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Samuel Bond is originally from Wigan and joined Oxford Brookes as a research student in October 2018. His thesis title is ‘A Detailed Exploration into the Constraints on Statistical Learning’.
I completed the Psychology Qualifying Certificate and MSc at Oxford Brookes University, allowing the conversion of my original degree in Philosophy (from Sheffield University). I then applied for a Nigel Groome Scholarship, giving me the opportunity to continue my research here at Brookes and work towards a PhD.
I had studied here before and worked closely with Dr Gonzalez-Gomez, completing my MSc dissertation project on the Constraints on Statistical Learning in Adults. I really enjoyed my time at Brookes and my dissertation topic, so I jumped at the opportunity to come back and continue my studies. Working with Dr Gonzalez-Gomez, an expert in exploring language acquisition, and with Dr Pilling as my Director of Studies, I felt this was an excellent opportunity in a supportive environment to develop my skillset and face the challenges that come with completing a PhD.
Over the last few years, I have worked in the charity sector. Initially with the Oxfordshire mental health charity Restore, where I helped to support people with mental health problems find and keep work, and later acted as Tutor Lead at the Oxfordshire Recovery College (at the time a new project providing collaborative courses written both by mental health professionals and those with lived experience). On completing my MSc, I moved back to Sheffield, where I worked as a service supervisor with Sheffield Mind before joining the homelessness charity Crisis. At Crisis, I worked directly with individuals facing a variety of barriers relating to their homelessness; for example, mental and physical health problems, financial difficulties, abuse, unemployment and addiction. I also had the opportunity to apply my research skills at Crisis, coordinating a project in South Yorkshire aiming to increase the efficacy of homelessness services.
I have worked for some incredible charitable organisations over the past few years, and I will seek to continue to help people who are vulnerable, marginalised and disadvantaged throughout my career, in whatever capacity I can. I gained invaluable experience and awareness by supporting individuals fight to overcome acute hardship. This means that each day I fully appreciate the opportunity to study towards a PhD here at Brookes.
Having previously studied here, I knew the excellent facilities and supportive staff would help me to settle back into research easily. From the JHB building to the psychology department, psychology research students have every opportunity to conduct their research in an excellent environment.
We know from previous literature that Statistical Learning helps us to make sense of what we see and hear. Put very simply, in language acquisition this means that we can learn rules about a given language based on the statistical properties present. This could be in terms of single sounds (like, in English, the consonant /g/ frequently occurring at the end of words) but also about multiple sounds having a statistical relationship with one another (for example, /q/ and /u/ almost always co-occurring; /quest/ /quiz/ /queue/).
Although we know that statistical learning can help us to determine language rules, it’s still unclear how this learning truly works. This is particularly interesting in phonological acquisition (that is, learning rules around the speech sounds in a given language) because research suggests that some statistical cues are more important than others in determining what we learn. This implies there are underlying constraints on our statistical learning mechanism. My research aims to explore these constraints in more detail and try to discover a pattern in our phonological statistical learning.
For my method, I will develop several artificial languages using computer software. Artificial languages are often used to test language acquisition because they can test exclusively what you would like. In my case, this means developing a language with complete control over the statistical cues and accompanying phonological rulings. I can develop a language to focus on different levels of statistical cue: co-occurring consonant sounds can provide word-level statistical information, but I can also include overarching biases, like all words ending in a voiced consonant (i.e. using vocal chord vibrations). By using different languages to explore which statistical cues seem to hold more importance, we can begin to build a picture of the constraints under which statistical learning operates.
I really enjoy the unique experience of conducting your own research full-time; having the opportunity to dive right into a complex topic and try to produce valuable contributions to the field. I get the feeling that no other time in my life will be like the next three years, and this is both exciting and challenging. A huge difficulty that many research students face is the scale of work, even at the very start of the study programme. Right away you need to map out the next three years, and this can be intimidating. Because I’ve come straight out of full-time employment, my approach to try and reduce stress and tackle the workload is to treat the studentship like a job. Often you’re in charge of your own calendar and, with some exceptions, may have few commitments during the week outside of your own research. Being strict with my daily and weekly structure has helped me to overcome the initial hurdles of the studentship, such as registration and gaining ethical approval to carry out studies. Having a strict structure also needs to include time away from your project.
The ongoing departmental and university wide training at Brookes has helped me to face specific milestones along the PhD journey, like registration mentioned above. Training sessions directly discussing these topics helped to let me know what was expected, and potential pitfalls to avoid. There are also broader sessions to help you think about the wider implications of completing a PhD, such as the transferable skills you’ll develop along the way. As part of my studentship, I also have the opportunity to attend external training relevant to my research area.
I’ve recently moved back to Oxford after a spell in Sheffield, and I’m currently enjoying the challenge of completing my PhD. I am approaching my future with an open mind, because I’d like to make the most of the opportunities that may arise over the next three years. My short-term plan is to complete my PhD to the best of my ability and to try and enjoy the process as much as I can. My long-term thinking is not concrete, but I really enjoy studying psychology and, in particular, I find language acquisition fascinating, so I’m incredibly motivated to continue my research after finishing my PhD. I would like to move back up North eventually, but we’ll see.