Research that is essential for understanding how our planet works and explores the relationships between Earth’s environments and wider society.
The Environmental Sciences Research Institute (ESRI) draws together researchers from across a range of geography and environmental science disciplines to address many of the international and regional changes, challenges and impacts facing society in the 21st Century. ESRI at Ulster increased its research quality in REF 2014, recording a 37% improvement in its levels of world-leading or internationally excellent research which includes 58% of research publications and 63% research impact judged at 4*/3* level.
Research within ESRI is concerned with exploring a range of social and ecological environments, placing particular emphasis on those systems and processes that are of societal importance. Research spans several key research areas in the fields of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Science including: quaternary environmental change, coastal systems, freshwater sciences, human environments, maritime archaeology, and terrestrial ecology.
About this course
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The Research Institute has a diverse variety of projects, ranging from charting the behaviour of ice sheets in order to infer the consequences and nature of future environmental change, to exploring the potential of environmental monitoring tools (e.g. Geographical Information Systems and Remote Sensing) for improving our understanding of human and environmental systems, developing appropriate methods for predicting and responding to environmental hazards, monitoring the quality of rivers and lakes, reconstructing and uncovering lost historical landscapes, suggesting pathways towards sustainable development and social justice, and exploring the dynamics of conflict and peacebuilding.
As a full time student, the expectation is that you will work on your project on a daily basis, either on or off campus as agreed with your supervisor. You will be entitled to 40 days holiday per annum.
Part time students are expected to meet with their supervisors on a regular basis, most usually this would be monthly but this is dependent on the project area.How to apply
We recognise a range of qualifications for admission to our courses. In addition to the specific entry conditions for this course you must also meet the University’s General Entrance Requirements.
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You will need to hold a First of Upper Second Class Honours degree (or equivalent) in an area relevant to your chosen project to be able to apply.
If you have obtained an undergraduate degree from a non-UK institution, we can advise you on how it compares to the UK system.
English Language Requirements
English language requirements for international applicants
The minimum requirement for research degree programmes is Academic IELTS 6.0 with no band score less than 5.5. This is the only acceptable certificate for those requiring to obtain a Tier 4 visa.
Ulster recognises a number of other English language tests and comparable IELTS equivalent scores.
Careers & opportunities
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Although academia is considered to be the most obvious path for any PhD holder, with around two thirds of our graduates remaining in the Higher Education or Research sectors, the degree also paves way for a career in industries centred on research and innovation.
PhD graduates are recognised by employers to hold valuable transferrable skills, as the nature of the degree trains candidates in creativity, critical inquiry, problem solving, negotiation skills, professionalism and confidence.
The most recent Ulster survey of PhD graduates found that 92% had secured employment within the first year since graduation (HESA Destination of Leavers Survey 2015).
ApplyHow to apply
Ulster University welcomes applications from all sections of the community and from persons with disabilities. It is University policy to assess all applications using academic criteria and on the basis of equality of opportunity and you should be assured that reasonable adjustments will be made should you require them.
Once you have selected your chosen project from the lists available on the Faculty pages, you are advised to make contact with the named supervisor on the project as they will be able to guide you in writing your research proposal.
You should then apply using our online application system: ulster.ac.uk/applyonline
Fees and funding
A number of funded scholarships are available across the University each year for PhD projects. Applications for studentships will be considered on a competitive basis with regard to the candidate's qualifications, skills, experience and interests.
Sources of funding
Fees (per annum)
Home and EU £4260
Home and EU £1540
Home and EU (with External Sponsor paying fees) £2200
Distance Research Study (Home and EU) £6600
Research facilities and groups
Centre for Maritime Archaeology
The Centre brings together science and the humanities to investigate evolving maritime and freshwater cultural landscapes - extending from riverine and lacustrine environments to the open ocean, with emphasis on coastal and nearshore archaeology. It recognises that coasts are complex, dynamic, open systems whose archaeology is influenced by a range of interacting variables. Current concerns over the influence of climate change and sea level rise are particularly pertinent at submerged and subaerial coastal archaeological sites. The work is based on a wide range of techniques, including sonar mapping of the seabed to identify and evaluate wrecks, mapping of archaeological finds, modelling past sea level change, etc., along with the standard archaeological methods. Recent research led to the discovery of a buried and forgotten 17th-century town of international importance adjacent to Dunluce Castle on the north coast of Ireland. In addition, the work led to the development of school and community based archaeological initiatives, changes in school curricula and significant investment in heritage preservation and tourism.
Coastal and Marine Systems
Coasts are complex environments and the science underpinning this research focuses on understanding the spatial and temporal variability in coastal geomorphology and ecology and the linkages between them, as well as developing mechanisms for sustainable coastal management. The group’s work contributes directly to the societal debate on responding to the impacts of future climate change and sea-level rise and contributes to sustainable coastal management, locally and internationally. The research currently helps to advise local authorities and European and other international organizations particularly on natural environment-human interactions.
Coastal geomorphic change is described at timescales from millennia to seconds, with a focus on the decadal to centennial scale, and spatial scales of a few metres on a single beach, to regional and global comparisons of coastal landforms. The results of this research are used to develop societal approaches to Coastal Zone Management within the context of evolving legislative drivers at national and European Union level. The ecological research extends from the coastal to the subtidal marine environments and includes functional ecology of the benthos and the interactions between geomorphology and ecosystem processes at a variety of spatial and temporal scales. Understanding these interactions informs future conservation and management decision making on the conservation of priority habitats at a European and International levels. The group continues to successfully attract funding from the Natural Environment Research Council, EU programmes and research charities.
This focus of this research is freshwater quality risk assessment and management. The broad aim is to understand the behaviour of rivers and lakes in catchments in order to model their important physicochemical and biological properties. There are three research themes: catchments and river quality, including groundwaters; fate of chemicals in lakes and; lake ecology. The group co-operates with UK and Irish end-users of the research and all the three areas support the management of rivers and lakes, particularly the implementation of the Water Framework Directive and the effects of climate change on water resources.
Staff members have research funding histories from UK Research Councils, EU (including H2020 and INTERREG), charities and national and international government department. The four highest-ranking recent papers from the group have an average journal impact factor of 5.00 Some of this research formed one of the REF2014 impact case studies, which showed a significant influence on Irish government water policy relating to the European Union’s Water Framework Directive and Waste Directive compliance.
Quaternary Environmental Change
The aim of research in this group is to understand the processes of large-scale and long-term global change that occurred during the Quaternary Period. An important focus is understanding the nature and timing of past glaciation because of the complex linkages between ice ages and the global climate system. The group conducts research on reconstructing Quaternary ice sheets, ice-marginal fluctuations, ice-sheet dynamics, bedform generation and other landscape changes using terrestrial and marine remote sensing techniques, sedimentary analysis and cosmogenic isotope surface exposure dating. Quaternary climatic change has also left an imprint in deep water sediments and one of line of research includes the study of deep sea cores in relation to the alternation of glacial and interglacial cycles. Understanding the processes and timing of these changes provides support for evaluating and managing how the Earth may respond to climate and environmental change in the future.
Society and Environment
This interdisciplinary group investigates the interconnections between the environment, society and space. Key priorities are the analysis of marginalised groups and divided societies, as well as exploring the dynamics of conflict and peacebuilding. Other research focus on knowledge exchange between experts and knowledge users and in particular on the social and institutional contexts that enable and hinder effective knowledge exchange and the links between the latter and community resilience and sustainable development. Research is also conducted on fuel poverty. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have been used to create an area-based model that has been used by government and local authorities to target intervention strategies for those experiencing high levels of fuel poverty. The beneficiaries of the work include community groups, local and central government and national and international Non-Governmental Organizations.
Staff research areas
Dr Joerg Arnscheidt
Joerg researches issues of water quality and aquatic ecology and is involved in investigating antibiotics and antimicrobial resistance, interactions between bacteria, algae and aquatic invertebrates, filter feeders, monitoring and ecological consequences of siltation, nutrient management and crayfish conservation. Other recurring topics are water quality of natural bathing waters, ecological impact of channelisation and ecology of subterranean and hyporheic environments.
Dr Suzanne Beech
Suzanne's research lies at the intersections between social and cultural geography focusing on young people, migration and mobility, and international higher education. At present, she is researching the role of migration industries in international higher education transitions, namely the importance of higher education agents in facilitating global geographies of international student mobility.
Dr Colin Breen
Colin’s research focusses on historic landscape and societal change, environment and conflict, and the historical archaeologies of past maritime societies. He is currently engaged in research across the Middle East and Africa, as well as across the Atlantic maritime zone of Northwest Europe.
Dr Sally Cook
Sally’s research interests focus mainly on the application of GIS technology and geographic methodologies, spatial data analysis and modelling to aspects of environmental, health and social sciences. These have been applied within University-funded projects such as widening access, spatial analysis of university data and encouraging uptake of GIS in secondary education as well as to externally funded research.
Professor Andrew Cooper
Andrew’s research has a worldwide focus in the area of coastal geomorphology and coastal zone management.
Dr Richard Douglas
Richard is a freshwater scientist, interested in the movement and toxicity of contaminants in freshwater systems. His research has focused on the distribution of heavy metals in lakes and the effect of metals on the aquatic ecosystem. The risks of heavy metals from long-range transboundary pollution has been recognised as an important factor affecting ecosystems and the human population. A clear understanding of metal biogeochemical cycles is vital to help implement cuts in global emissions.
Dr Paul Dunlop
Paul is a Quaternary glaciologist who investigates glacial landscapes in both terrestrial and marine environments to reconstruct past ice sheet behaviour. This requires a multidisciplinary approach and a variety of cutting edge techniques are used to investigate glacial landscapes that includes satellite remote sensing, GIS, marine geophysics and cosmogenic nuclide and radiocarbon dating to work out what was happening during the last Ice Age and to help age constrain glacial events.
Dr Sara Benetti
Sara’s research is focussed on Abrupt and long-term climatic change and its effects on sedimentological processes. Deep sea sedimentation processes and their relationship with glacial/interglacial cycles. Application of image analysis to environmental studies and the use of geo-indicators in vulnerability and environmental impact assessment.
Dr Wes Forsythe
Wes is a maritime archaeologist, with interests in the activities and economies of coastal communities in the medieval and post-medieval eras. His research examines strategies for exploiting and utilising marine resources and their resulting effect on the coastal landscape. The discovery and documentation of a wide range of archaeological monuments surviving on our coasts has informed policy makers and facilitated legal protection to sites of cultural heritage. In addition to research carried out at home, Wes has been active in north and east Africa working in regions affected by conflict, under-resourcing and neglect.
Professor Derek Jackson
Derek's research efforts have a general focus on coastal environmental change (morphodynamics and geomorphology) at a number of time and space scales. These efforts link into themes such as climate change impacts, its associated sea level rise and increased storminess on coastlines. Ultimately the research helps in the development of responses to climate change and pressures on natural beach and dune systems globally. Specifically, the main focus of his work examines wind-blown processes and modelling of airflow in a variety of planetary (Earth and Mars) environments in temperate through to arid zones.
Dr Marianne O'Connor
Marianne’s primary research interest is in coastal geomorphology with a particular focus on short term intertidal morphodynamic variability (nearshore sand bar dynamics) as well as long term shoreline evolution and the links to external forcing (NAO). She also has a keen interest in coastal management and has worked on a number of European funded research projects focused on coastal management such as Coastadapt, COREPOINT, IMCORE.
Professor Phil Jordan
Phil’s research follows several themes within a catchment science framework: Nutrient and sediment dynamics and fate in river and lake catchments; High resolution monitoring of pollution dynamics in rivers; Biogeochemical interactions within freshwater ecosystems; Risk assessment of critical source areas/times of pollution at multiple scales and Agri-environmental policy development and review.
Dr Sara McDowell
Sara’s interdisciplinary research focuses on the spatial dynamics of conflict and peacebuilding in divided or transitional societies and has two key strands. The first explores the ways in which the past is negotiated in contested spaces within societies engaged in peace processes. Previous projects considered the impact of the practices and processes of memory on peacebuilding initiatives in South Africa, the former Yugoslavia, the Basque Country, Israel/Palestine and Sri Lanka and mapped the spatial outworking of commemorative-related violence in Northern Ireland. The second strand focuses on the relationship between social media and border politics in divided societies.
Dr Chris McGonigle
Chris’s interdisciplinary research is focused on understanding what is driving patterns of biodiversity in marine environments, and how we can use acoustic techniques to develop our ability to monitor and conserve these resources most effectively. His research includes: mid-water and ocean floor mapping for fisheries stock assessment, species distribution and hydrodynamic modelling for benthic habitat mapping. This work is at the interface of marine ecology, acoustics, spatial analysis and numerical modelling. Chris’s research has societal relevance and impact with implications for sustainable development of marine resources, and the conservation of marine biodiversity.
Dr Paul McKenzie
Paul is interested in the use of GIS and Remote Sensing to answer a wide range of geographical issues. His research focuses on the development of risk models for poverty mapping across large spatial scales. Other interests include the use of remotely sensed data to map and monitor the environment and the fusion of remotely sensed datasets to extract features in the urban and agricultural landscapes. Paul leads the “digital earth Centre of Excellence” at Ulster University.
Professor Adrian Moore
Adrian has research interests in the application of GIS technologies to examine the relationships between the physical and social environments, human health and health care delivery. He is particularly interested in the mapping and spatial analysis of environmental risk factors related to ageing.
Dr Ruth Plets
Ruth’s research has two sides to it: submerged landscapes and shipwreck archaeology. What links them is her interest in using high-resolution geophysical methods for underwater research. Through seabed mapping, Ruth aims to gain a better understanding of what processes took place on the Irish continental shelf during and after the last Glacial Maximum. With regards to the shipwreck research, Ruth is interested in developing robust and innovative methodologies for the imaging and (3D) visualisation of shipwrecks.
Dr Rory Quinn
Rory is a marine geoscientist, interested in applications of ocean mapping methods. His research focuses on the development of non-invasive methods for the detection, characterization and reconstruction of submerged archaeological sites through the integration of underwater remotely sensed data and computational models. A better understanding of this non-renewable resource allows us to inform policy makers and develop effective mitigation strategies to minimise loss in the face of increasing natural and human forcing (e.g. increased storminess associated with climate change and offshore engineering).