PhD position: The role of fire feedbacks in spatial resilience of forest-savanna boundaries (1.0 FTE)


Utrecht University, 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 self-motivated candidates with a strong scientific background in the field of mathematics, ecology, environmental sciences or physics, preferably spanning two of the 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: Max Rietkerk, an ecologist at Utrecht University, Arjen Doelman, a mathematician at Leiden University, Ehud Meron, a physicist at Ben-Gurion University, and Isla Meyers-Smith, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia.

In this PhD project The role of fire feedbacks in spatial resilience of forest-savanna boundaries at Utrecht University, you will study forest-savanna boundaries and develop spatial ecosystem models, revealing how spatial patterns of fuel connectivity affect (the evasion of) forest-savanna tipping points. For this project, satellite images from Africa and South America could be used, relating static and moving forest-savanna boundaries to fire. This will increase our understanding of forest-savanna resilience and will be used to predict the movement of forest-savanna boundaries with global change. We follow a joint modelling and validation approach, in collaboration with other PhD’s, postdocs and senior researchers from the different involved universities.


The ideal candidate has a background and proven interest in environmental sciences, ecology, physics or mathematics, preferably spanning two of these disciplines, experience in programming (e.g. Matlab, Python), spatial data analysis, 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 temporary position (1.0 FTE), initially for one year with an extension to a total of four years upon a successful assessment in the first year, and with the specific intent that it results in a doctorate within this period. The gross salary ranges between €2,770 in the first year and €3,539 in the fourth year of employment (scale P according to the Collective Labour Agreement Dutch Universities) per month for a full-time employment. Salaries are supplemented with a holiday bonus of 8% and a year-end bonus of 8.3% per year. 

In addition, Utrecht University offers excellent secondary conditions, including an attractive retirement scheme, (partly paid) parental leave and flexible employment conditions (multiple choice model). For more information, please visit working at Utrecht University.

About the organization

A better future for everyone. This ambition motivates our scientists in executing their leading research and inspiring teaching. At Utrecht University, the various disciplines collaborate intensively towards major strategic themes. Our focus is on Dynamics of Youth, Institutions for Open Societies, Life Sciences and Sustainability.

Utrecht University’s Faculty of Geosciences studies the Earth: from the Earth’s core to its surface, including man’s spatial and material utilisation of the Earth – always with a focus on sustainability and innovation. With 3,400 students (BSc and MSc) and 720 staff, the faculty is a strong and challenging organisation. The Faculty of Geosciences is organised in four Departments: Earth Sciences, Human Geography & Spatial Planning, Physical Geography, and Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development. The faculty is located at Utrecht Science Park.

The position is embedded at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, in the Environmental Sciences group. The Copernicus Institute is the scientific institute for sustainability research and teaching of Utrecht University. The mission of the Environmental Sciences group is to understand the interactions between terrestrial ecosystems and global environmental change.

Additional information

For more information about this position, please contact prof. Max Rietkerk (Professor Spatial Ecology and Global Change) via or Dr. Arie Staal (Assistant Professor Ecosystem resilience) via


Everyone deserves to feel at home at our university. We welcome employees with a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives.

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.