University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

The climate of Titan: Pushing Earth-based models to the limit. PhD in Mathematics (NERC GW4+ DTP) Ref: 3700

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Will Seviour, Department of Mathematics, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors

Prof Geoff Vallis, Department of Mathematics, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter

Dr Nick Teanby, School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol

Dr Dann Mitchell, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol

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 accommodation 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 

Titan has the only dense, nitrogen-rich atmosphere in the Solar System, besides Earth’s. It is also the only other solar system body with stable liquid currently on its surface, in the form of methane rivers and lakes (Fig. 1). From these lakes, methane evaporates, forms clouds, and rain, analogous to the hydrological cycle on Earth. In Titan’s upper atmosphere, photochemical reactions produce complex organic molecules, the building blocks of life. Titan is therefore an ideal testing ground for our theories about planetary climate, habitability, and astrobiology. Indeed, NASA has recently selected the Dragonfly spacecraft mission to explore Titan’s atmosphere and surface (Fig. 2), to be constructed and launched within the next decade.

In addition to vital observational data, much can be learned by using numerical models to simulate Titan’s atmosphere and climate. This has the added benefit of testing the robustness of these models, which are usually applied to Earth’s atmosphere, and thereby improving our confidence in projections of future climate change. However, few such models have been developed for Titan, and those that exist have a very limited representation of its methane cycle, the transport of trace gases, and other important processes.

Project Aims and Methods 

This project aims to adapt a numerical model of Earth’s atmosphere and apply it to Saturn’s exotic moon Titan. The main tool used will be the Isca climate modelling framework (, primarily developed within co-supervisor Prof Vallis’ group. Isca is a uniquely flexible model that can be used to understand planetary atmospheres at varying levels of complexity. The first aim of this project will be to adapt Isca to Titan’s atmosphere, so that it is capable of capturing the major features of Titan’s atmospheric circulation and climate. This will allow us to tackle several important scientific questions. There is a large amount of flexibility here, and we encourage the research direction to be driven by the interests of the student. Possible directions of research include:

  • Incorporating an idealized ‘hydrology’ and land surface flow model to understand the seasonality of Titan’s methane cycle, including the apparent seasonal drying of its lakes.
  • Comparison of Earth’s hydrological cycle under warm paleo- or future climate scenarios with Titan’s methane cycle.
  • Using a comprehensive radiative transfer model (SOCRATES), along with observational data, to understand trace gas abundances.
  • Understanding the connection between Titan’s atmospheric chemistry and dynamics, including its potentially unstable annular polar vortex, as also found on Mars.


Fig. 1: Cassini spacecraft image showing glinting methane lakes near Titan’s north pole [NASA]



Fig. 2: Concept of Dragonfly dual-quadcopter mission to Titan, selected by NASA in 2019 [JHU-APL]

Candidate Requirements

The project would suit a student with a background in a mathematical, computational, or physical sciences, with an interest in atmospheric circulations and in developing skills in both observational data analysis and climate modelling. Prior atmospheric science knowledge is beneficial but not necessary.


The student will work across world-leading groups in both the observation and modelling of planetary atmospheres. They will also benefit from opportunities to visit project collaborators at Johns Hopkins University and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Maryland, USA.

Training will include the use of atmospheric general circulation models and high-performance computing resources, scientific software development, model and observational data analysis and visualisation. These skills are highly applicable to a range of careers both within and outside academia. The student will be encouraged to participate in external training courses such as the Cambridge Fluid Dynamics Summer School.

References / Background reading list 

  1. Vallis, G. K., et al. (2018). Isca, v1.0: a framework for the global modelling of the atmospheres of Earth and other planets at varying levels of complexity, Geosci. Model Dev., 11, 843–859.
  2. Seviour, W. J. M., D. W. Waugh, and R. K. Scott (2017). The Stability of Mars’ Annular Polar Vortex, J. Atmos. Sci., 74, 1533-1547. 
  3. Hörst, S. M. (2017), Titan's atmosphere and climate, J. Geophys. Res. Planets, 122, 432– 482.

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