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PhD studentship: Opening the conservation black box: actors, values and practice in Laikipia, Kenya

PhD studentship: Opening the conservation black box: actors, values and practice in Laikipia, Kenya

The University of Cambridge ESRC Doctoral Training Partnership [DTP], in collaboration with Fauna & Flora International, is pleased to offer a studentship available for admission in 2019. The studentship will be a three-year doctoral programme and will be co-supervised by Dr Chris Sandbrook (Department of Geography) and Dr Rob Small (Fauna & Flora International).

DTP students will acquire a unique set of skills that will equip them for high-profile careers as leading social scientists, in academia or in other government, industrial, commercial and third sector organisations, either in the UK or elsewhere.

Research topic

In recent years the ability of political ecology scholarship to make effective positive change in conservation practice has been limited. Factors contributing to lack of impact include poor communication of recommendations to conservationists and critiques of political and economic structures that are beyond practitioners' sphere of influence.

Importantly, conservationists often question the quality of critical social science research suggesting there is limited differentiation of conservation practice, an obsession with a neo-Marxist critique of neoliberalism and a failure to conduct research within conservation organisations themselves.

This PhD project will undertake new research within conservation organisations to elucidate how practices are shaped and understood, how conservation projects sit within broader political economies and create opportunities for more positive engagement between the research and practice communities.

The PhD post, fully funded through an ESRC Doctoral Training Partnership Knowledge Exchange Studentship, will study how conservation projects work, using as a case study the work of Fauna & Flora International (FFI) in Laikipia County, Kenya. This region is a meeting point between farmers, ranchers and pastoralists as well as being renowned for significant wildlife populations. In recent decades it has become synonymous with private and community-based conservancy conservation and a focus of study by a diverse range of scholars. FFI has worked there since 2006, and continues to pursue an active programme of work in the area.

The student will work with FFI, enabling a study of the relations between conservation projects and local actors from multiple perspectives. Focusing on the ongoing work of FFI in Laikipia, questions for investigation include how conservation is understood by local actors within the broader political economy of the region; how international conservation actors understand lived local realities; and how donor funding has influenced the trajectory of conservation impact.

The anticipated methodology is mixed-methods, including ethnographic research and using the Future of Conservation Survey (developed by Dr Sandbrook), as a tool to explore the values held by different actors within the study system.

It is anticipated that this study will make a significant new contribution to political ecology scholarship on conservation that moves beyond simplistic and antagonistic critique, as well as identifying productive and positive ways to increase FFI's impact. Alongside purely academic outputs the PhD student work in collaboration with FFI staff to produce internal briefing papers, learning workshops and joint presentations at relevant policy & practice fora.

Applicants will be expected to hold a Master's qualification in geography or in a related subject. Applicants are also expected to have a strong interest in conservation, socio-economic and environmental change, and a capacity for self-directed work in remote field locations. The candidate will need good communication skills, and the ability to manage potentially sensitive information and relationships. Experience working in sub-Saharan Africa and conducting fieldwork in remote locations would be an advantage.

The studentship will be based at the University of Cambridge DTP in the Department of Geography, but the student will be expected to spend part of their time based at FFI; desk space and facilities will be provided. There will also be opportunities to engage with the wider Cambridge Conservation Initiative.

A full DTP studentship will cover fees and provide £14,553 p.a. in living costs (current rates). DTP students also receive a personal allowance for additional training costs, and can apply for further funding to pursue fieldwork, academic exchange, and collaboration with non-academic partner organisations.

DTP studentships are currently open to UK and EU citizens on a full-time or part-time basis. Full studentships (i.e. including living costs) are open only to those meeting certain residency requirements.

Frequently Asked Questions about the application process

Applicants for this Knowledge Exchange Studentship need to follow the standard application procedure for a PhD in geography, indicating their interest in this particular project where appropriate. Details are provided below in response to some Frequently Asked Questions. Please be aware that the studentship is not listed in the course directory nor in the register of available studentships, because it was only confirmed very recently.

Q: Is it correct to apply for a PhD in Geography?

A Yes.

Q: The application system indicates that all applicants for a PhD in Geography will be considered for ESRC funding. Yet, no reference is made to the studentship which I would like to apply for. What should I do?

A: Please enter the Studentship title under the research section of the application and the funding scheme under the Reasons to Apply section and you will be entered for it. You will automatically be eligible for consideration by other Cambridge Trust funding should you have applied for funding. This is standard procedure and you will be put forward for funding that is appropriate for your application. It is a particularly good idea to apply for these additional sources of funding if you do not meet the nationality and residency requirements to be eligible for a full ESRC scholarship including living expenses.

Q: The research as well as many tasks related to the studentship are already outlined on your department's website. Given the narrow focus of the studentship, I assume that the draft research proposal as well as the statement of purpose need to be tailored to the requirements of the studentship.

A: Yes. Please provide a proposal that explains your interest in this particular project, why you feel you are a suitable applicant, and any ideas that you have for how you would wish to develop the project, which is broadly defined at present

Q: When should I request references?

A: As soon as possible. 3 January is the deadline for your references to arrive with the University so please make sure you have requested that they be sent well in advance of that date. This can be particularly challenging with the holiday season in many countries falling in the week before the deadline. Your application is incomplete without references and cannot be considered for funding competitions.

What to do next

You can find out more about the DTP on its website, and read about some of the opportunities that will be available to you. You can find out more about the Department of Geography on our website, with details of the supervision and training on offer. Please address any questions about this PhD studentship to Dr Chris Sandbrook (

All DTP applicants follow the University's standard admission process. Please go to the Graduate Admissions Portal to start your application.

The closing date for applications will be 3rd January 2019.