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PhD Studentships in Environmental Pollution Science

The ECORISC Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) has PhD studentships available to better understand the risks of chemicals in the natural environment and how to best assess and manage these risks.

You'll embark on an exciting and unique 46 month programme of training and research designed to deliver a new generation of environmental scientists who have the knowledge and skills to deliver a step-change in how the environmental risks of chemicals are developed, assessed and monitored so that the benefits of chemicals can be realised with minimal negative environmental consequences.

Funding: Tuition fees at UK rate and stipend (currently £17,668 a year)

Academic year: 2023/24

Open to: refer to individual project descriptions

Qualification level: Postgraduate research

Applications are now closed

A unique training experience

Alongside the research project you'll receive a unique and world-class training in pollution science and transferrable skills.

Over the first two years of your PhD programme you'll receive subject-specific training in:

  • ecotoxicology
  • environmental chemistry
  • ecology
  • risk assessment
  • core skills required for an environmental specialist

The formal training programme will be complemented by yearly residential challenge events and tailored specialist skills training.

Experience of working in the real world

You'll be required to undertake two workplace experiences based with our business, policy and regulation, third sector and research organisation partners. Internships will be short in duration (two to four weeks) and will give you a taste of what it is like to work in a partner organisation. Secondments will be longer and will allow you to work with a partner organisation on a short project to address a real world problem.


  • Please refer to individual project to determine if the project is open to Home/EU/International Students.
  • Open to students in the Department of Environment and Geography.
  • You should have a 2:1 or higher Bachelors degree with a passion for environmental pollution science and an urge to make a difference.

Inclusivity is at the heart of the ECORISC programme. We strongly encourage applications from under-represented groups and are employing a number of mechanisms, such as the possibility of part-time working, to ensure the programme is open to all.

If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to contact us.

How to apply

Applications are now closed.

This application is for the studentship known as an 'Offer of Funding'. You may also need to apply for admission, known as an 'Offer to Study', from your chosen university or universities by completing their institutional application process.

Open Afternoon

The ECORISC open afternoon will provide an overview of the research and training activities of the CDT and of the process for applying for one of the PhD projects that are available for 2023.

  • Learn from current students what it is like to do a PhD in the ecological risk assessment of chemicals area and why they chose the ECORISC programme.
  • Hear from some of our partner organisations from the business, policy and NGO sectors about the potential career avenues for graduates from the programme.
  • Ask any questions you have on ECORISC and becoming one of our students.

This event will take place online from 2pm to 4pm (GMT) on Wednesday 3 May 2023.

Register now

How we allocate places

Within equal opportunities principles and regulations, applications will be assessed in the light of your ability to meet the required criteria and you'll be evaluated by application and by interview performance.

If successful in your initial application you will be provided with an opportunity to meet with project supervisory teams and then be invited to submit a project-specific application form. We will use your answers to this to shortlist candidates for interview.

We will longlist candidates on the basis of their application form against the following criteria:

  • Proven academic quality: normally evidenced by an excellent performance at Bachelors or Masters level, but may also be demonstrated by a record of relevant professional practice.
  • Research potential: evidenced through application responses and supported by performance in research projects at Bachelors or Masters level, or another form of dedicated preparation for research.
  • Personal motivation and commitment: evidenced through application responses, by enthusiasm for the project area, and in relation to career goals.

PhD project research themes

You will engage in a programme of research aligned with one or more of the six research themes of the CDT:

  1. Detection, fate, transport and uptake of chemicals in the environment.
  2. Development of mechanistic understanding of the integrative effects of chemicals on individuals.
  3. Extrapolation of effects on individuals to effects on populations, communities and the ecosystem services that they provide.
  4. Effects of chemical mixtures, including effects in combination with non-chemical stressors.
  5. Landscape scale risk assessment across different spatial and temporal scales.
  6. Translation of environmental risk science into practice.

All PhD projects will be co-supervised by two of the core ECORISC institutions and one of our 30 partners from the business, governmental and third sectors.

Available projects

Eggshell thinning as a re-emerging risk to bird populations: the potential role of chemical pollution

Bird populations are at risk from multiple environmental threats including chemical pollution. DDT was banned over 50 years ago due to its role in eggshell thinning causing bird population declines.

Despite these bans, eggshell thinning is re-emerging as an environmental issue partly due to novel emerging pollutants. For example, NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), can block synthesis of prostaglandin via the same inhibition pathway as DDT; this is critical as prostaglandin is required for release of calcium from the shell gland during eggshell formation.

Modern synthetic estrogenic compounds can also impair eggshell formation. Our team has preliminary data that eggshell thinning in some UK bird populations is associated with increased hatching failure. 

The studentship focuses on addressing key knowledge gaps to understand the severity, causes and consequences of this re-emergence of eggshell thinning.

The successful student will be supported by a supervisory team (which includes RSPB and the British Trust for Ornithology, BTO) that are experts in environmental chemistry, avian reproduction and conservation.

We have an excellent track-record of supporting students in publishing high quality papers (eg in Nature Ecology & Evolution, PNAS and Global Change Biology) and delivering policy level impact.

The student will conduct research in two areas:

  1. Identification of target pollutants and species 
    The student will conduct a systematic literature review assessing evidence for effects of legacy pollutants (such as DDT, polychlorinated biphenyls – PCBs etc) and novel emerging pollutants on avian eggshell thickness. They will also assess how exposure to these pollutants is likely to vary across bird species due to variation in diet, habitat use etc. The student will then generate a dataset on temporal changes in eggshell thickness (using samples that the team has access to and in collaboration with the BTO’s network of nest recorders) and model the rates of eggshell thinning as a function of species’ ecological and life history traits in a phylogenetically controlled analysis. These species level indices of eggshell thinning will then be used as predictors of hatching failure (excluding predation related failure) using BTO’s nest record card data. 

    Through this work the student will be able to assess how the observed eggshell thinning patterns are influencing avian breeding success and ecology, and identify suitable species and pollutants to focus on in stage 2. 

  2. Identifying pollutants driving contemporary eggshell thinning and pathways to hatching failure
    Avian species groups identified in theme 1 as experiencing contemporary eggshell thinning will be targeted for egg collection using the BTO’s network of nest recorders. Eggshell thickness (overall and in eggshell layers that differ in their functionality) will be measures, and contaminant concentrations in egg yolk and albumen will be analysed. These chemical analyses will focus on legacy and emerging contaminants identified in stage 1 as likely to contribute to eggshell thinning in the focal species. 

    These data will enable the student to identify specific contaminants linked to eggshell thinning and understand mechanistic pathways through which thinning may be contributing to hatching failure. 

The student’s PhD will make a substantial contribution to understanding the risk posed to bird populations from eggshell thinning, identify the pollutants responsible for this, and use these data to inform policy discussions with stakeholders. 

Supervisor: Karl Evans

Host organisation: University of Sheffield

Co-supervisors: Nicola Hemmings (Sheffield), Andy Sweetman (Lancaster), Gloria dos Santos Pereira (UK CEH)

Stakeholder partners: Dave Leech (BTO), Jen Smart (RSPB)

Open to: EU, International (non-EU) and UK (home) students

Can stable isotope data be used to reliably assess contaminant accumulation in terrestrial and aquatic food chains?

Chemicals play a central role in enhancing society with thousands of substances in use every day. As our use of chemicals has grown, so has the science and policy around hazardous chemicals in the environment, including Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and Substances of Very High Concern (SVHCs), including those which are Persistent, Bioaccumulative, Toxic (PBTs) and very Persistent and very Bioaccumulative (vPvB).

A key component of the hazard assessment is an evaluation of the potential for contaminants to accumulate through food chains resulting in high body burdens and the potential for toxicity. A good example would be polychlorinated biphenyls which are persistent, hydrophobic contaminants and have been reported in high concentrations in top predators, especially in aquatic environments.

The relationship between predator and prey within food web structures is key to understanding contaminant transfer. Food webs can be extremely complex and so being able to describe the trophic position of organisms and similarity of food sources is important to understand contaminant dynamics.

This project will undertake a detailed assessment of the use of stable isotopes in determining food chain structure and contaminant transfer. Although there are many scientific questions to be answered, there is also strong interest from regulators that have been unable to use certain stable isotope data and biomagnification factors as part of a bioaccumulation assessment, due to inherent uncertainties in the data.

The student will develop broad expertise in targeted analytical methods including sample preparation for a range of contaminants and sample matrices using both LCMS and GCMS. They will also develop expertise in the processing of samples for stable isotope analysis for δ 15 N, δ 13 C and δ 34 S using isotope ratio MS.

The student will work closely with a supervisory team whose expertise covers the use of stable isotopes to investigate environmental and biogeochemical processes, environmental analytical chemistry, freshwater systems, population biology and regulation.

The student will receive exceptional training in the areas of environmental, ecology, ecotoxicology, bioaccumulation, hazard and risk assessment, supported by the complementary expertise of the supervisory team. They will join a thriving postgraduate research community at the Lancaster Environment Centre, home to existing students from the Ecorisc CDT and the Envison DTP.

Supervisor: Dr Peter Wynn

Host organisation: Lancaster University

Partner Organisation: Environment Agency

Open to: UK (home) students

Contact details

Department of Environment and Geography
University of York
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0) 1903 322999