University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

Biologging marine predators in the UK and overseas. PhD in Biosciences (NERC GW4 + DTP) Ref: 3665

About the award


Lead Supervisor 

Dr Matthew Witt, Department of Biosciences, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors 

Dr Martin Collins, British Antarctic Survey

Dr Serena Wright, CEFAS

Dr Lucy Hawkes, Department of Biosciences, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Dr David Righton, CEFAS

Location: University of Exeter, Streatham Campus, Exeter EX4 4QJ

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  The GW4+ DTP consists of the GW4 Alliance of research-intensive universities: the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five unique and prestigious Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.  The partnership aims to provide a broad training in the Earth, Environmental and Life sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in scientific research, business, technology and policy-making. For further details about the programme please see

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

  • An stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,009 p.a. for 2019/20) in line with UK Research and Innovation rates
  • Payment of university tuition fees;
  • A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
  • A training budget of £3,250 for specialist training courses and expenses.
  • Travel and accomodation is covered for all compulsory DTP cohort events.
  • No course fees for courses run by the DTP

We are currently advertising projects for a total of 10 studentships at the University of Exeter


Students who are resident in EU countries are eligible for the full award on the same basis as UK residents.  Applicants resident outside of the EU (classed as International for tuition fee purposes) are not eligible for DTP funding. Residency rules are complex and if you have not been resident in the UK or EU for the 3 years prior to the start of the studentship, please apply and we will check eligibility upon shortlisting.

Project Background

The connectivity of habitats and the mobility of energy between them, is a critical question in large marine ecosystems. Highly mobile species play a vital role in this system (Hays et al., 2016, 2019), transferring energy both spatially and trophically. To help understand the role and importance of a number of key species within these systems, we are proposing to examine the behaviour of sentinel marine species, linking environmental and physical drivers to seasonal changes and their energetic budgets (metabolic scope).

Project Aims and Methods 

This will be achieved by analysing telemetry and specifically, tri-axial acceleration data from large marine predators released in the field as part of ongoing programmes in the UK and overseas. Key species will include yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares), bigeye tuna (Thunnus obesus), bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus), basking sharks (Cetorhinus maximus) and leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea). The work may also include the analysis of legacy datasets held on smaller species of conservation concern.

Tri-axial accelerometers provide a tool for measuring the activity level (energy use), orientation and fast-start behaviour of animals in the field, and with appropriate processing, can be used to infer feeding behaviours (Gleiss et al., 2013). The PhD will firstly (1) analyse data from tuna, sharks and turtles, extracting activity levels and potential feeding behaviour, which will be linked to spatio-temporal location of the animals. This data will then be used to (2) model how activity and feeding behaviour varies between species and areas, and (3) how this links to the mobility of energy within and between areas. For commercially targeted species, implications of the removal of individuals on energy mobility within these systems will be assessed. 

By generating new knowledge on seasonal changes in behaviour of highly mobile species, this PhD will improve understanding of energy transfer and the role played by key species in UK waters and British Oversea Territories (St Helena & Ascension). This is especially important as OTs assess how to protect their diverse and rich marine environments, including informing Marine Protected Area planning. 


An Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus)


Atlantic bluefin tuna feeding at the sea surface off Cornwall (Photo: Tom Horton)

Candidate Requirements 

The project would best suit a candidate with demonstrated experience in analysing biologging data, in particular handling large datasets using the software R to carry out data investigation, statistical analysis and mapping. Skills in marine fieldwork, particularly on boats, will also be desirable. 

CASE or Collaborative Partner 

As recognised leaders in marine and aquatic science, our students benefit from hands on experience of operational science in a government agency environment, often at the research-policy interface. Experience ranges from training in data analytical techniques, through to participation in sea-going research surveys on our Research Vessel, Cefas Endeavour.


In addition to NERC GW4+ mandatory training, the student will receive advanced training in the use of R for mapping and accelerometry analysis as well as training in Home Office licensed work tagging tuna and working in the field. The student will be trained in the fieldwork required to programme, deploy and retrieve tags on bluefin tuna. The student will also be closely mentored through the collaborative project, and will join a team of graduate students working on biologging projects on a range of marine taxa. The student will also be supported to present work at international conferences.

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.

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.

Reference information
You will be asked to name 2 referees as part of the application process, however we will not expect receipt of references until after the shortlisting stage. Your referees should not be from the prospective supervisory team.

If you are shortlisted for interview, please ensure that your two academic referees email their references to the, 7 days prior to the interview dates.  Please note that we will not be contacting referees to request references, you must arrange for them to be submitted to us by the deadline.

References should be submitted by your referees 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 1600 hours GMT Monday 6 January 2020.  Interviews will be held between 10 and 21 February 2020.  For more information about the NERC GW4+ DPT please visit

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

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:6th January 2020
Value:£15,009 per annum for 2019-20
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries