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Award details

University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

Predicting the Weather by Watching Airplanes: Mapping of water vapour by using interferometers to observe the refraction of radio broadcasts from aircraft. Physics PhD Studentship (NERC GW4+ DTP funded) Ref: 4016

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Chris Brunt, University of Exeter, Department of Physics and Astronomy

Additional Supervisors

Malcolm Kitchen, Met Office, Observations Research and Development

Location: Streatham Campus, University of Exeter, Exeter, Devon.

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 stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,285 p.a. for 2020-21) 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.
  • Up to £750 for travel and accomodation for compulsory cohort events.

Project details

Project Background

Atmospheric water vapour is highly variable in space and time, but is very difficult and expensive to measure directly in the lower troposphere, where it primarily resides. Because water vapour is a driver of extreme weather events (rain, storms, flooding) and is an essential assimilation source for numerical weather prediction, new, innovative, real-time methods to map water vapour at high spatiotemporal resolution are urgently sought. To this end, the University of Exeter and the Met Office are undertaking a project to install a network of radio interferometers on Met Office radar towers, with the aim of opportunistically measuring refraction of routine navigational broadcasts from civil aircraft: water vapour contributes to refractivity, on top of that arising from the relatively stable dry atmospheric stratification, and therefore it can be mapped by refraction. The idea that underpins this research has been awarded the Harry Otten Prize for Innovation in Meteorology 2019, and is backed by a published patent jointly held by the University of Exeter and the Met Office. Project Aims and Methods There is an opportunity to undertake a PhD working with the University of Exeter and the Met Office in the development of an interferometry network, with the aim of reconstructing the water vapour distribution in 4D (3-space, 1-time). The project will involve: 

• Further development of the instrument itself (hardware and software) in order to maximise its capabilities and the accuracy of the measurement

• Understand and quantify the errors and uncertainties in the measurement.

• Develop quality control and correction algorithms to limit the impact of errors.

• Model the data obtained from an individual interferometer and develop a design for a prototype UK network of similar instruments.

• Work with another PhD student who is focussed on data application, to optimise the overall benefits of the measurements to the potential users.

Met Office radar tower at Clee Hill, Shropshire: a target site for interferometer deployment.

3D water vapour pressure measured along aircraft flightpaths entering and leaving Jersey Airport observed from 200km distance at Exeter.

Candidate requirements

The ideal candidate will have a first or 2.1 undergraduate degree in either physics, atmospheric science, electronics, computer science.

Collaborative partner

The Met Office, based in Exeter along with the University, is the UK’s national weather service, with more than 160 years of experience in weather observations and forecasting. It is providing financial, technical, and infrastructure support to this project, and these are further backed by scientific support in the form of on-site training (see below).


As a PhD student on this project, you will join the doctoral training programme and also receive specialist individual training at Exeter in radio interferometry, application of advanced data science techniques, and planetary atmosphere modelling. You will additionally be co-supervised by Met Office staff, and will attend Met Office internal training courses in remote observing, data assimilation, and other relevant topics. There is also the opportunity to attend Met Office research talks and seminars to broaden your knowledge of applied meteorology. 


NERC GW4+ DTP studentships are open to UK and Irish nationals who, if successful in their applications, will receive a full studentship including payment of university tuition fees at the home fees rate.

A limited number of full studentships are also available to international students which are defined as EU (excluding Irish nationals), EEA, Swiss and all other non-UK nationals.  For further details please see the NERC GW4+ website.

Those not meeting the nationality and residency requirements to be treated as a ‘home’ student may apply for a limited number of full studentships for international students. Although international students are usually charged a higher tuition fee rate than ‘home’ students, those international students offered a NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership full studentship starting in 2021 will only be charged the ‘home’ tuition fee rate (which will be covered by the studentship). International applicants need to be aware that you will have to cover the cost of your student visa, healthcare surcharge and other costs of moving to the UK to do a PhD. More information on this is available from the universities you are applying to (contact details are provided in the project description that you are interested in

The conditions for eligibility of home fees status are complex and you will need to seek advice if you have moved to or from the UK (or Republic of Ireland) within the past 3 years or have applied for settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme.


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 Friday 8 January 2021 2359 GMT .  Interviews will be held between 8th and 19th February 2021.  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:8th January 2021
Value:£15,285 per annum for 2020-21
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries