Understanding the diversity of life: trait correlations from micro- to macroevolutionary scales

This project will use ecomorphological data to examine the constraints that limit biological diversity.

The studentship is part of the ACCE doctoral training partnership, funded by NERC and starts October 2019.

Apply for this course

Read the eligibility criteria and application guidance below, then submit your application via the University of Sheffield online application form.

Application deadline: 9 January 2019

Research focus

The overall objective of this PhD is to test how correlations among traits evolve at multiple scales (intraspecific, intraclade and interclade) to shape the diversity of traits and species across the tree of life.

Specifically, the first objective is to test the stability of trait correlations through time. The stability of phenotypic trait correlations may have important macroevolutionary consequences, for example by constraining the potential total phenotypic diversity within and among clades (i.e. their disparity).

The second objective is to test how variation in correlations constrains (i) disparity and (ii) diversity of species among lineages. 

The project would suit a motivated, statistically and computationally strong student with a keen interest in understanding the diversity of life and the relationship between micro and macroevolution.


The project will have the opportunity to use recent, novel ecomorphological databases of birds and mammals that capitalise on international initiatives to digitise museum collections. The student will extend the data using collections at the Natural History Museum and to learn and apply cutting-edge statistical techniques and bridge the micro-macroevolution gap. 


Understanding the mechanisms that lead to biological diversity over long periods of time is one of the most important underpinnings of evolutionary biology. However, when we look at the immense diversity of life, we can see several clear patterns that are surprising. Diversity is not evenly distributed across the tree of life.

This suggests that the processes generating diversity are constrained: some lineages experience different rates of trait evolution and diversification than others and there are constraints on the numbers of species and their variety of form and function. This clearly suggests genetic, ecological, developmental, or physiological limits on evolution.

These constraints may be taxon-specific or cut across taxa, suggesting general limits at higher taxonomic levels. Resolving the mechanisms driving these patterns will dramatically improve our understanding of the processes that determine the diversity of life. 


ACCE studentships are available to UK and EU applicants only.

Residency rules apply. UK and EU students with qualifying residence in the UK are eligible for full-cost awards. Non-UK students from the EU who do not have qualifying residence are eligible for fees-only awards, which covers the tuition fees and Research Training Support Grant (RTSG), but not stipend. 

All applicants need to comply with the registered university's English-language requirements.

Applicants should have obtained or be about to obtain a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK. Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have a master's degree. Applicants with a minimum Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

How to apply

Applications for the PhD are processed through the University of Sheffield's online application form.

  • Please select ‘Standard PhD’ and the Name of the Department from which the title of the ACCE studentship is announced;
  • Fill in the Title of your desired project and the name(s) of the supervisors. (You can apply for more than one project to increase your chances to be nominated for an interview, but you can be interviewed for only one);
  • As a ‘Study term,’ – point out full-time or part-time PhDs depending on your wish;
  • The starting date of PhD will be the start of the next academic year- 1 Oct 2019;
  • Funding stage‘ on the form will be ‘project studentship‘.

The deadline for applications is 9 January 2019.

Any questions?

If you have any questions about the project please contact

Main supervisor: Dr Gavin Thomas


The University of Sheffield

Main supervisor: Dr Gavin Thomas

Co-supervisor: Dr Andrew Beckerman

The Natural History Museum

Co-supervisor: Dr Natalie Cooper


ACCE Doctoral Training Partnership

Joint PhD training partnerships between the Natural History Museum and the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool and York, and the NERC’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH).

Funded by 

Submit your application