PhD position – Human Interventions and the Resilience of an Ecosystem


The University of Leiden, the Netherlands

Job description

There is an urgent need to understand the effects that global change can have on the Earth, its system components and ecosystems. One area of critical concern is the imminent abrupt and irreversible critical transitions of ecosystems through tipping points. Recent discoveries indicate that such tipping could be evaded and even reversed in ecosystems through spatial pattern formation, thereby creating pathways of resilience. For our ERC-Synergy project Pathways of resilience and evasion of tipping in ecosystems (RESILIENCE) we are offering a PhD position for a self-motivated candidate, with a strong scientific background in the field of mathematics, physics, the environmental sciences or ecology, preferably bridging two of these disciplines, and with excellent English language skills. 

The aim of RESILIENCE is to fundamentally advance our understanding and predictions of tipping points and critical transitions in ecosystems and reveal how these can be evaded and even reversed through spatial pattern formation. RESILIENCE will develop a new theory for emerging resilience through spatial pattern formation and link this with real tipping-prone biomes undergoing accelerating global change: savanna and tundra. The candidate will benefit from the expertise of the four Principal Investigators (PIs) in the RESILIENCE project: Arjen Doelman, a mathematician at Leiden University, Max Rietkerk, an ecologist at Utrecht University, Ehud Meron, a physicist at Ben-Gurion University, and Isla Meyers-Smith, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia.

In the Human Interventions PhD project at Leiden University, you will study the impact of human activities on the resilience of an ecosystem. Existing theories are developed in the context of idealized domains: sufficiently large regions in which environmental conditions do not change. In a realistic setting, the region may be too small to enable the system to evade tipping.  Strong localized effects by human interventions, such as local logging, or ‘slash and burn’ agricultural land use, may also significantly reduce the flexibility and thus resilience of a patterned system. On the other hand, tailored localized perturbations may increase the resilience of the system to droughts by directing it to stable patterns rather than to bare soil. In this project, you will embed the study of spatial patterns in complex systems and ecosystems and their impact on its resilience in an analysis of the impact of spatial restrictions of the domain and the effects of local and global, human induced effects. The approach will be a combination of computational, analytical and modelling studies. The intended endgoal will include measures directed towards ecosystem restoration, evading and even reversing critical transitions.


The ideal candidate has a background and proven interest in mathematics, physics,  the environmental sciences or ecology, preferably bridging two of these disciplines, programming skills (e.g. Matlab, Python) and a relevant Master’s degree. The project is interdisciplinary and affinity with or interest in working in an interdisciplinary environment is important.


You will be offered a full-time appointment of initially one year, with an extension after a positive evaluation of the progress of the research, personal capabilities and compatibility. The appointment will be extended for another three years for PhD candidates (salary range from €  2.770,-  to €  3.539,-  gross per month; pay scale P in accordance with the Collective Labour Agreement for Dutch Universities). 

Leiden University offers an attractive benefits package with additional holiday (8%) and end-of-year bonuses (8.3 %), training and career development. Our individual choices model gives you some freedom to assemble your own set of terms and conditions. Candidates from outside the Netherlands may be eligible for a substantial tax break.

All PhD students are embedded in the Leiden University Graduate School of Science Our graduate school offers several PhD training courses at three levels: professional courses, skills training and personal effectiveness. In addition, advanced courses to deepen scientific knowledge are offered by the research school.

You will be employed at Leiden University and carry out the research in close collaboration with other Host Institutes, especially Utrecht University.

About the organization


The Faculty of Science is a world-class faculty where staff and students work together in a dynamic international environment. It is a faculty where personal and academic development are top priorities. Our people are committed to expand fundamental knowledge by curiosity and to look beyond the borders of their own discipline; their aim is to benefit science, and to make a contribution to addressing the major societal challenges of the future. 

The research carried out at the Faculty of Science is very diverse, ranging from mathematics, information science, astronomy, physics, chemistry and bio-pharmaceutical sciences to biology and environmental sciences. The research activities are organised in eight institutes. These institutes offer eight bachelor’s and twelve master’s programmes. The faculty has grown strongly in recent years and now has almost 2,800 staff and over 6,000 students. We are located at the heart of Leiden’s Bio Science Park, one of Europe’s biggest science parks, where university and business life come together. 

Mathematical Institute

The Mathematical Institute (MI) is one of the eight institutes within the Faculty of Science and has a strong international orientation. Its mission is to push the frontiers of scientific knowledge by developing and applying high quality mathematics, while offering a wide range of mathematical training in a friendly but challenging environment. 

We believe that mathematics is an essential part of human knowledge and our staff members take pride in their role as keepers of this rich field of science. They are dedicated to push the boundaries of mathematical knowledge and to contribute their experience towards solving problems faced in other sciences, society and industry. In addition, many of our staff members work hard to promote mathematical literacy in society at large through a multitude of outreach activities.For more information, see ;  and

Additional information

For more information about this position, please contact prof. Arjen Doelman at


To apply, please send your curriculum vitae, including a letter of motivation via the ‘APPLY‘ button. NOTE: Direct applications via email are not appreciated.

The application deadline is 20th of March, 2024. The application procedure is organised via Utrecht University as project coordinator.