Potential Projects for Postgraduate Students

Below is a list of potential postgraduate student research projects identified by SGEES Academics and, in some cases, developed in conjunction with other institutions (e.g. GNS Science). If you are particularly interested in one of these topics, please feel free to get in touch with the associated Academic for further information.

It should be noted that if none of these projects appeal to you, yet you feel have a good idea or interest in a specific discipline, you are more than welcome to get in touch with an Academic to discuss things further.

Development Studies

Contact John Overton for details.

Environmental Studies

Contact Ralph Chapman for details.

Environmental Sciences

Contact Lynda Petherick for details.

Human Geography

Contact Sara Kindon for details.

Earth Sciences

Title: Greywacke fracture mapping as an analogue for supercritical geothermal host rocks

Level: 3rd year, Honours or MSc.

Summary: We seek a highly motivated student to investigate fracture networks in outcropping basement rocks representative of those in the Tāupo Volcanic Zone that potentially host supercritical geothermal resources. This project will provide an analogue for research that quantifies the hydrological and mechanical properties of the crust at depth.

Research will involve mapping fractures in a in a quarry outcrop near Whakatane. Basement rocks are composed of a range of faulted and unfaulted greywacke and argillite. Mapping will consist of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) photogrammetry and manual fracture measurements (scanline, window sampling). The fracture network derived from the outcrop will be used to develop a statistical framework for modeling fracture geometries and their permeability characteristics.

This study will be used as a baseline to compare with drillhole data acquired in a nearby geothermal field, so the student will learn geothermal development techniques with application to industry.

Background Information of Project: This project is part of the wider programme “Geothermal: Next Generation” that aims to adapt and advance research to identify Aotearoa New Zealand’s supercritical resources, and characterise their fundamentally unique chemical and fluid-dynamic properties. We hypothesise that New Zealand geothermal systems exist at a greater distance from molten rock (i.e., closer to the Earth’s surface) where they have deep (>6 km) supercritical roots above shear zones or shallow intrusions that are connected to deep crustal magma reservoirs.

“Geothermal: Next Generation” is funded by the New Zealand government Endeavour fund. The student will work with Cécile Massiot (GNS Science), Sarah Milicich (GNS Science), Carolyn Boulton (VUW) and Tim Little (VUW). A proportion of the data analysis and interpretation will occur at GNS Science, Avalon (Lower Hutt).

Positions Available: One or a combination of the following:

  • 3rd year’s summer project (2020-2021) to conduct field work (potential for a summer scholarship for 3 months, field costs covered)
  • Honours or MSc thesis for field data analysis and interpretation (support towards costs of fees and stipend)

Skills Involved/Required: Useful: structural geology or engineering; basic computation skills and statistics, willingness to learn.

Contact(s): Dr. Carolyn Boulton, Cécile Massiot (c.massiot@gns.cri.nz)

Title: Interseismic Sealing Scholarship

Level: MSc.

Summary: View PDF of scholarship here.

Contact(s): Dr. Carolyn Boulton

Title: Greywacke fracture mapping as an analogue for supercritical geothermal host rocks

Level: 3rd year's summer project (2020 - 2021) or Honours/MSc student

Summary: View PDF of scholarship here.

Contact(s): Dr. Carolyn Boulton, Cécile Massiot (c.massiot@gns.cri.nz)

Title: Multi-phase history of the Ouse Fault, Marlborough

Level: MSc

Summary: The project will use detailed mapping of geological structures to reveal the kinematics and multi-phase tectonic history of a well exposed fault that was active during the Cretaceous and Cenozoic. This fault may provide a good model for many currently active faults in New Zealand that have formed on Cretaceous precursors.

Background Information of Project: The northern Clarence valley, Marlborough, lies between the Seaward and Inland Kaikoura ranges and has outstanding exposures of Cretaceous and Paleogene strata.  One of the faults affecting these strata, the Ouse Fault, has superb exposures over a distance of about 10 km, and reveals a complex history of movements over the past 100 million years.  Outcrops of the fault and adjacent formations contain a great diversity of structures, including shear fabrics, mesoscopic folds and faults, and apparently soft-sediment deformation that may have been syn-tectonic.  This project will involve detailed geological and structural mapping of the fault and immediately enclosing rocks, in order to determine the kinematic history of the fault during the Cretaceous and Cenozoic reactivation.  Results will be used to refine interpretations of regional tectonic history, from the time of Gondwana breakup to modern subduction.

Positions Available: 1 MSc Project

Skills Involved/Required: Geological mapping, structural geology, sedimentology

Contact(s): Prof. James Crampton


Title: Earthquake and Tsunami Early Warning

Level: PhD

Summary: We seek a highly motivated student for a 3-year PhD scholarship to test the physical capabilities and explore the utility of earthquake early warning (EEW) and tsunami early warning (TEW) algorithms within the New Zealand (NZ) context. Although earthquakes may not be predictable, recent developments have allowed earthquakes to be located rapidly so that their expected arrival times can be broadcast before the damaging waves arrive. The objectives will be to quantify the efficiency of the algorithms for these two perils.  The student will consider current NZ seismic and geodetic networks, ocean pressure and tide monitoring stations, limited ground motion prediction equation (GMPE) availability, limited real-time information and effectiveness of warning times within the context of civil defence and response infrastructure. He/she will also attempt to determine whether additional monitoring stations in key locations would be able to make a significant difference to warning times.

Background Information of Project: This project is part of a wider “earthquake and tsunami theme project” to develop physics-based models of virtual earthquakes enabling new avenues of research to assess and forecast a range of hazards including ground shaking, liquefaction, landslides and tsunami throughout New Zealand and involving two Crown Research Institutions, four universities, >10 primary researchers and six PhD students.  It will rely in part on “synthetic” earthquake catalogues determined from known faults, their previous seismicity, and the physics of wave propagation to determine likely types of future earthquakes that could happen in 1,000s to 10’s of thousands of years.

It is funded by The Resilience to Nature’s Challenges National Science Challenge.  The student will work with Professor Martha Savage, Dr. Caroline Holden (GNS Science), and SJ McCurrach (NZ Ministry of Civil Defence); and will interact with key external advisors:  Dr Julia Becker (Massey University) and Kim Wright (NZ Ministry of Civil Defence).

Positions Available: 1 PhD Project

Skills Involved/Required: Prospective candidates must have a strong background in geoscience (some seismology experience and some training in mathematics and physics is desirable), an interest in social sciences, be proficient in one or more scientific programming languages (Matlab, Python, etc.), and have completed (or is expected to complete) a Master’s or equivalent degree by the start of the PhD programme.

Contact(s): Professor Martha Savage, Dr. Caroline Holden: c.holden@gns.cri.nz; SJ McCurrach: sarah-jayne.McCurrach@dpmc.govt.nz

Title: Estimation of Tsunami Hazard in New Zealand Using Synthetic Seismicity

Level: PhD

Summary: The project will involve simulating coastal wave-heights caused by the tsunamigenic events in synthetic earthquake catalogues and processing the results to evaluate the probabilistic tsunami hazard at the coast of New Zealand. One study site will be chosen for more detailed tsunami inundation studies, and for this site we will calculate onshore inundation depths and currents in detail. Probabilistic tsunami inundation hazard assessment (PTHA) requires many numerically-intensive simulations, which is why we will focus on one study site. In order to undertake a PTHA for a larger proportion of the country we need to develop concepts and algorithms for reducing the number of, or more rapidly approximating, the simulations needed. A large part of this PhD will involve investigating different potential methods for doing this.

Background Information of Project: Tsunamis can be the most deadly outcomes of very large earthquakes.  Yet there are very few historic examples of large earthquakes because they happen so rarely.  The Resilience to Nature’s Challenges National Science Challenge is building “synthetic” earthquake catalogues from known faults, their previous seismicity, and the physics of wave propagation to determine likely types of future earthquakes that could happen in 1,000s to 10’s of thousands of years.  These “synthetic” earthquakes will be used to determine how large future tsunamis are likely to be.

This project is funded by The Resilience to Nature’s Challenges National Science Challenge. The student will work with Professors Martha Savage and Richard Arnold of Victoria University of Wellington, with Dr. William Powers of GNS Science and Dr. Emily Lane of NIWA. The project is part of a wider project involving two Crown Research Institutions, four universities, >10 primary researchers and six PhD students.

Positions Available: 1 PhD Project

Skills Involved/Required: We are looking for a student who:

  • Is interested in researching tsunami hazards as they affect New Zealand
  • Has a good mathematical and statistical background
  • Has good computer programming and scripting skills
  • Is keen to work in a multi-disciplinary team

Contact(s): Professor Martha Savage, Dr. William Powers: w.power@gns.cri.nz, Dr. Emily Lane: Emily.Lane@niwa.co.nz

Title: Development of seismology-based volcano monitoring techniques

Level: PhD

Summary: The project will develop and test several techniques that have been proposed to monitor volcanoes using seismic data.  They will be tested on existing and soon-to-be-collected data that recorded eruptions on White Island/Whakaari, Ruapehu, and Tongariro volcanoes as well as other data sets. Techniques may include artificial intelligence methods to automatically determine earthquake locations and types, shear wave splitting measurements on earthquakes, and ambient noise analysis using cross-correlations on single and multiple stations to recover waveforms traveling between stations or scattered from structures near to the stations.

Background Information of Project: New Zealand sits on an active plate boundary, with the Taupō Volcanic zone in the North Island as the southern-most extension of the Lau-Havre trough and backarc basin. Well-recorded eruptions in 1995/1996, 2006, 2007, 2012, 2016 and 2019 will serve as testing grounds for the new techniques.

This project includes a generous scholarship funded by the  Resilience to Nature’s Challenges National Science Challenge (https://resiliencechallenge.nz/).  The student will work with Professor Martha Savage of Victoria University of Wellington and Dr. Art Jolly of GNS Science.

Positions Available: 1 PhD Project

Skills Involved/Required: Prospective candidates must have a strong background in some combination of geology, geophysics, volcanology, seismology, computing, mathematics, physics, or statistics. The candidates must have completed (or be expected to complete) a Master’s or equivalent degree by the start of the PhD programme. Full details of Victoria University’s eligibility criteria are available from the Faculty of Science.

Contact(s): Professor Martha Savage, Dr. Art Jolly: a.jolly@gns.cri.nz

Title: Six Master of Science (MSc) research scholarships in seismology and tectonic geodesy

Level: MSc

Summary: Six one-year scholarships funded by the Earthquake Commission are available for study leading to the degree of MSc (Geophysics) at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington. The projects are aligned with ongoing research in seismology and tectonic geodesy at the University and GNS Science, and will involve supervision by researchers at both organisations.

A. Earthquake detection and characterisation for seismic hazard analysis

  • A1. Development of a consistent, homogenous New Zealand earthquake catalogue
  • A2. High-resolution relocation of subduction seismicity
  • A3. High-resolution of analysis of central North Island seismicity and volcanic unrest

B. Joint seismological and geodetic analysis of tectonic and volcanic deformation

  • B1. Automated finite fault inversion using seismological and geodetic data
  • B2. Regional and fault-scale time-series analysis of sentinel-1 InSAR data
  • B3. Changes in seismic velocity accompanying geodetically detected deformation

Background Information of Project: Subject to contracts being finalised, research on the first two of these projects is expected to commence in July 2020, with two more projects starting in each of 2021 and 2022.

Each of the six scholarships provides a 12-month stipend of NZ$17,000 and payment of domestic tuition fees. Students who are not citizens of New Zealand or Australia will be required to pay international tuition fees (see https://www.wgtn.ac.nz/international) but may be eligible for additional funding from other sources and are encouraged to apply.

Positions Available: 3 MSc projects to start in 2020, 2021, 2022 (flexible)

Skills Involved/Required: Applicants should have completed a BSc (Hons), PGDip, or four-year undergraduate science degree in physics, mathematics, geophysics, geology, data science, or a related field and will ideally have had some prior research and fieldwork experience.

Contact(s): Prof John Townend

Title: Using geophysical techniques to understand active tectonics in the New Zealand Plate Boundary Zone

Level: MSc/PhD

Summary of Project: There is existing and potential funding for the field/instrumental component of a range of projects at Masters or PhD level on different aspects of the active tectonics of the New Zealand Plate Boundary Zone:

  1. A giant resolution strain gauge across a major active strike-slip fault. The project will involve the building and deployment of a hi-rate GPS network (together with InSar) straddling a major active fault to detect long term and transient strain signals that are driven by changes in slip at depth, in order to understand the role of deep creep (if any) on the seismogenic behaviour of active faults.
  2. What determines the maximum elevation of New Zealand’s mountains? The aim of this project is to understand the role of gravity in limiting the heights of mountain ranges by documenting a Holocene switch from thrusting to extension at high elevation on major active strike-slip faults in New Zealand, and the processes that could drive this, using a range of geological and geophysical techniques (fieldwork, fault dating, seismicity, geodesy, physical modelling).
  3. Tectonic rotation about vertical axes and the evolution of oroclinal bending in New Zealand .The aim of this project is to use palaeomagnetic techniques to document tectonic rotation near the Alpine Fault in order to understand the role of distributed strain in accommodating Cenozoic relative plate motion through New Zealand. It is anticipated that fieldwork will be focussed in the Fiordland region of southern South Island.

Background Information of Project: Fieldwork support for these projects will be funded by existing (or potential) grants as part of a wider investigation of the factors that drive active deformation and earthquakes in the New Zealand plate boundary zone. The students will work within a dynamic research group of geophysicists at Victoria University of Wellington, with overseas collaboration/partners, in the context of a strong track record in this type of research.

Positions Available: Masters (1 – 2) or PhD (1 – 2) studentships depending on successful scholarship or other funding. At present, funding for these projects consists of fieldwork/instrument costs required for research, but the palaeomagnetic project potentially includes funding for a Masters studentship from GNS Science.

Skills Involved/Required: Strong back ground in geophysics, +/- field geology, +/- active tectonics.

Contact(s): A/Prof Simon Lamb, Dr Huw Horgan

Title: Seismic structure of the subducted Hikurangi Plateau

Level: MSc

Summary of Project:  Beneath North Island, New Zealand, the oceanic Hikurangi plateau has subducted to depths of ~ 300 km. Intermediate depth earthquakes occur at regular rate in this subducted material and there have been a series of quakes of magnitude > 4 over the past decade. These quakes create P and S waves that are recorded across the GeoNet array of seismographs. By stacking these arrivals across many stations the project will try an establish the P and S-wave velocity structure of the Hikurangi Plateau. The project will be one based in the computer lab and all the data will come from the GeoNet data base.

Background Information of Project: The Hikurangi Plateau was part of the largest LIPs (Large Igneous Province) on the planet (the Ontong Java- Manahiki-Hikurangi Plateau (OJMHP). These oceanic plateaus are thought to have developed by melting in the head of a mantle plume. A recent study has shown one of the characteristics of a plume head is that very high P-wave speeds are observed there. It is thought that these high speeds are due to a radially anisotropic fabric created by gravitational collapse in the plume head. High upper mantle P-wave speeds are observed in the Hikurangi Plateau along SW-NE azimuths, but data at right angles, along SE-NW azimuths, are more rare. This study will allow us to test the hypothesis of a  radially anisotropic fabric in plume heads.
This study is at the fundamental end of geophysics in that it deals with a global problem of plumes and seismic anisotropy. But North Island , NZ, is an ideal position to do this study as its one of the few places on earth where part of an old mantle plume sits beneath a modern seismic network. This project will suit a student who is interested in global tectonics and who has solid basis in geophysics, tectonics and computer skills.

Positions Available: 1 MSc

Skills Involved/Required: General knowledge of geophysics, tectonics, and IT skills.

Contact(s): Prof Tim Stern

Title: Crustal structure of Southland and Fiordland

Level: MSc/PhD

Summary of Project: This project will involve analysing seismic data from air gun shooting and from natural earthquakes. The goal will be to determine crustal and upper mantle structure of the SW South Island of New Zealand. Other data sets such as gravity and magnetic data may also be included in the analysis. The project will largely be an office and computer based one, although a field trip to Fiordland at same point is highly likely. 
One of the first order goals of the project will be to determine the shape and form of the subduction zone at the SW margin of the South Island, and the interaction of the southern Alpine fault with the subduction zone. Other goals will be to characterise the crustal structure of Southland, and to assess the seismic and tsunami risk of Southland. The student will work with staff from both VUW and GNS. In this sense there will be opportunities for the student to become known at both organisations.

Background Information of Project: In 2019 a joint US-NZ project (SISE-  Southland International Seismic Experiment) conducted a series of marine seismic lines offshore of Fiordland and Southland. Onshore seismographs were deployed across Southland and offshore islands, which recorded the air gun blasts. These instruments  were left out for more than 12 months for the purpose of  recording earthquakes.
The aim of this project was to gain a better understanding of a young subduction zone and gain new knowledge on one of the most under explored parts of the country, yet our most seismically active region. These data have been collected, some processing has taken place and is now archived at VUW and GNS. This project would suit a student who has a strong interest in plate tectonics and earthquakes.

Positions Available: 1 MSc or 1 PhD

Skills Involved/Required: General knowledge of geophysics, tectonics, and IT skills.

Contact(s): Prof Tim Stern, Prof Rupert Sutherland

Physical Geography

Title: Reconstructing past climate using glaciers

Level: MSc / PhD

Summary: There many possible projects available under this general topic, which can either be designed for a smaller MSc thesis or scaled to broader program of research at doctoral level.

Some emerging research questions worthy of investigation:

  • Are New Zealand glaciers now smaller than ever before?
  • Did changing seasonality cause Southern Hemisphere glaciers to retreat during the Holocene?
  • What do geological records of past glaciation on sub-Antarctic islands tell us about past climate?

Background Information of Project: Advance and retreat of mountain glaciers is closely connected to climate. Evidence for pre-historic changes in glacier length, recorded in the landscape, thus provides a window into past climatic conditions.

The processes by which temperature and precipitation alter the volume of ice stored on land, and the physics that drive glacier flow, are both well understood and can be simulated using computer models. Such models represent useful tools with which we can quantify the past climatic conditions recorded by geological records of past glacier extent.

The glaciology group at VUW has developed number of models for such application and is seeking to train students in their use. See some of our recent work:

  • Mackintosh et al. (2017). Reconstructing climate using glaciers. Annual Reviews of Earth and Planetary Sciences.
  • Eaves et al. (2019). Climate amelioration during the Last Glacial Maximum recorded by a sensitive mountain glacier in New Zealand. Geology, 47(4), 299-302. doi:10.1130/G45543.1
  • Eaves et al. (2016). The Last Glacial Maximum in central North Island, New Zealand: palaeoclimate inferences from glacier modelling. Climate of the Past, 12, 943–960. doi:10.5194/cp-12-943-2016

Positions Available: Several.

Skills Involved/Required: 

Useful: Undergraduate/postgraduate degree in a science subject; basic computation skills (or willingness to learn).

Required: Interest in climate, glaciers, geomorphology.

Contact(s): Shaun Eaves (shaun.eaves@vuw.ac.nz)

Title: Dating ancient rock surfaces

Level: MSc / PhD

Summary: Projects are available to develop and apply new and emerging techniques for quantification of ancient geomorphological events (e.g. landslides, glacier advance/retreat, volcanic eruption etc).

Some possible thesis topics include:

  • Quantifying rock surface exposure ages using luminescence
  • Cosmogenic surface exposure dating of glacial landforms in the Southern Alps
  • How fast are New Zealand mountains eroding?

There are many possible projects available under this general topic, which can either be designed for a smaller MSc thesis or scaled to broader program of research at doctoral level.

Please contact us using the contact information below to discuss possible projects.

Background Information of Project:  Quantifying the age of the land surface and/or the rates at which it is changing (e.g. by erosion/weathering) provides fundamental information about the timing, frequency, and drivers (e.g. climate, tectonics) of landscape evolution.

Many geological dating tools are currently available, with different strengths and weaknesses for different applications. VUW has expertise and laboratory facilities to support application of several different methods, e.g. luminescence, cosmogenic nuclides, thermochronometry. We are also actively developing capabilities in new and emerging techniques that enable more accurate and precise characterization of the timing and rates of past landscape change.

See some of our recent work:

  • Eaves et al. 2019. Lateglacial and Holocene glacier fluctuations in central North Island, New Zealand. Quaternary Science Reviews. 223, 105914.
  • Eaves et al. 2018. Further constraint of the in situ 10Be production rate in pyroxene and a viability test for late Quaternary exposure dating applications. Quaternary Geochronology, v. 48, pp. 121-132.

Positions Available: Several

Skills Involved/Required: Undergraduate/postgraduate degree in a science subject, preferably Earth Science/Geography/Chemistry/Physics.

Contact(s): Shaun Eaves (shaun.eaves@vuw.ac.nz), Kevin Norton (kevin.norton@vuw.ac.nz)

Title: Understanding the drivers and mechanisms of past climate change

Level: MSc / PhD

Summary: The student(s) will interrogate global climate model simulations in order to learn about the drivers and mechanisms involved in past, natural climate changes of recent Earth history.

Some possible thesis topics include:

  • Did the Southern Hemisphere experience the Little Ice Age and if so, what caused it?
  • How did past melting of the Antarctic ice sheets impact global climate?
  • What are the key drivers of climate change in the Southern Hemisphere during interglacial (warm) periods?

There are many possible projects available under this general topic, which can either be designed for a smaller MSc thesis or scaled to broader program of research at doctoral level. Please contact us using the contact information below to discuss possible projects.

Background Information of Project: Geological records show that Earth’s climate is capable of remarkable changes on timescales of 10s to 1000s years. Numerical models that describe exchange of energy and matter in the complex climate system help us to understand the drivers and mechanisms behind such changes.

Over the last decade, many different models have simulated the response of Earth’s climate system to different perturbations (e.g. insolation, greenhouse gases, meltwater, volcanic eruptions, land use change), generating an immense quantity of data. Analysis of these outputs has only scratched the surface and often neglects the role and impact of processes specific to the Southern Hemisphere.

We are seeking students to undertake projects that will enable better understanding of the drivers and mechanisms of past climate change in the Southern Hemisphere.

Positions Available: Several

Skills Involved/Required: 

Undergraduate/postgraduate degree in a science subject.

Basic computation skills (and/or willingness to learn).

Contact(s): Shaun Eaves (shaun.eaves@vuw.ac.nz)


Contact David O'Sullivan for details.


Contact Jim McGregor for details.

Climate Change Science & Policy

Contact Alex Lo for details.

Antarctic Research

Contact Rob McKay for details.

Page last updated: 27.05.2020