PhD Projects

Applications are invited for PhD Projects in the School of Geography at the University of Melbourne.

We offer a number of PhD Projects each year, funded variously by the University, academic staff research grants or other sponsors (including for example Endeavour Scholarships, Australian Awards; the China Scholarship Council, and Vietnam International Education Development). We seek high performing students with an average weighted mark in Honours and/or Masters of >85% (+GPA equivalent).

The School of Geography is one of Australia’s premier departments. Our current areas of world-leading research include international development, urbanisation, biogeography and earth surface processes, with an overarching interest in the environment and environmental change. We are also embarking on a new specialisation in health geography.

The following are some of our potential PhD Projects. For any information about these research Projects, contact the relevant supervisors.

Supervisor: Professor Jon Barnett

5 x PhD Scholarships in Climate Change Adaptation in Low-Lying Islands

These PhD scholarships form part of an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship project called Future Islands: Catalysing Solutions to Climate Change in Low-Lying Islands.

The Future Islands project aims to provide a substantial body of knowledge on climate change adaptation in low-lying islands, offering solutions to create possibilities for people on those islands to continue to live dignified, meaningful and autonomous lives in the future. Over a period of five years, the project will build a body of comparative evidence about climate change adaptation practices and a theory that explains the socio-political factors that facilitate these adaptation practices.

The PhD projects which these scholarships support will be self-contained, whilst also being an integral part of the wider project. There is sufficient flexibility within the wider project to enable the candidates to develop an original contribution along avenues of their choosing. Appropriate topics, concepts, approaches, methods, and analytical techniques will be developed during the first year of the candidature.

The scholarships include a 100% fee remission scholarship, a living allowance of $30,600 per year for three years, with a possible 6-month extension, and funding for research fieldwork and conference travel.

The PhD candidates will be based in the School of Geography at the University of Melbourne, Australia’s largest geography program. They will be part of a lively and supportive postgraduate community and will be an integral part of a dynamic and supportive research team working on the Future islands project. The School has an outstanding research culture, multiple seminar series and reading groups, and it regularly attracts high profile international visiting fellows.

The principal supervisor for the PhD Projects will be Professor Jon Barnett. Staff within and beyond the School of Geography will be secondary supervisors, according to the specific interests of the candidates.

Applicants must meet the University’s eligibility requirements, which are completion of a Bachelor Degree with First Class Honours, or a Master's degree with a substantial research component, or be regarded by the University of Melbourne as having an equivalent level of attainment. Applicants must intend on undertaking a full-time research higher degree, and will be required to spend at least the first and last 12 months of study based in Melbourne.

Strong preference will be given to applicants from Kiribati, the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, Tokelau, the Torres Strait islands, and Tuvalu.

It would be advantageous to have the following skills (or a strong interest in developing them): experience of social science fieldwork and methods (especially interviews, participant observation and surveys), interest and preferably experience in the field of climate change adaptation. Well-developed written and oral communication skills are also required. We encourage applicants with training in one or more of the following areas to apply: anthropology, demography, development studies, economics, finance, human geography, migration studies, political science, sociology, or similar fields.

We strongly encourage prospective applicants to discuss their research interests and project ideas by contacting Jon Barnett (including a CV and a copy of academic transcripts) via email at before the end of August 2019.

Supervisor: A/Prof David Bissell and Dr Ilan Wiesel

Urban governance and policy mobilities for the gig economy

This Project will explore how different cities are managing the rise of the gig economy. Through research with policymakers, it will evaluate how the mobilities of knowledge and policies between cities are shaping the evolution of this underexplored form of work. The candidate will be part of a larger Project team that is exploring how new digital on-demand ways of moving people, goods and services in cities are dramatically changing the power relations between consumption and production, creating wide-ranging and uneven social, political and economic risks and opportunities yet to be comprehensively understood and responded to.

Urban ethics of the gig economy

This Project will explore how digital on-demand mobile work is reshaping the ethical landscape of cities. It will evaluate how the practices involved in on-demand mobile work are creating new social relationships. The candidate will be part of a larger Project team that is exploring how new digital on-demand ways of moving people, goods and services in cities are dramatically changing the power relations between consumption and production, creating wide-ranging and uneven social, political and economic risks and opportunities yet to be comprehensively understood and responded to.

Supervisor: Dr Ariane Utomo

I am interested to supervise students working on topics related to population, development, and social change in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, drawing upon mixed-methods, and/or large population datasets. In particular, I am keen to supervise projects looking into marriage and family change, and on the intersections between gender, labour market, and the future of work in the region.

Supervisor: Professor Barbara Downes

Recruitment limitation and species diversity in streams

Many species’ populations are limited by rates of recruitment from one life stage to the next, particularly in species with complex life-cycles (most of the world’s species). Nevertheless, we lack tests from diverse ecosystems. This Project would test whether insect populations are limited by recruitment rates that are reduced by shortages of suitable oviposition sites in streams. The Project would articulate with one or both of two, current ARC-funded Projects (Species diversity in a fractal world; Species coexistence in the real world) that are examining recruitment limitation in the context of testing models of species diversity. Click here to read more.

Supervisor: Dr Rachel Hughes & A/Prof David Bissell

Wheels keep turning: an ‘environmental noise problem’ assemblage in NSW, Australia

This Project investigates the problem of ‘wheel-squeal’ associated with rail-freight operations throughout Australia. This is experienced by people, close to passing freight trains, as prolonged and very loud, high-pitched noise. An assemblage approach to community agitation in response to this ‘environmental problem’, and lived experiences of audio distress and sleeplessness, would focus on northern Sydney as a case study. Such an approach would also take into account the materiality of the freight wagons, the corporate economics of rail-freight transportation, the politics of EPA and NSW State Government approaches to the problem, the role of environmental law, and the relationships between residents and experts over the last five years.
Field locations: Australia (Sydney)
Interest/skills: A demonstrated interest or background in cultural, environmental or legal geography is preferred.

Supervisor: A/Prof Wolfram Dressler, Associate Professor Lisa Palmer, and Dr Trent Brown

Youth and Agrarian change in Southeast Asia

In the developing countries of Asia, large numbers of rural youth migrate to urban areas each year in search of employment. While this phenomenon has been studied in terms of the youth who leave their home villages, there has been comparatively little research on youth who continue to pursue rural livelihoods. The implications of the youth exodus from agriculture for sustainable rural development in these largely agrarian societies also needs greater research attention. This project will examine the changing characteristics of youth involvement in farming and rural livelihoods in the context of rural South and Southeast Asia. Relevant subthemes

  • Youth livelihood aspiration
  • Youth politics, social movements, and NGOs
  • Youth and gender
  • Youth migrations, remittances
  • Youth and agricultural skill development
  • Youth and sustainable rural development

Geographic areas: Timor-Leste, Indonesia, The Philippines, India

Investigating climate-driven sedimentary dynamics in the subtropical Andes of NW Argentina

Understanding the response of landscapes to climatic changes is crucial in sustainable development and natural disaster prevention, but is often complicated by the wide range of mechanism that control sedimentary dynamics over multiple timescales. This PhD thesis will explore catchment-wide sedimentary dynamics over Holocene timescales in the tectonically active high-mountain environment of the subtropical Andes by (i) establishing depositional histories in hillslope, valley and alluvial plain settings in the Quebrada de Humahuaca basin, NW Argentina, using stratigraphic, and novel sedimentological and geochemical methods, (ii) developing new luminescence based chronologies for these records, and (iii) linking them in space and time.

Supervisor: Dr Celia McMichael

Geographies of water, sanitation and hygiene

I am interested in supervising students with a focus on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in low- and middle-income contexts. With global efforts to achieve universal access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation, as well as persistent difficulties – such as the growth of informal settlements, and water insecurity related to environmental and climatic challenges - research is required around the opportunities and challenges for WASH.

Health of migrants and refugees

I am also interested in supervising students with a focus on the health of migrants, refugees and forcibly displaced populations. The central area of focus could include, for example, the health of: resettled refugee populations, undocumented migrants, and migrants moving from and to sites of environmental vulnerability.

Supervisor: Professor Lesley Head

Culturally diverse perspectives on the Australian environment

We seek one or more PhD students to join a broader Project exploring culturally and ethnically diverse perspectives on nature and environment. Projects will examine how migrant communities in Melbourne interact with different places, including domestic contexts, urban environments and peri-urban bushland.

Supervisor: Dr Amy Prendergast

Developing high-resolution palaeoenvironmental proxies using mollusc shell sclerochronology

Using mollusc shell growth structures and chemistry (sclerochronology) to reconstruct palaeoenvironmental change is an exciting emerging field. Mollusc shells are high-resolution environmental archives. Their incremental growth patterns can yield environmental information from annual to sub-daily time scales, offering one of the few sub-seasonal climate proxies outside of the tropics. This Project will calibrate new palaeoenvironmental proxies using growth and chemistry of modern mollusc shells from the Australasian region. These newly calibrated proxies will then be applied to mollusc shells from Australasian archaeological shell middens to reconstruct high-resolution records of palaeoenvironmental change and human-environment interaction from the mid to late Holocene.

China’s South-North Water Transfer Project

The School of Geography at the University of Melbourne is seeking PhD candidates to conduct research on China’s South-North Water Transfer project.

A research group within the School includes Prof Jon Barnett, A/Prof Brian Finlayson, Dr Sarah Rogers, A/Prof Ian Rutherfurd, Prof Mark Wang and Prof Emeritus Michael Webber, together with collaborators in Hohai University (Nanjing) and Arizona State University (Phoenix). This group has been awarded a large ARC Discovery grant to study aspects of China’s South-North Water Transfer Project. The SNWT Project is the largest inter-basin transfer program in the world, involving several mega-cities, dozens of smaller cities, a host of provincial-level administrations, and the resettlement of over 300 000 people. It has been plagued with issues of cost and pollution. We are a group of broadly trained geographers, specialising in environmental (fluvial geomorphology and hydrology) and social-political-economic geography (political ecology, political economics, hydropolitics, technopolitics and cross-border flows).

The School is offering scholarships and generous field work and conference-attendance grants to appropriate candidates who are interested in writing PhD theses on a topic related to the SNWT Project. The University provides its own scholarship program as well as having agreements with a number of international sponsors (such as the China Scholarship Council, and Vietnam International Education Development scholarships). Subject to satisfactory progress, the scholarship and grants are for 3.5 years. Successful applicants will have a first class honours degree or a master degree in geography or a closely allied discipline, or they will be in the final year of a program that is expected to deliver that qualification. Evidence of research experience is necessary. The ability to speak and read Mandarin would be a distinct advantage.

We have two specific projects in mind for the moment. Both concern the management of the Danjiangkou source area, which feeds the Danjiangkou reservoir that is the origin of the middle route of the SNWT Project. The empirical content of the two projects is:

  1. The organisation and development effects of management interventions in the Danjiangkou source area, which include closure of polluting factories, suppression of polluting agricultural practices and huge investments in waste treatment. The project would investigate if all this activity had any effect on the development trajectories of cities in the Danjiangkou source region.
  2. The regulation and effects of ‘organic’ farming in the Danjiangkou source area. Organic farming has been a component of the ‘greening’ of the Danjiangkou source area and ‘green’ / ‘organic’ agriculture is widely encouraged. The project would investigate the design and regulation of organic practices, what kinds of farms (smallholder, capitalised) are encouraged to undertake this form of farming, and if practices on ‘green’ farms actually differ from those of other farms.

Of course, a variety of different theoretical perspectives could be brought to bear on these questions. A PhD student would be expected to identify appropriate perspectives and then to comment critically on them in the light of the empirical evidence.

For more information and to initiate a discussion about an application with the most appropriate members of this research group, contact Michael Webber on Include a CV, an example of your written work, any relevant transcripts, and up to a page describing your suggested research topic and perspective.