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Piers celebrates PhD he was told he would never get

Published: 20 November 2023 at 15:37

Piers Grey in his graduation gown

Dr Piers Grey has graduated from Anglia Ruskin University after overcoming setbacks

An Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) student celebrated receiving his PhD at graduation, after being previously told that he would not be able to achieve the postgraduate qualification due to his autism.

Dr Piers Grey had already been rejected by another institution for his PhD, but he was determined to proceed and attended an open day at ARU and spoke to academics about his plans for a doctoral thesis.

A PhD is typically undertaken after a Master’s degree and involves many years’ work on the thesis, which must be original research on a specific subject.

Piers, 31, decided to study at ARU under the supervision of Dr Jane Aspell and his thesis centred on how people with autism experience their internal body sensations, and how this relates to empathy and emotional experience.

Having started work on his lab-based research when the Covid-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, Piers was then forced to redesign some of his studies so they could be carried out online. However, he overcame these obstacles to successfully complete his PhD.

Piers, from Wymondham in Norfolk, not only graduated at his ceremony at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, but he now works in the Faculty of Science and Engineering at ARU in Cambridge as an associate lecturer.

Piers said:

“I felt like I had been blocked from doing a PhD. People have told me all my life that I wasn’t capable of doing certain things because of my autism.

“ARU accepted me, and my first year was before Covid. However, three quarters of my experiments were lab-based, and when the pandemic hit, I was forced to redesign the studies. I had to go all-out, with the help of my supervisors, to complete the research.

“Very few people with autism get on to do a PhD, but as long as someone has an ability, it is amazing what they can achieve.”

Dr Aspell, Associate Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), said:

“To complete his thesis, Piers had to be very creative and persevere in the face of significant challenges. 

“The findings of the thesis are likely to have an impact on our understanding of autism, as they demonstrate that some behavioural differences often attributed to autism are more closely related to difficulties in conceptualising emotions, known as alexithymia, than to the autism diagnosis per se. 

“Piers was a very creative and hard-working PhD student and it was a pleasure to be his supervisor. I am very proud of his achievements.”