University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

Coral reef ecosystem collapse: constraining rates of biological and physical erosion. PhD in Geography (NERC GW4+ DTP) Ref: 3689

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Prof Chris Perry, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors

Dr Ken Johnson, Department of Earth Sciences, Natural History Museum

Dr Barend van Maanen, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Dr Lorenzo Alvarez-Filip, National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Mexico

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:

  • A 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 growth and development of tropical coral reefs is determined both by the rate at which skeletal calcium carbonate is produced (mainly by corals), and the rate at which this carbonate is degraded or removed by biological and physical processes. The balance between these production and erosion processes is described as a reefs carbonate budget. In the Caribbean, where coral reefs have suffered severe declines in coral cover over the past few decades due to multiple human impacts and climate change, the carbonate budgets of most reefs are increasingly dominated by erosional processes. This is leading to loss of reef growth potential and structural erosion. Methodologies to quantify these carbonate budget states now exist, but whilst there is reasonably good data on rates of carbonate production to inform calculations, data on the rates at which different species erode reef material and on rates of physical removal are sparse. This PhD project aims to address these key knowledge gaps.

Project Aims and Methods 

The aim of this project is to address current data gaps relevant to constraining rates of biological and physical substrate erosion on Caribbean coral reefs, and to quantify their impacts on Caribbean reefs. This will be undertaken using a combination of field and experimental approaches, with a specific focus on the shallow-water reefs of the Mexican Caribbean in the proximity of the UNAM Lab at Puerto Morelos. Specifically the student will: (1) undertake experiments to quantify rates of substrate erosion by endolithic sponges. This is projected to be based on ex-situ experiments, the design of which the students will take a major role in developing; (2) Assess how different sponge species utilise different substrate types and space on the reef – to inform models of changing sponge erosion rates as reef communities and substrates change; (3) Undertake experiments to quantify rates of endolithic microbioerosion between substrates/habitat spaces – to inform estimates of rates of reef-wide microborer erosion; and (4) Quantify rates of physical reef framework movement and removal – to inform predictions of rates of reef growth potential. The student is expected to have significant input into experiment design, with some flexibility to steer the key area of focus on these processes depending on individual research interests.


Degraded Caribbean coral reef lacking historically important reef-building coral taxa



Bioeroding sponges infesting a coral head, one of the key agents of reef framework breakdown

Candidate Requirements

Candidates must a have a good first degree (and preferably an MSc) in a relevant academic area (physical geography, ecology, earth science), a strong interest in the geomorphology or ecology of coral reefs (preferably supported by relevant field experience), good general field experience and a current SCUBA diving qualification.


The student will receive training in marine field surveying (including census-based carbonate budget assessment protocols), experimental design and in the use of a range of analytical facilities including, depending on project direction, Scanning Electron Microscopy and Micro CT scanning. In support of data collection the student will be based overseas for periods of a few weeks to months, undertaking a series of in-water and ex-situ experiments to quantify rates of microbioerosion and endolithic sponge erosion in different types of coral substrates in the Mexican Caribbean region. This work will be conducted in collaboration with Co-Supervisor Alvarez-Filip and his team.

References / Background reading list 

  • Perry CT & Alvarez-Filip L (2019) Changing geo-ecological functionality of coral reefs in the Anthropocene. Functional Ecology. 33, 976-988.
  • Perry CT, Steneck RS, Murphy GN, Kench PS, Edinger EN, Smithers SG, Mumby PJ (2014) Regional-scale dominance of non-framework building corals on Caribbean reefs affects carbonate production and future reef growth. Global Change Biology 21: 1153-1164.
  • Perry C.T., Murphy G.N., Kench P.S., Edinger E.N., Smithers S.G., Steneck R.S., Mumby P.J. (2014) Changing dynamics of Caribbean reef carbonate budgets: emergence of reef bioeroders as critical controls on present and future reef growth potential. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 281: 2014-2018
  • Perry C.T., Edinger E.N., Kench, P.S., Mumby P.J., Murphy G., Steneck, R.S. and Smithers S.G. (2012) Estimating rates of biologically driven coral reef framework production and erosion: a new census-based carbonate budget methodology and applications to the reefs of Bonaire. Coral Reefs. 31: 853-868
  • Perry, C.T., Spencer, T. & Kench, P. (2008) Carbonate budgets and reef production states: a geomorphic perspective on the ecological phase-shift concept. Coral Reefs 27: 853-866

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