Water resources in agricultural settings: unravelling patterns in water storage, flows and water quality - PhD via FindAPhD

Aberdeen University

Aberdeen, UK 🇬🇧

About the Project

Are you interested in combining data from novel observational techniques with hydrological modelling to gain new insights into water quality and quantity dynamics under climate change? Then this fully funded PhD project between the University of Aberdeen and the James Hutton Institute in Scotland could be for you. This project builds on earlier work that demonstrated how water storage dynamics from novel cosmic ray sensing data can inform hydrological modelling (Dimitrova-Petrova et al., 2020a). Here, this will be combined with the knowledge that stable water isotopes can provide on water ages and flow paths in agricultural catchments (Dimitrova-Petrova et al., 2020b) to unravel patterns in water storage and flows, and the interlinkages with water quality. For water quality we will focus specifically on agricultural pollutants (nutrients, sediments) and carbon cycling.

Catchment water storage is one of the most important functions controlling water availability and streamflow. Where and when water is stored and how different ‘stores’ (e.g., surface water, field drains, soil water or groundwater) are interconnected and linked to generating streamflow also has important implications for sediment and nutrient transport. Via increases in hydroclimatic extremes (both droughts and floods), these factors could be further affected by climate change. In agricultural catchments especially, insights into the controls on water storage, flow and water quality are thus essential for short- and long-term management strategies. Hydrological models are important tools for understanding the interlinkages between water storage, flow and water quality, and for predicting future responses. However, the development of such tools also relies on datasets, which are typically limited to coarse and point scale measurements. This project will benefit from and bring together tools and new datasets that overcome those gaps.

The scope of the project is to develop tools to better understand the response of water quality to patterns in water storage and flows under increasing pressures of climate extremes. It will benefit from long-term and largely unexplored water quantity and water quality datasets at Scottish agricultural sites (uplands and lowlands).


This PhD research will be carried out at the University of Aberdeen and the James Hutton Institute. While there is considerable scope for the student to take ownership of the project, training in field and laboratory data collection and analyses as well as modelling will be provided by a multidisciplinary supervisory team in hydrology and biogeochemistry. The student will be able to access a wide range of state-of the art approaches and join graduate training communities at both institutes. The research has direct policy relevance for water resources management in agricultural catchments, for which

The successful candidate should have or expect to receive a 2.1 Honours Degree (or equivalent) in a relevant topic (e.g., Hydrology, Soil Science, Geosciences, Environmental Sciences, Geography, Environmental Chemistry, or any other relevant numerate, scientific discipline). An enthusiasm to carry out hydrological modelling combined with field data, laboratory experiments and analysis is also required. 


  • Before submitting an application, please contact [email protected] for more information and informal enquiries. General application enquiries can be made to [email protected].
  • Formal applications can be completed online: https://www.abdn.ac.uk/pgap/login.php
  • You should apply for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Geography to ensure your application is passed to the correct team.
  • Please clearly note the name of the supervisor and project title on the application form. If you do not mention the project title and the supervisor on your application, it will not be considered for the studentship.
  • Please include: a cover letter specific to the project you are applying for, an up-to-date copy of your academic CV, and relevant educational certificates and transcripts.
  • Please note: you DO NOT need to provide a research proposal with this application.
  • Before submitting an application, please contact [email protected] for more information and informal enquiries. General application enquiries can be made to [email protected].

The expected start date for the project is October 2022 (or soon after).

Funding Notes

The school of Geosciences at the University of Aberdeen will provide 3 years full funding of stipend and home fees. This studentship includes stipend and fees at the rate for Home/UK candidates (this includes EU nationals that hold UK settled or pre-settled status). Applications are welcome from International students but they MUST be able to meet the difference between UK and International tuition fees from their own resources and for the duration of study. These will be approximately £18,000 per annum.


Dimitrova-Petrova, K., Geris, J., Wilkinson, M. E., Rosolem, R., Verrot, L., Lilly, A., Soulsby, C. (2020) Opportunities and challenges in using catchment-scale storage estimates from cosmic ray neutron sensors for rainfall-runoff modelling. Journal of Hydrology, vol. 586, 124878 doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhydrol.2020.124878
Dimitrova Petrova, K., Geris, J., Wilkinson, M. E., Lilly, A., Soulsby, C. (2020) Using isotopes to understand the evolution of water ages in disturbed mixed land‐use catchments. Hydrological Processes, vol. 34, no. 4, pp. 972-990 doi: