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Award details

Establishing long-term baselines of marine variability in the northwest European shelf seas. NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship for 2022 Entry, PhD in Geography Ref: 4252

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr David Reynolds, University of Exeter, Centre for Geography and Environmental Science.

Additional Supervisors

Prof James Scourse, University of Exeter, Centre for Geography and Environmental Science. 

Prof Ian Hall, Cardiff University, School of Earth and Environmental Science.

Dr Tim Smyth, Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

Dr Clare Ostle, Marine Biological Association.

Dr Louise McNeil, Plymouth Marine Laboratory.


Location: Penryn Campus, University of Exeter, Falmouth, Cornwall.

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 £15,609 p.a. for 2022/23) 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

Project details

Annual growth rings in a dog cockle

A crab trying to eat a dog cockle

Project Background:

Marine environments are experiencing unprecedented pressure from anthropogenic climate change, societal impacts, and exploitation (e.g. fishing and offshore infrastructure projects). Evaluating the magnitude of these impacts requires establishing a baseline for the natural state of variability prior to the impact. Given instrumental marine observations typically only span the past few decades to the mid-20th century they are likely heavily influenced by anthropogenic factors and do not provide a representative baseline of natural marine variability. This project seeks to capitalise on recent advances in the development of ultra-high resolution records of past marine variability based on growth ring patterns and the geochemical composition of long-lived marine bivalve molluscs (sclerochronologies), synonymous to dendrochronology. These sclerochronological records provide faithful records of past marine variability and provide significant potential for addressing fundamental questions about the nature of modern and past marine variability. 

Project aims and methods:

This project seeks to generate and exploit a cutting edge network of ultra-high-resolution environmental records to determine the state of past marine variability over past centuries. These records will be used to address key questions associated with the nature of modern marine variability including: Are observed modern trends in ecological/physical marine variability unprecedented in the context of past centuries? To what extent are warming sea surface temperatures impacting pelagic and benthic ecosystems? Are observed changes in North Atlantic Ocean circulation patterns impacting NW European shelf sea ecosystems?  

To answer these questions, growth rings and the geochemical composition of the shells of the longest-lived animals on Earth (marine clams) will be employed to establish environmental reconstructions that span past decades to centuries from key locations across the NW European shelf seas. These records will be calibrated against marine observations (e.g. sea surface temperature, and the Continuous Plankton Recorder dataset) using cutting edge statistical modelling techniques to generate climate field reconstructions of past marine variability.  The coupled observation and proxy based datasets will be interrogated to provide a probabilistic understanding of the nature of modern marine variability set against the newly defined long-term context.

Candidate Requirements:

A working knowledge of marine and/or climate variability, geochemistry, palaeoclimate/palaeoceanography, and skills in using R are recommended (see entry requirements below).

Project Partners:

The student will be based within the Sclerochronology and Scleroclimatology Research Group at the Centre for Geography and Environmental Science (university of Exeter). Geochemical analyses will be conducted in the Stable Isotope Laboratory and Celtic Lab within the School of Earth and Environmental Science (Cardiff University). The project is partnering with Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the Marine Biological Association who are providing leading expertise in modern marine monitoring and ecological data analysis. The MBA and PML will provide the necessary facilities to assist this training and support throughout the project.


Training will be provided on all specialised sclerochronological and geochemical microsampling/analysis. The ERC funded SEACHANGE project will provide additional training and field work opportunities. Opportunities will be available for ship based field work as part of the Western Channel Observatory monitoring programme

Background reading and references

Reynolds, D.J., et al., 2017. Reconstructing North Atlantic marine climate variability using an absolutely-dated sclerochronological network. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 465, pp.333-346.

Black, B.A., et al., 2019. The revolution of crossdating in marine palaeoecology and palaeoclimatology. Biology letters, 15(1), p.20180665.

Useful links: For information relating to the research project please contact the lead Supervisor via:  email:


Prospective applicants: For information about the application process please contact the Admissions team via  


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 2022 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, please see the entry requirements for details.
  • Two references

Reference information
You will be asked to submit two references as part of the application process.  If you are not able to upload  your reference documents with your application please ensure you provide details of your referees.  If you provide contact details of referees only, 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 Friday 10 January 2022. Interviews will be held between 28 February and 4 March 2022.  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:10th January 2022
Value:£15,609 per annum for 2022-23
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries