Students in the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences Glasshouse inspecting plants

Most ESSRC researchers offer MSc by research or PhD projects periodically. Prospective postgraduate research students from Australia or overseas should contact ESSRC academics directly via e-mail well ahead of their intended application to discuss the possibility of undertaking a research project. Applicants will need to participate in an interview prior to any ESSRC academic agreeing to supervise a successful applicant.

All applications for enrolment in postgraduate programs and for scholarships are submitted and assessed centrally through the university's Graduate Research School. Applications for degrees and scholarships must be submitted separately. You'll need to have established contact with a prospective supervisor prior to your application.

Information about undertaking a postgraduate research degree in the School of BEES can be found here.

The School of BEES Postgraduate Handbook can be viewed here.

  • Many prospective postgraduate research students will have recently undertaken an honours or masters research project and will have some idea of the topic they would like to pursue for their research. If this sounds like you, then you may already have established the connections required for the next phase of your study. Speak to your supervisor, mentors, colleagues and collaborators – they will often have ideas and know of options you had not considered.

    In many other cases, though, finding the right supervisor and project can be somewhat more challenging. You may have been working for some time in a non-academic position and be newly approaching/returning to a research environment, or you may have realised that the particular topic you pursued in your previous research was not for you. While it can be intimidating to approach a new field of research as a relative outsider, it can also be highly rewarding.

    The first step for any postgraduate research is to identify a research area. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re already interested in one of the many diverse research areas within the palaeosciences. There are a few key things to consider at this stage:

    • What knowledge and skills do you already have? Even if you haven’t completed an undergraduate program in the palaeosciences, it may be that the skills and knowledge you do have are transferrable. For example, a background in anatomy or medical sciences may well be compatible with a project in evolutionary biology.
    • What are you passionate about, and where do you want this research to take you? This may well be the longest time you will ever spend working on a single project without interruption. It’s important to find a topic that not only develops the skills necessary for the next stage of your career but one which will maintain your interest.
    • How does it fit into your lifestyle? It is often possible to have external supervisors from other institutions in addition to your main supervisor if particular expertise is required, but sometimes it may be necessary or advantageous to relocate.

    Having identified an area of research, a specific research group, or perhaps even a particular supervisor, the next step is to initiate contact. Try looking at the ESSRC lab pages to get an idea about current research and research interests and have a look through the individual researcher profiles. Even browsing the postgraduate student profiles may help give you some ideas.

    Sometimes specific projects may be advertised on notice boards or in various places online. This is most often the case where the project is already funded and may be accompanied by a scholarship. These opportunities are usually highly competitive and only account for a small proportion of overall postgraduate research projects.

    Generally, once you've identified an appropriate supervisor (or set of supervisors), it's up to you to negotiate a project with them. Some researchers may suggest pre-conceived projects or ideas which stem from a component of their own research. More often than not, though, it's up to the student to devise the aim and the details of their own research. This is a process that most supervisors are happy to undertake with you collaboratively – you are not expected to be a fully independent researcher at this stage in your training – but it is important to discuss your expectations in this regard with your supervisor prior to commencing a project.

    Finally, it's important to consider the financial aspects of your research. No matter the project, it's important to discuss the funding requirements with your prospective supervisor. How much funding do they expect the research may require? Are they willing to provide funding from their own research allocation? Do they have sufficient funding of their own to support you? If you are considering seeking out your own funding opportunities (i.e. research grants), be clear and realistic about your plans and prospects, and consider a backup plan.

    Similarly, it's important to consider your own source of financial support throughout your candidature. Though there are part time study options, full time candidature is generally preferred. There are a number of scholarship opportunities available for full time research students, many of which your supervisor may not be aware of. Be sure to check a variety of internal and external sources and explore the wide range of possible funding bodies which exist.

UNSW Scientia PhD scholarships

The UNSW Scientia PhD Scholarship Scheme is part of our dedication to harnessing our cutting-edge research to solve complex problems and improve the lives of people in local and global communities. Scientia candidates will have a strong commitment to making a difference in the world with demonstrated potential for contributing to the social engagement and/or global impact pillars of the UNSW 2025 Strategy.

Applicants are required to express their interest in a specific research area with an identified supervisory team. There are over 190 research projects to choose from.

  • Work on high quality research projects with the best supervisory teams in world class environments.
  • Stipend $41,209 per year for four years (2019 rate, indexed).
  • Tuition fees covered for the full four year candidature.
  • Personal development coaching and mentoring will form a critical part of your highly personalised leadership development plan.
  • Career development up to $10k each year to build your career and support your international research collaborations.
  • Indigenous research at least five scholarships will be reserved for Indigenous candidates.

Expression of interest now open. Closes Friday, 12 July 2019.

  • Extreme fire weather, and the length of the fire season, is increasing across large parts of Australia. However, our knowledge of wildfire recurrence and of fire and climate interactions is largely limited to the last few decades, when satellite imagery is available. Stalagmites offer an untapped opportunity to reconstruct past fire and climate events. This PhD will use newly established methodologies to produce high-resolution datasets of past fires and associated hydroclimate conditions. The PhD candidate will generate them for south west Australia, providing highly needed data for this region which has experienced a sustained recent drying trend.

    The candidate will analyse and interpret large geochemical datasets that will be generated by the project. As such, they need to be sufficiently numerate to be able to be trained to handle such data. It would suit an environmental earth scientist, ideally with some geochemistry background.

    Supervisory team

    Andy Baker, Tim Cohen (University of Wollongong) and Pauline Treble (ANSTO).

  • This project will investigate whether digitate opaline silica nodules (DSNs) discovered by NASA’s Spirit rover on Mars are a biosignature. This interdisciplinary study will involve: 1) mapping terrestrial DSNs relative to hot spring flow vs evaporation rate 2) functional analysis of microbes involved in DSN formation 3) analogue hot spring experiments to test whether DSNs can form without biology. The search for life outside Earth is one of humanities’ Grand Challenges and thus, the project is of international interest. It has the potential to greatly influence future missions to Mars and our understanding of the Universe.

    The ideal candidate should have top undergraduate marks and broad science background with a major in microbiology, and a burning interest in, and familiarity with, astrobiology. Our preference is for a woman. S/he would have field experience in a large-scale sampling campaign, particularly of microbiology, and have experience with functional gene analysis and trace metal and REE geochemistry. The candidate should be an excellent communicator and have experience leading and working collaboratively within broad, multidisciplinary and multi-national research teams. They should be self-motivated, and involved in science outreach. A second language would be preferred.

    Supervisory team

    Martin Van Kranendonk, Brendan Burns (BABS) and Anna Wang (Chemistry).

  • The Last Interglacial (130,000-116,000 years ago) is the most recent ‘super-interglacial’, providing a process analogue for future change, with global temperatures warmer than present (1-2˚C), yet with sea level over 6 m higher, suggesting a ‘tipping point’ in the Earth’s system was passed. Few terrestrial environmental records extend this far back, and most that do in Australia were obtained many decades ago, when many of the geochronology, geochemistry and remote sensing techniques in common use today were in their infancy or did not exist. This project will use lake and coastal sedimentary and speleothem sequences to reconstruct Last Interglacial climate and environmental changes on sub-decadal to millennial timescales across Australia. The results will be used to inform on the exact timing, magnitude and impact of this warmer-than-present period on the Australian landscape and hydrological systems.

    The successful candidate will be expected to hold a Bachelor of Science (Honours) distinction or higher-class degree in Earth science, physical geography or a related field. The candidate will have analytical skills and experience with Quaternary science methods.

    Supervisory team

    Zoe Thomas, Andy Baker and Chris Turney.

Study with us

Study with us at the Earth & Sustainability Science Research Centre. We’re passionate about the evolution and adaptation of life through time. Find out more.


While there is no undergraduate program specifically for the palaeosciences, there are many courses that are directly relevant. View courses that relate to palaeosciences.


Honours in the ESSRC Research Centre is undertaken through the School of BEES. Students will be introduced to investigative research and advanced study. Find out about choosing a topic, how to contact a supervisor and much more.