• Picture shows an autonomous underwater vehicle being deployed into the Arctic Ocean
    Fully funded PhD studentships
    Robotics technology for marine science
    Part of the NEXUSS partnership

We are hosting fully funded PhD research projects through NEXUSS (Next Generation Unmanned System Science), a centre of doctoral training in the use of Smart and Autonomous Observation Systems (SAOS) for the environmental sciences, funded jointly by NERC and EPSRC.

Students are based at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) in Oban, on the west coast of Scotland. SAMS is an academic partner of the University of the Highlands and Islands and is one of the UK’s premier marine research institutes. Check out other PhD projects that SAMS may be offering here.

The application window for the following PhD project is now closed

Sounding out zooplankton: using autonomous wideband echosounders to characterise polar ecosystems

Krill and copepods (zooplankton, small marine organisms) are ubiquitous within the world’s oceans, and play a key role in polar marine foodwebs as food for higher trophic levels, including fisheries, and for carbon cycling. Yet we are still challenged to measure their abundance and distribution accurately and the challenge gets harder at larger temporal and spatial scales. Acoustic methods are used widely for estimating fish and plankton abundance and distribution, but there is ambiguity in the interpretation of acoustic data to species identification.

New wideband acoustic technology offers a potential way to characterise a range of sound scatterers including zooplankton by measuring acoustic responses continuously across a wide frequency range, increasing the amount of information available for spectral characterization of targets. In addition, compressed pulse processing can increase the temporal- and range-resolution, enabling enhanced feature extraction from within organism aggregations (e.g. krill swarms).

This project will use these next generation wideband autonomous echosounders, deployed vertically, in autonomous mode on moorings, and on autonomous vehicles to examine krill and copepod identification and distribution in polar waters and in a test-bed in Loch Etive, Scotland.

The student will develop methods for identifying krill and copepod echoes within wideband acoustic data, and make novel observations of the distribution of copepods and krill within aggregations and swarms. They will analyse existing data from moored echosounders to examine high range resolution acoustic data from within Antarctic krill swarms. Using their species identification technieques to identify krill, they will examine intra-swarm behaviour. Additional research opportunities may include analysing acoustic data from an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle deployment (eg echosounder mounted on Autosub and deployed within the Weddell Sea), where the student will examine vehicle behaviour and its influence on wideband species identification, or the association of zooplankton with sea ice, exploring the mechanisms and patterns of variability in zooplankton distribution. Where possible the student will also collect new data from vertical deployments of the wideband ecosounder with concurrent net sampling. We identify two opportunities for this: with supervisors at SAMS (Oban) as part of ongoing funded projects into zooplankton physiology / behaviour and during one of BAS' fieldwork campaigns (Southern Ocean), learning key practical skills. They will use the net samples to parameterise acoustic scattering models to describe key taxa, comparing modelled target strength frequency response curves with observed data to validate wideband species identification.

The NEXUSS CDT provides state-of-the-art, highly experiential training in the application and development of cutting-edge Smart and Autonomous Observing Systems for the environmental sciences, alongside comprehensive personal and professional development. There will be extensive opportunities for students to expand their multi-disciplinary outlook through interactions with a wide network of academic, research and industrial / government / policy partners. They will be registered at SAMS, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands where they will be primarily based. However they will also be hosted at the British Antarctic Survey and on occasion where necessary for training, St Andrews. At SAMS, the student will become part of a vibrant PhD community and supported and mentored by an experienced thesis panel. In this way, the student will experience research and work life at both universities and a government research centre. They will have access to a comprehensive suite of specific and generic training.

The broad set of skills of the student's supervisors will ensure that they gain experience of, and be trained in a number of lab, field and theoretical techniques available across the three institutes. Specifically, these will include:

  • >Oceanography, ocean physics
  • >Polar ecology, marine behavioural ecology
  • >Seagoing/marine data collection skills
  • >Fisheries acoustics, signal processing
  • >Computing/processing of large data sets


Dr Kim Last (ecologist) - SAMS

Dr Sophie Fielding (biological oceanographer) - British Antarctic Survey

Professor Finlo Cottier (physical oceanographer) - SAMS

Professor Andrew Brierley (ecologist) - University of St Andrews


Training programme

Students will experience a programme of approximately 16 weeks of highly experiential training in the development and application of state-of-the-art SAOS technologies and approaches in the environmental sciences, alongside comprehensive personal and professional development.

There will be extensive opportunities for students to expand their multi-disciplinary outlook through interactions with a wide network of academic, research, industry, government and policy partners.

Grand Challenge

Our vision is to develop, deliver and disseminate the world's first environmental science doctoral training programme founded around competitive team grand challenges (GCs) that are sponsored fully by industry.

Annual GC events will be the centre piece of the NEXUSS community, in which first year student teams with mixed skill sets coached by senior student cohorts will design and deploy SAOS technologies and apply vigorous data analysis techniques to address and report on a simulated, real-world environmental problem.

The fortnight long GC finale will entail field trials, competitive field demonstrations, and team presentations of scientific results to a panel of customers. The GC activities and timeline will maximinse peer-learning and cohort building, and grow and consolidate the set of skills underpinning the end-to-end use of SAOS approaches in a realistic context, with access to world-class, cross-cutting facilities and expertise.

Eligibility criteria

The studentships will be funded for 44 months and will follow standard RCUK (Research Council UK) conditions. The studentships are open to UK nationals and applicants should have, or expect to obtain, a first class or upper second-class honours degree or a Master's degree in the relevant subject area.

RCUK eligibility criteria

RCUK funding rules and rates

Funding information for SAMS UHI PhD studentships (standard RCUK)

Maintenance award: £14,553 p/a in 2017-18 (subject to annual revision)

University fees covered at current rate


Interview information

The top candidates will be invited for interview. Interviews will be held on 26th or 27th June. The interview panel will be comprised of representative supervisors and senior representatives from the NEXUSS partnership.

Equality and diversity policies will be strictly adhered to during all phases of recruitment.

The successful candidate will be based at SAMS.

The candidate is expected to start 1 October 2018.

Applicants should have or expect to obtain a first class or upper second class honours degree and / or a Master's degree in a relevant subject or equivalent qualification.

To apply please submit:

  • >a completed application and references form (Gradschool application form 2018)
  • >CV 
  • >Two references to be submitted with the application form (we will not review any application without two references)
  • >relevant transcripts
  • >for applicants whose first language is not English: proof of English language competency (IELTS)

These documents should be sent by post:

Fiona Wallace (Academic Registry Officer Post Graduate)
The Scottish Association for Marine Science, Oban, Argyll, PA37 1QA

or by Email: phd@sams.ac.uk

Closing date for applications: 1st June 2018

NEXUSS (Next Generation Unmanned System Science) is a new Centre of Doctoral Training in the use of Smart and Autonomous Observation Systems (SAOS) for the environmental sciences, funded jointly by NERC and EPSRC. NEXUSS will fund at least 10 new PhD students per year over at least 3 years. The first cohort started in September 2016.

The Centre is a joint venture between

University of Southampton (UoS, Lead Partner)

British Antarctic Survey (BAS)

Heriot-Watt University (HWU)

National Oceanography Centre (NOC)

Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS)

University of East Anglia (UEA)