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Special Focus: What is it like to be a postgraduate at DCAL?

18 February 2012

Building research capacity for the future

The ESRC Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre (DCAL) includes within its mission, and its core values, a commitment to developing expertise in deafness, language and cognition among postgraduate research students. And this commitment is clear from DCAL’s postgraduate research record.

Since its foundation in 2006, DCAL staff have supervised 15 postgraduate students in the area of deafness, cognition and language. As of 2011 six of these have already earned their PhDs and another six currently working towards their doctorate are expecting to complete during 2012. DCAL is very proud of these success stories, and would be glad to welcome more students. It is important to the centre to help build capacity in the widest field of its research remit, and DCAL is especially keen to welcome junior deaf academics who will be key in developing the future research agenda.

An evolving global community

DCAL research students come to DCAL from all over the world. Past and present postgraduates have hailed from the USA, Mexico, India, Greece, Australia, the Czech Republic, as well as the UK, and from a variety of backgrounds and institutions. Some have come to us after completing an undergraduate or MA or MSc degree in, linguistics, psychology, applied linguistics, deaf studies or a related field. Some have begun as research assistants, either at DCAL or working in a DCAL-related field in another institution. Since 2006, DCAL has had four trainee research assistants. These positions were created with the intention of training new young researchers so that they could begin postgraduate study at DCAL at the end of their post. In this issue we spotlight Tanya Denmark, who has recently completed her PhD, and was one of DCAL’s trainee research assistants before she started her doctoral studies.  We focus on her story in the box below.

An inclusive environment

DCAL is proud to have developed a strong network of deaf and hearing researchers. To date, we have two deaf students who have completed their PhDs, and two current deaf students. We have also had hearing students with a knowledge of signing (including those from deaf families, and others with qualifications in Deaf Studies and in British Sign Language (BSL)/English interpreting). We also welcome students who are new to deafness and sign language research and we support them to acquire language skills by providing BSL training within DCAL at BSL levels 1, 2, and 3.

Funding and supervision

DCAL students have received funding from various sources, including UK Research Councils such as the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC), Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), or from Deaf organisations, such as Deafness Research UK, whilst others have received funding from governments in their home country. Students have been supervised by DCAL directors Woll, Campbell, MacSweeney, Morgan, and Vigliocco, and senior researchers Cormier, Schembri, and Atkinson. Dr Kearsy Cormier also acts as DCAL’s postgraduate student mentor.

Interdisciplinary research

Postgraduates studying at DCAL have worked on and are working on important research in a range of interdisciplinary areas to further the understanding of deafness, cognition and language. Postgraduate research topics (former and current) at DCAL include:
psycholinguistics of handling constructions in sign and gesture; phonology and iconicity in L2 acquisition of sign language; iconicity in sign language; role shift in sign language and gesture; bilingualism; lexical variation in British Sign Language (BSL); prosody/intonation in sign language; facial expression in deaf children with autism.

If you are interested in reading more about postgraduate work and the projects students are involved in, please go to DCAL’s website and read more under “Team”: http://www.dcal.ucl.ac.uk/team/team.html.

Part of the team

DCAL students are treated in a very similar way to DCAL staff. This means they share DCAL administrative responsibility and are expected to contribute to centre and departmental meetings, conferences, and publications. They can also expect to have a similar level of independence in their work. All in all this provides students with excellent preparation for an academic career. Not only do they get to see academic life up close, but they live it themselves. Several DCAL researchers are part-time PhD students and part-time research staff, and for them the overlap between student life and research staff life is stronger still.

Tanya Denmark

Tanya Denmark - postgraduate student


Coming from a big deaf family I have been using sign language all my life, but I only incorporated it into research during my psychology degree when I focused on Theory of Mind in deaf children as a dissertation topic.

It was this family link again that encouraged me to join DCAL, as my cousin was working as a researcher there. He had recently completed his PhD in the same field and he supported me with my dissertation to the extent that he proof read it from Vietnam in a backstreet internet cafe! After I graduated he informed me about the opportunity to become a graduate intern at DCAL and I jumped at the chance.

It was here that I learnt more about linguistics, brain imaging and the other strands of research at DCAL and I relished working on different projects with various members of staff and gaining new experiences. The internship was a one year post which was aimed at familiarizing new researchers with different research areas at DCAL and with the intention of encouraging the intern to develop a PhD proposal and find an area of special interest to them.

I developed a great interest in atypical sign language, so with support from colleagues at DCAL I wrote a proposal to do a PhD on the communication abilities of deaf children with autism. I was funded by the ESRC in their 1+3 quota award. This involved undertaking a one year Masters of Research (MRes) course in speech, language and cognition, which comprised attending interdisciplinary lectures, essay submission, a research project and PhD plan; this was beneficial as it gave me an opportunity to start preparing for my PhD in advance and allowed me the time to develop the relevant research skills.

Being a PhD student at DCAL gave me rich opportunities to network with other researchers and receive advice and support. There is also a good team of other PhD students who often meet up for junior researchers’ meetings or just post-work visits to the pub to offer each other a shoulder to cry on and constructive criticism.
Having recently completed my PhD I would recommend it to anyone; it is not without its ups and downs, especially those days when you feel like you will never get it finished. But the feeling at the end when it is sitting bound on your shelf is great and the skills you learn along the way are life-long. Now I just need to find the motivation to write up those papers!

I am now working as a research associate on the Deaf with Dementia project at DCAL. For the future I hope to stay involved in research; I have been at DCAL for 6 years now and have had a great time both studying and working here.