Tracking the ancient Indian monsoon: investigating the geochemistry of deep-sea sediments from the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, NERC GW4+ DTP, PhD in Geology studentship (Funded) Ref: 3311

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Kate Littler, Camborne School of Mines, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors

Dr. David Naafs, School of Chemistry, University of Bristol

Prof. Richard Pancost, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol

Prof. Melanie Leng British Geological Survey

Dr. Ian Bailey, Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter

Dr. Pallavi Anand, School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences, Open University

Location: University of Exeter, Penryn Campus, Penryn, Cornwall TR10 9FE

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners:  British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.  The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

  • An index-linked stipend for 3.5 years (currently £14,777 p.a. for 2018/19);
  • Payment of university tuition fees;
  • A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
  • A training budget of £4,000 for specialist training courses and expenses.

Up to 30 fully-funded studentships will be available across the partnership.

Students from EU countries who do not meet the residency requirements may still be eligible for a fees-only award but no stipend.  Applicants who are classed as International for tuition fee purposes are not eligible for funding.

Project Background
The Indian monsoon is one of the most powerful meteorological phenomena on the planet, affecting the lives of over a billion people. However, its behaviour in the near future under the influence of anthropogenic climate change is uncertain. Can we use lessons from the geological past to further our understanding of monsoon sensitivity to climate change? Using marine sediments recovered from the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea in 2015, and by applying cutting-edge geochemical techniques, we will reconstruct monsoon behaviour during the Plio-Pleistocene. The late Pliocene (~3.5 million years ago) is the most recent period in Earth’s history with similar elevated global temperatures and CO2 levels to those predicted for the coming century, and may serve as a useful analogue for near-future climate states. The latest Pliocene to earliest Pleistocene (~3.0–2.4 million years ago) was a time of great global change, witnessing the descent into Northern Hemisphere glaciation (“iNHG”) concurrent with a significant drop in CO2. Understanding the response of the Indian monsoon system to iNHG will allow us to test ideas about monsoon sensitivity to evolving boundary conditions such as ice volume and CO2 levels.

Project Aims and Methods
The overarching aim is to produce one of the first orbital-resolution reconstructions of the past behaviour of the Indian Monsoon in this region during the Late Pliocene–early Pleistocene. During the project you will learn to apply a combination of sophisticated organic and inorganic geochemical proxies to new deep-sea sediment archives recovered from the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea during International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) Expedition 353. IODP is the world’s largest internationally collaborative research organisation and you have the benefit of being immersed within this broad research community. There is ample opportunity for you to develop the project according to your own interests and strengths, with the prospect of applying a range of organic biomarker proxies (e.g., TEX86, UK37, LDI, compound-specific stable isotopes etc.) as well as foraminifera-based proxies (stable isotopes, trace elements etc.) to interrogate past monsoon variability. These new geochemical records will be compared to pollen, charcoal, and microfossil assemblage data from the same samples, generated by international research partners, which will allow a holistic picture of orbitally-paced climate change in the region to be constructed.

You will be embedded within the Deep Time Global Change group at the University of Exeter under the supervision of Drs Littler and Bailey, where facilities for the preparation of sediments for biomarker analysis, along with sediment and foraminifera processing and picking, are available. The student will benefit from substantial involvement with co-supervisors from 3 other institutions, and will have the opportunity to spend significant amounts of time generating organic geochemical data at Bristol, stable isotope data at BGS, and trace element data at the Open University, commensurate with their research interests.

During the project the student would be fully trained in: IODP protocols, stratigraphic techniques, sediment processing, relevant organic geochemistry techniques, species-specific picking of relevant planktic and benthic foraminifera, SEM examination of foraminiferal preservation, as well as the subsequent generation of trace element and stable isotope data based on these microfossils. Additionally, they would receive broader training on academic writing, conference presentation, and the integration of multi-proxy datasets in the context of late Cenozoic paleoclimate theory.

CASE or Collaborative Partner 

Partnership with the British Geological Survey, through the involvement of Prof. Melanie Leng at the NERC Isotope Geoscience Laboratory, will facilitate the generation of the benthic oxygen isotope data that will provide the foundation for the age model at IODP Site U1448.

Fig.1 The IODP vessel, the JOIDES Resolution, recovering cores at Site U1448 in the Andaman Sea during Exp. 353

Fig.2 Location of sites drilled during IODP Exp. 353, including Sites U1448 and U1445

References / Background reading list
Clemens, S.C., Kuhnt, W., LeVay, L.J., and the Expedition 353 Scientists (2016). Proceedings of the International Ocean Discovery Program, Volume 353, Indian Monsoon Rainfall, (

Clemens, S.C., et al. (2008). Southern Hemisphere forcing of Pliocene d18O and the evolution of
Indo-Asian monsoons. Paleoceanography, Volume 23, PA4210, doi:10.1029/2008PA001638

Turner, A.G. & Annamalai, H. (2012) Climate change and the South Asian summer monsoon. Nature Climate Change, Volume 2, 587– 595, doi:10.1038/nclimate1495

Entry requirements

Applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK.   Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have Master’s degree.  Applicants with a minimum of Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

Candidate Requirements
The ideal person to carry out this project would have a background in geology, earth science, oceanography, or (geo)chemistry at MESci/MSc level, with a broad interest in paleoclimate reconstruction. Some research experience working with marine sediments and geochemistry would be preferable.

All applicants would need to meet our English language requirements by the start of the  project


How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents.  Please note our preferred format is PDF, each file named with your surname and the name of the document, eg. “Smith – CV.pdf”, “Smith – Cover Letter.pdf”, “Smith – Transcript.pdf”.

  • CV
  • Letter of application outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake the project.
  • Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained.  This should be an interim transcript if you are still studying.
  • If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your current proficiency in English.
  • Two References (applicants are recommended to have a third academic referee, if the two academic referees are within the same department/school).

Reference information
You will be asked to name two referees as part of the application process.  It is your responsibility to ensure that your two referees email their references to, as we will not make requests for references directly; you must arrange for them to be submitted by 7 January 2019

References should be submitted to us directly in the form of a letter. Referees must email their references to us from their institutional email accounts. We cannot accept references from personal/private email accounts, unless it is a scanned document on institutional headed paper and signed by the referee.

All application documents must be submitted in English. Certified translated copies of academic qualifications must also be provided.

The closing date for applications is midnight on 7 January 2019.  Interviews will be held between 4 and 15 February 2019.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email  Project-specific queries should be directed to the supervisor Dr Kate Littler

Data Sharing
During the application process, the University may need to make certain disclosures of your personal data to third parties to be able to administer your application, carry out interviews and select candidates.  These are not limited to, but may include disclosures to:

  • the selection panel and/or management board or equivalent of the relevant programme, which is likely to include staff from one or more other HEIs;
  • administrative staff at one or more other HEIs participating in the relevant programme.

Such disclosures will always be kept to the minimum amount of personal data required for the specific purpose. Your sensitive personal data (relating to disability and race/ethnicity) will not be disclosed without your explicit consent.


Application deadline:7th January 2019
Value:£14,777 per annum for 2018-19
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries