarding the development and evaluation of complex CJS interventions, improving systems for the control of crime, and promoting social justice for victims and offenders, and draws on the group’s expertise in RJ, desistance, and implementation and evaluation research.

This research is of international significance. This work will have direct policy and practice impact not only on the Northern Ireland CJS, but also in relation to international developments in adult RJ and interventions for victims of serious sexual offending.    


Professional practice often takes place in complex environments that require sophisticated approaches. However, the extent to which professional training has kept up with the ever-changing demands of practice is unclear. New technologies and approaches to simulation may help educators introduce a sense of realism within teaching that is difficult to replicate in a classroom setting – this in turn may help equip the workforce to learn how to manage more complex workplace scenarios and environment.

Project Outline 

This studentship will explore the concept of Interdisciplinary Immersive Education with a view to developing a new approach to professional education within QUB, that uses the latest digital technologies. Led by SSESW staff, this project will seek to include colleagues from other professional courses at QUB such as, midwifery/nursing, law and teacher training to develop and test the benefits of immersive technology when  teaching complex and advanced interdisciplinary skills (e.g. challenging aggressive behaviour, engaging with the law (court based skills), assessing the home environment and making safe-guarding judgements etc.). 

Project Title: Borders within and around the United Kingdom after Brexit

It was predictable that some of the most direct effects of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU would be manifest at the UK’s borders with the European Union. What was less expected was that Brexit would lead to changes to the UK’s internal borders. As the transition period comes to an end, the UK faces new challenges in terms of how to maintain frictionless movement of goods, people and services across its internal and external borders. These challenges arise in legal, economic and political terms, as well as socio-cultural ones.

The most obvious changes to the UK’s internal borders will be between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as a result of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland in the Withdrawal Agreement. More broadly, new frictions on cross-border movement within the UK could arise as a result of differential policies among the nations and regions of the UK. A future referendum on Scottish independence will also draw attention to potential border-related policies and change.

The measures proposed (and indeed, the measures not taken) now to address the new conditions for the management of the UK’s borders, internal and external, will have major long-term consequences. This studentship is to fund doctoral research on this subject at a critical juncture.

There is a growing realization in many societies that certain adults who are vulnerable have been subject to abuse, harm or exploitation. Abuse of vulnerable people is an increasing problem given the demographics of an ageing society and the promotion of care in the community. Over the last 15 years, increased public and political awareness has developed alongside policy and professional intervention to increase our understanding of the abuse and protection of adults whose personal characteristics or life circumstances may put them at risk of harm. Northern Ireland is unique across the UK, as it does not yet have any adult protection legislation, although an Adult Safeguarding Bill is pending.

Research into adult protection locally, nationally and internationally, is limited in range and volume; where it exists, the research tends to consider issues at an individual micro level. There are major gaps in knowledge and understanding of adult protection particularly around developing a systemic model of abuse, considering wider structural issues such as poverty, unemployment and service provision.

Supervisors: Dr Paul Best, Dr John D’Arcy and Dr Yang Hua

Northern Ireland has one of the highest levels of PTSD in Europe (Ferry et al. 2015). It is estimated that as much as 20.7% of the population aged 50+ meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. This has contributed to a public health crisis in the most deprived areas with record levels of antidepressant prescribing, growing alcohol and substance misuse and lower life expectancy.

Current treatments for PTSD, while largely successful, routinely include some form of exposure to the feared event (imaginal or in-vivo). As such, drop out remains high (78% in some cases) and many of those who would benefit most, fail to complete treatment. Immersive technology, such as Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET), has shown clinical utility in regards to ET, by increasing its acceptability and enhancing traditional (imaginal based) exposure exercises (Botella et al., 1998; Aiken and Berry, 2015; Freeman et al. 2017). It has been particularly useful in the treatment of PTSD - a disorder characterised by persistent “avoidance of reminders of the trauma” (Rizzo et al. 2006). However, despite the strong evidence regarding VRET, we are yet to see the widespread adoption of VRET and other immersive technologies within clinical settings. This appears due to the high production values (cost) associated with VRET and a dearth of available data regarding its acceptability and feasibility within clinical (real-world) settings. Moreover, PTSD treatment (by nature) is idiosyncratic and as such, individuals exposed to the same event will often have different interpretations and appraisals that contributed to the development of their condition (Grey, 2009).

Immersive 360 video is a low-cost alternative to VR, yet one that has shown the same potential to achieve ‘spatial presence’ (i.e. the extent to which the immersive environment feels real) (Bailey and Bailenson, 2017). Therefore, the use of immersive 360 video may enable the generation of tailored images, to assist and enhance traditional imaginal based exposure exercises on a case by case basis. If this lower-cost alternative can be shown to be acceptable to clinicians as well as enhance current PTSD treatment, this may lead to greater adoption within clinical settings. As such, this project will use an experimental research design to explore the feasibility and benefit of trauma-focused therapy enhanced with immersive 360 video technology to treat PTSD.