Future Defence-related Complex Cognitive Skills Retention

Cranfield University


This PhD project is funded by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl). The main purpose of this PhD is to conduct experimentation to investigate: i) the retention of future-focused complex cognitive skills that are applicable to the Defence context; and ii) whether task mental model acquisition improves complex cognitive skills retention

Brief Overview

The skillset of defence personnel is expected to change in a Future Operating Environment that is likely to be characterised by technological developments and rapidly changing demands in unpredictable conditions. Future tasks will be more cognitively demanding with successful performance dependent upon the development and application of complex cognitive skills. In this context, the integration of two or more concurrent psychological skills will also be required. Whilst a rapid rate of decay for procedural skills has been demonstrated with actual performance data scant evidence exists regarding the decay of complex cognitive skills. How long these types of skills will be retained following a period of non-use after training is not known.

The research addresses two Dstl requirements. The first requirement is to provide UK MoD with an understanding of the timeframe in which Defence-related complex cognitive skills decay after training.

The second requirement is to identify and test strategies and techniques that can be used to positively impact the retention of these future-focused complex cognitive skills


The intention is to assess the acquisition and retention of Defence-related complex cognitive skills (e.g., complex decision-making, adaptive cognition and attentional control in the integration of two or more skills) that defence personnel are likely to require in the Future Operating Environment (FOE). An extended taxonomy of psychological skill types, recently developed as a result of Defence-funded research, was produced to support the identification of complex cognitive skills relevant to the Defence context, including where these are integrated. This will be made available during the research project to inform the work. However, the precise form of the PhD for example, the complex cognitive skills tested and the design of the experiment(s), will be shaped by the successful candidate’s research.

The research will make a significant contribution to the current gap in knowledge through longitudinal experimentation designed to test: i) the retention of Defence-related complex cognitive skills following a period of non-use after training; and ii) whether task mental model acquisition improves complex cognitive skills retention.

The outputs of this novel research will build upon and add to the corpus of skills retention science, stimulate further work, and inform future Defence training and education policy. The intention is to provide an empirical evidence base for informing: i) the scheduling of refresher training or practice intervals; decision-making about the specification of training priorities (initial and refresher); and ii) the mitigation of complex cognitive skills decay.

Leveraging the latest tools for supporting longitudinal experimentation, a novel experimental task environment will be designed. The experimental environment will enable isolation and measurement of the acquisition and retention of each complex cognitive skill involved in a task, including where skills are integrated. Various tools and platforms are available to deliver complex experimental paradigms that support a range of response forms. Examples include the online experiment builder, Gorilla which allows for multiple input methods (e.g., visual, auditory and video) and the recording of responses with millisecond accuracy thus making it ideal for psychological research. Online crowdsourced platforms (e.g., Prolific) that integrate with tools such as Gorilla can support longitudinal data collection.

Expected Impact/Results of Research Project

You will work on an applied research project funded by Dstl which is expected to deliver high impact results.

Why Cranfield University?

Cranfield Defence and Security (CDS) provides unique educational opportunities to the Defence and security sectors of both public and private sector organisations.

Based at the UK Defence Academy at Shrivenham in Oxfordshire and at Cranfield University Bedfordshire, CDS is the academic provider to the UK Ministry of Defence for postgraduate education at the Defence Academy, training in engineering, science, acquisition, management and leadership.

Unique Selling Points

You will join the Applied Psychology Group led by Dr Marie Cahillane, undertaking both theoretical and experimental research. You will work with your supervisors and an assigned Dstl Technical Partner, who will visit Cranfield Defence and Security twice a year for up to 2 days per visit. You will be expected to attend an “induction to Defence” day at one of the Dstl sites in early 2024 (Date TBC.) and attend up to 2 days a year supporting Dstl events. You will also have the opportunity to travel to conferences to present your results

What will you Learn?

You will gain strong independent thinking and research skills, both theoretical and experimental, and experience in presenting the outputs of scientific research at events and conferences. To support you in achieving a high standard in writing and presenting technical reports, scientific papers, and the thesis the University offers a number of courses. All of these are transferable skills enhancing employability.

Where is it Based?

Primary supervisor and associate supervisor are based at the UK Defence Academy in Shrivenham.

View or Apply
To help us track our recruitment effort, please indicate in your cover/motivation letter where (vacanciesin.eu) you saw this job posting.

Job Location