University of St Andrews

Postgraduate Opportunities

Human Geography

We welcome applications for study towards a research degree from candidates with an excellent academic background. The list of projects below indicates the range of interests of our staff, but you are also welcome to suggest your own project in a related area. In the first instance, please contact the relevant member of academic staff to discuss your ideas.

More details on the application procedure are available here

If you have an enquiry about the application process, please contact Mrs Helen Olaez.

Current Project list


The Everywhere Border and the Neoliberalisation of State Practice

Supervisor:  Dr Sharon Leahy

State securitization with respect to migrants is a pressing issue for the UK. The process of securitization involves a myriad of state and non-state actors who play petty sovereign roles in the day to day lives of migrants.  Additionally, as part of a wider neoliberal agenda, the state is transferring its duties of care and protection for migrant issues to voluntary organizations in various  contexts. This focuses attention on the parergonal notion of the everywhere border, it questions the developing materiality of the border, and the growing transfer of responsibility for securitisation and care from the state to the individual. Work on this broad topic area would focus on theoretical ideas around biopolitics, processes of neoliberalisation, borderwork and practices of exceptionalism. Empirically, it would seek to study these topics in relation to migrants, including migrant workers, asylum seekers, trafficked migrants, and Roma/Gypsy/Traveller groups.

The ‘Right to Rent’: housing and the securitization of the border 

Supervisors: Dr Sharon Leahy

Private landlords must conduct checks on potential and existing tenant’s immigration status in the UK. Landlords who fail to undertake ‘Right to Rent’ checks now face civil penalties, moreover they are required to evict those who fail visa checks through a fast-track process, bringing the Immigration Act into tension with other policy areas. Part of a package of measures designed to create a tougher climate for illegal migrants the ‘Right to Rent’ represents further securitization of the border. The use of landlords in the securitization of the State provides further evidence to support Balibar’s (2002) claim that the ‘border is everywhere’. In addition to contributing to these theoretical debates within political geography, this project will investigate the potential discriminatory impact of these reforms in terms of how the requirements influence landlord’s letting strategies. In doing so the project raises important questions about state-sanctioned discrimination and the potential uneven impact of this legislation on BAME groups.

(extra)ordinary spaces: exploring the influence of TV programmes (e.g. Grand Designs and Amazing Spaces) on our homes

Supervisors: Dr Louise Reid 

Over the decades, how we conceive of our homes has changed, in part through popular TV shows such as ‘Changing Rooms’, ‘DIY SOS’, and ‘Property Ladder’. Indeed, Wikipedia lists 93 home renovation television series. More recent programmes such as ‘Grand Designs’, and George Clarke’s ‘Amazing Spaces’ increasingly incorporate elements of sustainable living, whether that be smaller homes, new and innovative building materials/techniques, and/or energy generation infrastructure, as just a few examples. Moreover, one of the most famous episodes of Grand Designs, featuring Ben Law’s woodhouse reflects a desire within these programmes towards self-sufficiency and of low impact homes. Hence, these programmes may be understood as promoting a particular type of lifestyle. Yet the extent to which programmes influence self-builders and in which ways, remains largely unknown. For instance, do TV programmes promote particular building style or form, types of techniques, or materials used? And how might such promotion influence what self-builders find (un)desirable and, ultimately be incorporated into homes in order to make them more sustainable? 

Historical geography of coasts

Supervisors: Dr Timothy Stojanovic (Environmental Geography) and Dr Dan Clayton (Historical Geography)

Scientific and scholarly research on coasts has influenced how we have come to understand this domain of the planet at the interface between land and sea. Anglophone geographical thought has made unique contributions to this understanding through fields of coastal geomorphology, environmental geography and cultural/landscape geography.  This research will examine the geography of the ‘not too distant past.’ It will focus on understanding the key thinkers, intellectual modes of thought and history of ideas in coastal geomorphology.  The research will draw on scientometric, archival and interview research methods to critically reconstruct the narratives and trajectories of thinking about the coast.  This will involve analysis of the development and application of key scientific terms through time and their use by different research networks; biographical reconstruction of thinker’s motivations and influences; and understanding of the reception of key ideas in the academy and beyond.  Such understandings have potential to frame how we manage and govern coastal space.  Thus the study will critically examine the contributions of a historical geography of coasts, to the geographies of the present, showing how human engagement with coasts might be understood, from insights about how infrastructures are used to ‘defend’ coasts, to political debates about the winners and losers in responses to sea level rise.  The successful candidate should have, or expect to have, a strong Honours Degree (or equivalent) in Geography or a cognate discipline and experience in some of the stated research methods.

  1. French, J. R., and H. Burningham (2009). Coastal geomorphology: Trends and challenges. Progress in Physical Geography 33(1): 117-129.
  2. Short, A. D. (2012). Beach Morphodynamics in Australia 1970s-2010. Geographical Research 50(2): 141-153.
  3. Hodder, J. (2017), On absence and abundance: biography as method in archival research. Area, 49: 452–459.

The impacts of residential mobility in childhood

Supervisor: Dr Nissa Finney

Most children will move house at some point in their childhood, and some children will be ‘hyper-mobile’, moving and living-between a number of homes. Although literature on childrens’ residential mobility has grown in recent years within Childrens’ Geography, relatively little is known about who the mobile (and non-mobile) children are, where they are and what the impacts of residential mobility (or stability) are in childhood or later on in life. As well as engaging with child migration literatures, this project would contribute to work on migration and lifecourse, taking a longitudinal view on the experiences and impacts of residential mobility. The project would be mixed-methods, using qualitative (interview) data alongside secondary data analysis of censuses and surveys (such as Understanding Society and the British Cohort Study 1970).

Spatial assimilation or self-segregation?

Supervisors:  Dr Nissa Finney and Dr Albert Sabater

Theories of immigrant settlement and integration suggest that, over time, migrants move away from ‘gateway’ (urban) areas, and this residential dispersal is associated with socio-economic integration. In the UK there is evidence of residential dispersal from immigrant gateways (or neighbourhoods of ethnic minority concentration) and, associated with this, decreasing ethnic residential segregation. However, clustering of minority and migrant groups also persists and, for recent immigrants, such as from EU Accession countries, new geographies of settlement and internal migration have been observed. The significance of residential dispersal and clustering in relation to other dimensions of integration is poorly understood for the contemporary UK context. This project would address this gap in understanding by using longitudinal analysis of census and survey (Understanding Society) data to trace how residential moves of migrants within Britain are associated with socio-economic integration. Qualitative may also be used to understand the residential decision making of recent migrants.

Racism in private rented sector housing

Supervisors: Dr Nissa Finney

Ethnic minorities are severely disadvantaged in housing in the UK, being more likely than average to live in housing deprivation, in overcrowded accommodation and insecure housing. In the current ‘housing crisis’, and given the marked and persistent ethnic inequalities in the UK more generally, it is likely that this situation will persist. Furthermore, recent and forthcoming changes to housing legislation may prove particularly detrimental to ethnic minorities and migrants. For example, the ‘Right to rent’ regulations that require landlords and letting agents to conduct checks of immigrant status may result in discrimination towards migrants and minorities. This project would examine this contention using an experimental research design together with qualitative interviews.

The Role of ‘Community Anchors’ in Mitigating the Impact of Welfare Reform

Supervisors: Dr Louise Reid

The UK Coalition government’s welfare reform agenda has hit low-income households and communities hard.  Underpinned by a political ideology which seeks to reduce the welfare safety-net in order to maximise work incentives, vulnerable households are facing a reduction in their income because of a raft of changes to the social security system including the Bedroom Tax, Universal Credit, and Housing Benefit, in addition to increasing welfare conditionality and sanctions.  This reinforces already existing social and spatial inequalities, which suggest a strong correlation between living in council-built estates and poverty.  Social landlords therefore have a pivotal role to play in mitigating the damaging impact of welfare reform for their tenants.  This can take a number of different forms: income maximisation through welfare and debt advice; employment and skills training to enhance employability; energy conservation and ‘green space’ projects; and programmes directed towards promoting health and well-being.  Building on existing research regarding the potential of housing associations as community-anchor organisations, which has emerged in recent years (McKee 2015), this projects seeks to add to our understanding of how housing associations utilise their asset-base and local partnerships, and mobilise local people, to deliver these services.  In doing so, it seeks to emphasise how local communities can play a positive role in transforming their communities through mutual support.  Yet it also seeks to advance our theoretical understanding of community-asset ownership and prosumption more broadly.

The paradoxes of subaltern space

Supervisors: Dr Dan Clayton and Dr Sharon Leahy 

The word subaltern has a dual meaning: first, and at root, it means a person, group or entity of subordinate status; and second, a junior army officer (introduced into nineteenth-century European armies to convey the orders of military leaders to troops). The label subaltern has since been conferred on a wide range of groups - peasants, workers, the poor, women, indigenous peoples, the colonised, slaves, refugees, asylum seekers, and religious and ethnic minorities as a generic expression both for oppression and disenfranchisement, and for insurgent knowledge and practices.  The following projects explore a number of paradoxes emerging form this two-edged phenomenon.

The paradox of inside and outside: the idea of subaltern space as separate from, yet only discernible in terms of, an organising centre of meaning and power, and with subaltern desire for a separate or autocentric history only being able to be posed retrospectively, and via those processes that have created the elite/subaltern relationships that are now a source of consternation. 

The paradox of language and progress: that the ability of subaltern groups to articulate their grievances is seen as a sign that they are no longer subaltern, because such articulation can only occur via subaltern access to the language of hegemony.  Can subaltern groups have their grievances addressed without having to relinquish the subaltern ground from which a call for change comes, and without their view of the world being either romanticised or trivialised?  Do subalterns have to abandon or devalue their languages and lifeworlds in order to undo their subalternity?

Proposals are invited that develop the above or other ideas about subaltern space into an empirical project. 

Energy Efficiency and Social Housing in an Age of Austerity

Supervisors: Dr Louise Reid

Scotland’s social landlords have a strong track record in terms of providing warm, energy efficient homes, with standards in Scotland being the most ambitious of the four UK nations.  This not only reflects higher levels of fuel poverty in Scotland, but also our colder ambient temperature and the higher incidence of off-grid housing.  This long-standing emphasis on energy efficiency and conservation has however become even more crucial in these austere times. Social housing tenants have been hit hard by the UK coalition government’s welfare reform agenda, which seeks to reduce the incomes of low-income households in order to maximise work incentives and reduce ‘dependency’ on the state.  Energy efficiency therefore has a vital role to play in maximising the income of low-income households, in order they might better manage their under pressure budgets and avoid the dilemma of ‘heating or eating’.  This mixed-methods project will work with tenants and their landlords in order to explore the links between energy efficiency, welfare reform and income maximisation.  In doing so, it will forge new and innovative links between debates in social policy and energy policy, as well as develop theoretical arguments around neoliberal welfare reforms and place-based stigma.

Mobility trends and the fluidity of the lifecourse

Supervisor: Dr David McCollum

The mobility implications of supposedly increasingly fluid lifecourses is a new and exciting research agenda. Some scholars have argued that secular rootedness is leading to a novel trend: that of decreasing migration, while on the other hand others contend that increased disruptions to the lifecourse (associated for example with insecurities in the workplace and the home) have triggered a range of new mobilities. This research will draw on longitudinal datasets and other research methods to examine the mobility implications of key aspects of economic and social change.

Migrating to learn and learning to migrate

Supervisors: Dr Finnie and Dr David McCollum 

Interest in the geography of international student mobility has blossomed over the last decade. This PhD will use the case of student mobility from the majority world to the UK as a lens to investigate whether enrolling for study abroad is a catalyst to later longer term migration or whether it is better conceptualised as part of a brain exchange. Traditionally the geographical focus on student migration has had a primary focus on the individual decision maker. Useful as is this view, it reifies the individual’s power to choose in a world of inequality. More recent perspectives (Brooks and Waters, 2011; Findlay et al, 2012; King and Raghuram, 2013) have privileged understanding the interplay of global and local forces in higher education that set the stage for student movement and its consequences. Geographical research shows that the story is complex with a range of actors influencing the geography of higher education and its structuring influences. These include HEIs, the state, international recruitment organisations and para-state groups as well as international actors (the EU, OECD etc). Recognition of this complexity of processes might be located within the conceptual framework of assemblages as proposed by Latour. The focus of this PhD will be to take these ideas and interpret international student mobility from one or two countries in the majority world to the UK. The PhD will develop a conceptual understanding of the process. In particular the research should seek to contribute to the migration-development nexus through making a policy contribution. It will answer the question ‘Does the globalisation of higher education inevitably lead to a loss of human talent from the less wealthy countries of the world through student migration that ultimately is destined to produce settlement or onward mobility rather than return migration?’ To achieve this the successful doctoral candidate will draw on existing secondary sources about international student migration to the UK (annual HESA reports), but the main methodological approach will be qualitative involving interviews, focus groups and textual analysis.

The changing nature of work

Supervisor: Dr David McCollum

There is widespread and increasing public unease about the extent to which work is becoming increasingly precarious and labour market trajectories evermore uncertain, although the important issue of whether this disquiet is borne out by empirical evidence remains contentious and unresolved. This project would seek to explore the extent to which working lives are becoming ever more ‘flexible’, the drivers of these developments and their implications for conceptual understandings of work and careers.

Reconfiguration of the welfare state 

Supervisor: Dr David McCollum

The relationship between the state and its citizens is changing, with individuals and families increasingly being expected to take greater responsibility for their current and future welfare needs. Similarly, services that were once provided by the state have been retracted or contracted out to private and third sector organisations, with implications for democratic accountability. These developments raise important practical and normative questions about the extent to which the state does and should take responsibility for the welfare of its citizens. This project would seek to examine the ways in which welfare state relations are changing and what the repercussions of these changes might be in the context of processes such as demographic change and economic uncertainty.

Migration and flexible labour markets 

Supervisor: Dr David McCollum

A disjoint is occurring in many countries whereby businesses perennially proclaim their need for migration to address labour and skills shortages, whilst public opinion is much more hostile to significant inflows of migrant workers. Migrants are self-selecting, meaning that they tend to be young, skilled and ambitious relative to the general population in receiving countries. Recognition of this goes some way towards explaining why employers hold comparatively positive views of migrants. However another potential explanatory factor is that migrants may be relatively tolerant of poor pay and working conditions. Research is needed to understand the drivers of employers’ demand for migrant labour and how the state arbitrates between businesses calls for migrant labour and public demands to restrict it. Additionally, more needs to be known about the role of migrant labour is facilitating and exacerbating ‘flexible’ labour market structures.

Imagining the “Good Blood Donor”: Geography, Risk and the Biopolitics of Public Health

Supervisors:  Dr Mike Kesby and Dr Matt Sothern 

We wish to work with candidates interested in exploring the effects of the construction of risk in heath policy and practice. Our own recent work has focused on an analysis of the international paradigm of blood donor risk assessment as it relates to the imagination, and differential deferral of: Men who have Sex with Men, black Africans, and the general (heterosexual) population. Together with research fellow Dr Fionagh Thomson, we are developing a participatory project to explore, with prospective donors, alternative mechanisms to imagine and assess donor risk. Our aim is to augment the existing epidemiologically driven ‘risk group’ policy and associated ‘donor health check’ questionnaire with a more practice-oriented assessment of sexual health risk. We seek candidates interested to parallel and contribute to this work, particularly in the area of exploring health practitioners’ conceptualisation of “good donor”.

African Communities and “Care” of HIV in Scotland

Supervisors:  Dr Mike Kesby and Dr Matt Sothern 

The widespread adoption of Highly Active Anti-retroviral Treatment (HAART) since 1996 has meant that the focus on HIV in the United Kingdom has shifted from a “death sentence” and onto the management of what has become a chronic condition. Despite these advances, persons of African origin are both disproportionally affected by HIV and are more likely to be diagnosed late meaning the effectiveness of HAART is compromised and there are complications in managing HIV status long term. Most HIV/AIDS service organizations now recognize the need to develop African specific policies and support structures. In Scotland different HIV/AIDS charities have launched new campaigns that seek to serve the growing African population. We seek candidates interested to work closely with one of these campaigns to explore the specific issues facing African communities with respect to accessing HIV care. We would like this project to draw heavily on participatory methods.

Exploring sexual health in Africa and/or the UK using Participatory Drama/film/radio 

Supervisor:  Dr Mike Kesby

Ample research maps and explores that reoccurring gap between the acquisition of knowledge about sexual health and the efficacious implementation of safer sexual practice. Fewer researchers have sort to work with research participants in ways that not only identify problems, but also seek actively to develop solutions to the barriers and obstacles they face. I have recently completed work in Zambia that attempted to use participatory drama and film making as both a means to explore HIV risk among young people, and a means to develop resources that can be cited, circulated and mobilised in ways that enable the successful re-performance of empowered agency beyond the research arena.  I am interested to work with candidates interested to explore similar projects in the African and or UK context. 

‘The lights are on, but no one’s in’: understanding exterior domestic lighting

Supervisor:  Dr Louise Reid

Whilst household accounts of energy consumption exist (Energy Consumption in the UK (ECUK)), and the relative contribution of different appliances/services to energy demand is relatively well known, the use of exterior domestic lights is less well understood. For instance, in a 2012 the ‘Powering the Nation’ study organised by EST, DECC and Defra, designed to capture day-to-day, minute-by-minute, electricity consumption across a representative sample of UK households, almost every conceivable form of electricity consuming appliance (TV’s, electric toothbrushes) was included. Interestingly, the study revealed that lighting comprised 15.6% of the electricity demand, second only to cold appliances (refrigerators and freezers) at 16.2% yet importantly, lighting only included interior lights (ceiling and table lights) and not exterior lights. This is potentially an important oversight since exterior lights can be more powerful, on for longer durations (e.g. overnight), and triggered more often (motion sensor) in comparison to interior lights, hence actually contribute significantly to overall electricity demand. Moreover, understanding how many exterior lights, their location (i.e. on the building, on garages or in the garden) frequency and duration of use, as well as reasons for this is not particularly well understood, at least not in the same way we understand the use of interior lights. This PhD project will use a mixed methods approach to explore the issue of exterior domestic lighting.

‘SHOW – health Smart Homes for Older peoples’ Wellbeing’ 

Supervisor: Dr Louise Reid

This studentship will critically examine the utility of ‘health smart homes’ (HSH) to enhance the wellbeing of older people in rural Scotland. Enabling older people to remain in their own homes as long as possible promotes their wellbeing (Chan, et al., 2009, Milligan et al., 2011) and is perceived to reduce pressures on the National Health Service (Scottish Government, 2012). This is particularly important for Scotland – especially its rural areas – since it is faced with a demographically ageing population that has increased healthcare and social needs.  The transition towards HSH’s (Le, et al., 2012), homes which include automation and provide healthcare from afar, is thus gaining political traction as a mechanism for ‘positive-ageing-in-place’ (Bowes & McColgan 2006). Yet, the concept of HSH is not without challenge and much of the scholarship concentrates on technological innovation with individual-level implications (e.g. ability to cope with change) and the broader social context within which HSH operates (e.g. ethics of monitoring) often neglected. It is thus critical that HSH are examined more widely than through a technological lens. The project will draw on multiple fields of inquiry such as Science and Technology Studies, (environmental psychology, geography and sociology. A mixed methods approach will be considered. Research will seek to inform the potential design of HSH in the future and to understand how they are implemented and experienced.

Governing marine space

Supervisor:  Dr Timothy Stojanovic 

The oceans are a frontier for development in the current phase of economic development. New governance regimes are emerging at national and international scales.  This project will focus on the European context and draw on approaches from the emerging paradigm of sustainability science to characterise and evaluate governance regimes.  There are calls for progress to improve economic development, marine conservation and societal engagement with the seas.  Governing marine space has to deal with challenges of multiple users, fluid spaces, public or common pool resources and competing interests and interpretations of sustainability.  The project will contribute to emerging governance theory on how to better design institutions to deal with these challenges.  Research methods from comparative political science, planning theory and practice and/or environmental geography are welcome.  The results of the study have potential to inform the design of new marine planning systems in European nations and at the supranational scale.