Utrecht University has great ambitions for its teaching quality and study success rates. This also applies to its clear research profiles which are centred around four themes: Dynamics of Youth, Institutions, Life Sciences and Sustainability. Utrecht University plays a prominent role in our society and contributes to finding the answers to topical and future societal issues. UU wishes to be a home for everyone. We value staff with diverse backgrounds, perspectives and identities, including cultural, religious or ethnic background, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age. We strive to create a safe and inclusive environment in which everyone can flourish and contribute.

PhD position on Island biogeography through the lens of a geologist (4 years)

The department of Earth Sciences is seeking an enthusiastic candidate for a PhD project that aims to reconstruct island environments, over millions of years, to understand differences in biodiversity on different islands across the globe.

Since the days of Darwin and Wallace, islands have played a crucial role in the development of theories and hypothesis on the origin and evolution of species. Islands, being isolated, discrete, and numerous, provide a suite of natural laboratories that can be used as simplified model systems of the natural world. Island biogeography, the field of study of the geographic distribution of life's diversity, specifically on islands, has traditionally been occupied by biologists. In the classical Theory of Islands Biogeography, which focuses on volcanic hotspot islands, MacArthur & Wilson (1967) postulate that insular species richness is correlated with island size and isolation from the continent. Inspiring many decades of research, this theory, one of the most cited theories in biology, has proven to be a powerful framework for understanding the ecological processes acting on populations of species on islands. However, this theory does not take evolutionary time into account, nor acknowledges that island environments and their biota are dynamic through time.

In recent years, it has been recognised that island biodiversity does not only depend on present day variables such as area and isolation, but that the geological history of islands plays a key role as well. In particular, island biodiversity is thought to vary throughout the lifespan of an island, with immigration, speciation and extinction rates varying over the buildup (by volcanic activity) and subsequent collapse (by erosion) of the island. This makes island age a key parameter. However, determining such an age is complex, and requires detailed mapping and dating of all volcanic rock units on an island, whereby the age of the oldest volcanic rocks is then interpreted to reflect island age. Such data is available for a few, very well studied hotspot islands, such as the islands of Hawaii and the Canary Islands. However, even if such data is available, the age of the oldest mapped volcanic rock will only provide a minimum age of the island, as older volcanic units may be unexposed or buried beneath younger volcanic units.

Moreover, it has been recognised that different island types (hotspot, but also for example subduction-related volcanic arc, rifted continental fragments, or continental shelf islands) have very different geological histories, very different starting points for life (barren vs. populated) and very different isolation histories (with for example on and off connectivity to the mainland during ice ages for continental shelf islands). Approaching this topic from a geological perspective and integrating these complexities into island biogeography theory is a major next step in this field.

Studying islands and insular biodiversity (species richness and composition of species assemblages) enables comparing different natural laboratories, with islands of different ages and with different types of dynamic environments leading to different types of biodiversity. As such, patterns and trends may be discerned regarding the co-evolution of Earth and life.

The objectives of this PhD study are the following:

  1. Dating volcanic islands
    • We will test a novel method for dating volcanic islands: through zircon dating of beach sands. Ages of zircon grains in beach sands are expected to provide constraints on the moment of island emergence, and, in the case of an inactive volcano, when volcanic activity ended. This record is expected to be more complete than what can be extracted from volcanic rocks that are currently exposed on an island, as older volcanic units may be buried or otherwise unexposed. We will first collect data from well-studied islands from which ages are known, and when proven successful, use this method to date more volcanic (hotspot, and potentially also arc) islands. Fieldwork locations are to be determined, but will likely include the Canary islands and Hawaii. Laboratory work (a couple of weeks in total) will be done in Heidelberg, Germany.
  2. Compiling island parameters
    • build a database of islands, whereby the islands are subdivided into categories that are based on geological characteristics, but that are relevant for biology.
    • compile published and newly determined island ages, including uncertainties.
    • analyse the differences between the types of islands in terms of age, elevation, topography and size.
    • develop generalized models of geological island evolution ("island ontogeny") for the different island types, describing size, isolation, elevation, and topography through time.
  3. Analysing biodiversity metrics
    • compile data for various biodiversity metrics (species richness, phylogenetic diversity, phylogenetic endemism, paleo/neo-endemism) for a subset of selected islands.
    • analyse biodiversity metrics in relation to island type, island age, and island ontogeny.

You are expected to publish your results in peer-reviewed academic journals as Open Science contributions. A personalised training programme will be set up, reflecting your training needs and career objectives. About 20% of your time will be dedicated to this training component, which includes training on the job in assisting in the Bachelor's and Master's programmes of the department at Utrecht University.



As the ideal candidate, you have an interdisciplinary mindset and are not afraid to branch out into new fields, learn new skills, and communicate with multiple different communities of researchers.

Furthermore, you have:

  • A Master's degree in Earth Sciences (geology, geophysics, geomorphology, volcanology, or a related field), ultimately obtained at the start of the position;
  • Affinity with, or interest in, in biodiversity/biogeography;
  • Enthusiasm for (and the ability to perform) geological fieldwork and the organisation thereof;
  • Excellent skills in writing and speaking English (C1 level).

If you already have a PhD degree, unfortunately, we cannot consider you for this position.

Terms of employment:

You will be offered a full-time PhD position, initially for one year with extension to four years in total upon a successful assessment in the first year, and with the specific intent that it results in a doctorate within this period. The gross monthly salary starts with € 2,770 in the first year and increases to € 3,539 in the fourth year of employment with a full-time appointment. Salaries are supplemented with a holiday bonus of 8% and an end-of-year bonus of 8,3% per year. A pension scheme, partially paid parental leave, and flexible employment conditions are based on the Collective Labour Agreement of Dutch Universities.

In addition to the collective employment conditions, Utrecht University has a number of its own arrangements. These include agreements on professional development, leave arrangements, sports and cultural schemes, and you get discounts on software and other IT products. We also give you the opportunity to expand your terms of employment through the Employment Conditions Selection Model. This is how we encourage you to grow. For more information, please visit working at Utrecht University.

About the organisations:

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 a population of 3,400 students (BSc and MSc) and 720 staff, the Faculty is a strong and challenging organisation. The Faculty is organised in four Departments: Earth Sciences, Physical Geography, Sustainable Development, and Human Geography & Spatial Planning.

The Department of Earth Sciences conducts teaching and research across the full range of the solid Earth and environmental Earth sciences, with activities in almost all areas of geology, geochemistry, geophysics, biogeology and hydrogeology. The department hosts a highly international tenured staff of over 50 scientists and more than 110 PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. Our research programme spans four intertwined themes: Climate & Life, Earth interior, Earth materials, and Environmental Earth Sciences. We house or have access to a wide variety of world-class laboratories, including our HPT-laboratory.

About Utrecht:

Utrecht is the fourth largest city in the Netherlands with a population of nearly 360,000 and forms a hub in the middle of the country. Its historical city centre and its modern central station can easily be reached from our campus in Utrecht Science Park by public transport or by a 15-minute bicycle ride. Utrecht boasts beautiful canals with extraordinary wharf cellars housing cafés and terraces by the water, as well as a broad variety of shops and boutiques.

Additional information:

For informal questions, please contact Dr Lydian Boschman (project leader & daily supervisor) at l.m.boschman@uu.nl.

How to apply:

To apply, please use this link to go to the advertisement on UU's own website and follow the guidelines mentioned there. We aim for a quick selection procedure after the deadline of May 10th, 2024, with interviews possibly already in the second half of May. The starting date can be discussed but is preferably between September 1st and the end of 2024.

Note that international candidates that need a visa/work permit for the Netherlands require at least four months processing time after selection and acceptance. This will be arranged with help of the International Service Desk (ISD) of our university. Finding appropriate housing in or near Utrecht is your own responsibility and, unfortunately, we must warn that it is a tight market at the moment. In case of general questions about working and living in The Netherlands, please consult the Dutch Mobility Portal.

Online screening may be part of the selection. Commercial response to this ad is not appreciated.

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posted: 30 April 2024     Please mention EARTHWORKS when responding to this advertisement.