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Social & Policy Sciences - Research

ASPS is a world-leading centre of excellence for applied research that examines complex policy and service dilemmas facing post-conflict societies.

The School of Applied Social and Policy Sciences (ASPS) is a substantial multi-disciplinary, cross campus research centre with members working on a range of methodological, theoretical, empirical and policy related issues. It is distinguished by its applied, interdisciplinary research that draws on national and international comparative methods, to develop innovative and significant impact centred work which pushes the disciplinary boundaries and promotes important changes within society.

ASPS has developed an international reputation for:
- Pioneering theoretical ideas that change the way in which policy, governance, criminology and social work are conceptualised.

- Developing cutting-edge research methodologies which produce unique, internationally significant data-sets.

- Designing a range of innovative analytical tools that help reform and guide social practice.

- Disseminating research outputs to a range of stakeholder groups in order to strengthen, and critically reflect upon, policy and practice.

The University welcomes applicants interested in researching social policy, criminology and justice, policing, prisons, public policy, social work, poverty, disadvantage, migration and welfare.

The strength and rigour of ASPS' research has been registered in successive research assessment exercises. In the most recent research assessment exercise, 'REF 2014', seventy percent of ASPS' research has been graded world-leading or internationally excellent, with a 160% increase in world-leading research since the 2008 assessment exercise. ASPS ranks 12th in the UK for outstanding research impact (4*) and 20th for world-leading research (4*).

ASPS distinguishes itself through a long-standing commitment to researching and shaping governance, policy, and practice in divided societies dealing with the legacies of violence and conflict. This focus is being expanded and enriched through strategic diversification into new applied research streams that inquire into, and confront, challenges presented by racism, inequality, economic marginalisation, institutional reform and the crimes of the powerful. Furthermore, the school aims to address blind-spots and lacunas in governance, policy and service delivery which conflict and transition can create, in areas such as gender, disability, ageing, health, criminal justice, and ethnic minorities. These streams are enhanced through transnational research that draws on growing international linkages to better understand how regional and global distributions of power, wealth, infrastructure, resources, and knowledge, impact on governance, policy, and practice on a variety of scales.

The school's research priorities are supported by a vibrant, aspirational culture that supports scholars to develop and pioneer innovative methodologies, analytical tools, and theoretical concepts that can sensitively and rigorously build evidence based, conceptually rich understandings of the complex processes that shape reform, accountability and service delivery. We embrace interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research that harnesses diverse tools and approaches to enhance our response to field-specific challenges.

The school aims to formulate and execute our research collaboratively, and share our findings through innovative mechanisms that cater to the precise needs of diverse user-group. ASPS has also demonstrated a preparedness, when needed, to confront injustice and significant failures in policy and governance in a robust manner, often with significant effect. This distinctive research agenda is operationalised through five research groups: criminology and justice, social policy, public policy, social work, and youth and community studies.

As a full time student, the expectation is that you will work on your project on a daily basis, either on or off campus as agreed with your supervisor. You will be entitled to 40 days holiday per annum.

Part time students are expected to meet with their supervisors on a regular basis, most usually this would be monthly but this is dependent on the project area.

Entry requirements

Entry conditions
We recognise a range of qualifications for admission to our courses. In addition to the specific entry conditions for this course you must also meet the University's General Entrance Requirements.

Entry Requirements
You will need to hold a First of Upper Second Class Honours degree (or equivalent) in an area relevant to your chosen project to be able to apply.

If you have obtained an undergraduate degree from a non-UK institution, we can advise you on how it compares to the UK system.

English Language Requirements
English language requirements for international applicants
The minimum requirement for research degree programmes is Academic IELTS 6.0 with no band score less than 5.5. This is the only acceptable certificate for those requiring to obtain a Tier 4 visa.

Ulster recognises a number of other English language tests and comparable IELTS equivalent scores


PhD Research
You can study for a PhD on a full (3 years) or part-time (6 years) basis and by the end of your programme, you will have produced a body of work that makes a contribution to knowledge in your chosen field.

We have various routes to obtaining a PhD - for example, in some areas you can submit a practical element as part of your submission, such as a piece of art or a musical composition.

The MPhil programme is studied over a 2 year period on a full-time basis or 4 years on a part-time basis.

We would recommend that you contact one of our academic staff whose interests align with your own to discuss your intended research prior to submitting an application.

Careers or further progression

Career options
Although academia is considered to be the most obvious path for any PhD holder, with around two thirds of our graduates remaining in the Higher Education or Research sectors, the degree also paves way for a career in industries centred on research and innovation.

PhD graduates are recognised by employers to hold valuable transferrable skills, as the nature of the degree trains candidates in creativity, critical inquiry, problem solving, negotiation skills, professionalism and confidence.

The most recent Ulster survey of PhD graduates found that 92% had secured employment within the first year since graduation (HESA Destination of Leavers Survey 2015).

Further enquiries

Dr Shane MacGiollabhui
Tel: +44 28 90366010
email: 


Research facilities and groups
It is increasingly recognized that a thriving community of postgraduate students contribute to the overall research culture and assist in social regeneration initiatives. SCPS aims to enrich the postgraduate experience by strengthening research training, enhancing the research environment and promoting interaction between post-graduate researchers and staff across the disciplines. Our work is guided by a commitment to developing a supportive and collaborative environment where postgraduate students are involved in all aspects of the unit's life, including academic events, public engagement, publishing and training.

In pursuit of this objective SCPS has developed, in collaboration with other units and the Research Graduate School, a range of initiatives designed to enhance the student experience. They include:

A methodological master-class series led by senior researchers from the Faculty of Social Sciences.

Postgraduate writing workshops, seminar series, and conferences.

Student led reading groups that examine key theoretical frameworks and policy debates.

A postgraduate student events committee which organises a range of research and social events.

Interdisciplinary supervision teams that employ a group-supervision approach.

Research student away-days that cover a range of theoretical, methodological and analytical themes.

Supporting students to attend relevant conferences, seminars and workshops.

Encouraging collaborations between students and staff that produce outstanding research and/or impact.

Supporting mentorship between research students at different stages of progression.

In addition to unit level support, research students have access to a range of facilities and services provided by the Faculty Research Graduate School (RGS). All full time research students in the Faculty of Social Sciences are provided with access to a desk, storage and IT facilities (hardware, software and technical support) in shared office space on their home campus. On admission, in addition to the University induction, students receive face to face induction into the Faculty RGS by the Head of RGS, and are introduced to the RGS secretary.

Throughout their period of study the RGS:
acts as a hub for information,

financially administers Research Training Support Grant funds for students with funding,

provides advice, organisation and general support for research students and supervisors, and

organises regular social events.

At induction, research students are advised to meet individually with subject librarians who provide ongoing support throughout the period of study, in addition to excellent online researcher support.

Students are expected to participate in the University Research Development programme (informed by the Vitae Research Development Framework), which offers generic and research skills training; students may also participate in the University's Doctoral Innovation Programme. The latter includes an opportunity for those who successfully complete the required assessment to receive certification from the Institute of Leadership and Management of a Level 5 unit in Project Management. Teaching opportunities are available to research students and are supported by the Research Development Programme's courses for Postgraduate Tutors and Demonstrators, Introduction to Teaching and Learning and First Steps to Supporting Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

Part time students are inducted in the same way and may request access to a desk and IT facilities on a shared or temporary basis. They are also invited to avail of all other training and support available to full time students.

Application date

Application is through the University's online application system.

Research areas

Staff research areas
ASPS research is currently structured through a number of core groups:
- Social Policy Group
- Criminology and Justice Group
- Public Policy Group
- Social Work Group
- Youth and Community Studies Group

Social Policy Group
Within this research cluster there is a focus on achieving a better understanding of some of the most difficult social problems we face and contributing to new knowledge in a range of areas including social theory, poverty and disadvantage, health and social care, disability, race and migration and the governance and delivery of welfare. The causes and policy response to social welfare issues is often contested and is linked to contrasting perspectives on the relationship between the state, families and individuals, and voluntary action. Work in this research cluster focuses on issues central to these debates. We also aim to make our research influential in bringing about change, and therefore to communicate findings effectively to a range of audiences and engage actively with policy makers and practitioners.

Research themes include:
- Policies for addressing poverty and disadvantage
- Analysis of social policy making under devolution in the UK
- The development of adult social care policy in Northern Ireland – including the social care workforce
- The role of civil society actors in social policy and the policymaking process.
- Victorian social theory
- The relationship between the vulnerable in society and the state
- Disability, work and poverty
- Health and social care structures and impact on delivery of care
- Migration, race and social policy
- Abortion policy and the legal reform of abortion in Northern Ireland

For further information on the welfare, poverty, health and social care cluster please contact Dr Ann-Marie Gray .

Criminology and Justice Group
The administration of justice is an evolving and highly sensitive process. How states inquire into and prosecute crime takes place through a complex bureaucratic apparatus, which is shaped by a range of contested policies and political agendas. Contestation takes place through changing social constellations inclusive of civil society, government and the private sector, which leads to a range of policy and practice challenges for the criminal justice system.

Equally states themselves are perpetrators of crimes, which are often exposed and censured through national and international networks of civil society, and by official agencies of accountability.

ASPS research into crime and punishment is distinguished by its critical approach to the administration of justice, and its recognition that states themselves can be perpetrators of significant deviant conduct.

Key research themes include:
Prisons and Northern Ireland
Children and women's rights within the criminal justice system
Policing, human rights and accountability in a national and transnational context
Truth recovery and the past
International state crime and human rights
Resistance and justice-making from below
Terrorism, security and intelligence handling
Crime mapping
Environmental criminology

For further information on the crime and punishment cluster please contact Dr Johnny Byrne

Public Policy Group
Governance amounts to a system of social coordination established through rule setting and rule observation by policy actors. Public services are delivered in complex governance spaces which frequently involve multiple organisations. In the current era of austerity greater significance has fallen on the use of performance management as a tool for disciplining the actions public services professionals. Professional judgement competes with managerialism in the shaping and delivery of services. The emergence of a 'compliance' culture is characterising professional working life in key public services. A tension exists between performance measured by internal organisational concepts of efficiency and external recognition of social impact.

Key research areas of interest include:
Governance and performance in health services
Control of professionals including doctors
Governance and performance in social services
Governance, performance and oversight over the police
Policy implementation
The evaluation of performance and social impact
Understanding institutions in the contemporary delivery of public services

For further information on the governance, performance and public policy cluster please contact Dr Gordon Marnoch .

Social Work Group
Social work research seeks to provide a knowledge base to support the social work profession in its roles of protecting and supporting the most vulnerable in society. Research applications are welcomed in relation to either of the social work research themes.

Mental Health and Wellbeing 
Mental health problems and positive mental health are key issues in contemporary society. How individuals seek help and the pathways they follow through services is a primary research focus for this cluster. Past research has included social media and the mental wellbeing of young men; statutory mental health social work; community integration of former long-stay hospital patients; loneliness amongst older people; and the mental ill health effects of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Another primary strand within this cluster is on resilience. Past studies have included resilience of child protection social workers and of clergy (in relation to Emotional Intelligence); current studies include resilience of family carers and the development of resilience amongst social work students.

Decision, Assessment, Risk and Evidence Studies 
This research cluster undertakes research, teaching and organisation development to support social work and allied human service professions in:
professional judgement and shared decision making;
assessment processes and tools to inform decisions;
risk assessment and management in practice and organisations; and
creating and using evidence to inform practice and policy.

Research includes studies of professional judgement in child protection, protection of vulnerable adults and the justice sector; developing the Northern Ireland Single Assessment Tool for the health and social care of older people; older people's conceptualisation of elder abuse and neglect; risk communication in dementia and in physical disability services; change processes in intimate partner violence programmes; and supporting the development of the Social Care Governance Workbook, the North-South Child Protection Hub and the Safeguarding Adults at Risk Information Hub.

Prospective research students should contact Professor Brian Taylor.

Youth and Community Studies Group
The research group has a focus on supporting the youth work profession; community development; restorative practice and work within prisons. Embedded in communities, the research takes place in the distinctive context of a contested and transforming society. A significant body of knowledge exists about the philosophy of education and community development on which practice builds. Drawing upon real experiences, the group develops theoretical frameworks and evidence-based models. In collaboration with young people and communities, the group moves to create developmental, associative, democratic, social education practice.

Key research themes include:
Grassroots experience of post-conflict transition and transitional justice studies
Gender studies in conflict and Youth Work
The impact of disadvantage and widening participation
Adult education transforming individuals and communities
Community Relations and peace building with young people
Suicidology and young people's mental health
Professional development in community youth work and community Development
Prison officer development in Northern Ireland
Community and statutory restorative justice
Informal Education and Youth Work processes and outcomes

For further information on the Youth and Community Studies Group, contact Susan Morgan  or Mark Hammond 

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