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PhD opportunity:
"Power games in the wild"


Animal social groups are often profoundly unequal, posing a fascinating enigma for evolutionary biology. How do some individuals monopolise power, and what prevents unequal groups from collapsing into mutiny and rebellion? In this PhD, you will explore how social power evolves and is maintained, and develop evolutionary theory to explain why different species and populations evolve to have radically different types of power structure.

What will you be doing?

You will have a rare opportunity to combine evolutionary theory and fieldwork: you will develop theoretical models using both evolutionary game theory and computational simulations, and test predictions by devising creative behavioural experiments with social wasps at our field sites in Africa. You will be encouraged and supported to develop your PhD in the directions that you find most exciting, including game theory and meta-analysis – synthesising published data from mammals, birds, and insects.

To explore power games in the wild, your study system will be the 'needle-waist wasps' of Africa (Belonogaster spp.), a genus of 'primitively eusocial' insects found across the continent south of the Sahara. Belonogaster wasps are perfect subjects for field experiments on social dominance: wasps form dominance hierarchies, groups are small and can be easily manipulated experimentally, and individual behaviour can be readily observed and tracked. They also offer tractable systems for understanding the evolution of eusociality, a central focus in evolutionary biology.

About you:

We are looking for a highly motivated student with a passion for biology and a strong interest in the evolution of animal social behaviour. You should be enthusiastic about conducting fieldwork over several months in Africa (despite the occasional sting!) and developing quantitative analyses. Prior fieldwork or mathematical modelling experience may be helpful, but is not essential, and you will be supported to develop skills in both field experiments and modelling. A basic knowledge of French – or a willingness to learn – may be desirable, as you may work in Cameroon, but certainly not required.

What skills will you develop?

This PhD aims to give you a strong grounding in both theory and fieldwork, and a deep understanding of animal societies. You will develop valuable transferable research skills, including practical problem-solving in the field, overseas collaboration, quantitative analysis, scientific writing and presentation, and the confidence to design and run behavioural experiments.

How to apply 

To apply, please contact the project supervisor to express your interest in their project, forwarding your CV and a Research Statement. 

The application deadline is 4pm Monday 8th January. 

If shortlisted, you will be asked to apply via the University of Bristol application portal: Start your application | Study at Bristol | University of Bristol selecting the relevant 4-year PhD programme, e.g. “Biochemistry (PhD) (4yr)”. 

We will also be running a pre-application online workshop and Q&A session on how to prepare a PhD application; if you would like to register for this workshop then please sign up here

Bristol PGR scholarships for applicants of Black heritage  

As part of our commitment to the Black community, the University of Bristol has launched a number of PGR research scholarships exclusively for students of Black heritage for 2024/25 entry. These are available within the faculties of Arts and Life Sciences, and are open to UK-domiciled, home fee applicants of Black African, Black Caribbean or other Black or mixed Black heritage.  

The scholarships aim to address the under-representation of black people in postgraduate research and support our work to improve representation across all levels of study and academia. This includes our Bristol Black Scholarships Scheme (undergraduate) and Opportunity Bristol (research-related Master’s courses).  

We have a wide range of support networks, student societies and community groups for students of Black heritage. These include our Be More Empowered for Success PGR Programme which aims to influence positive change across the themes of access, belonging and empowerment.  This year, we are also taking part in the Women’s Higher Education Network 100 Black Women Professors NOW Pipeline Programme, which aims to propel the careers of Black PhD students, through coaching, development, networking and mentoring. WHEN also work with senior leadership to deliver systemic change. We are looking to continue to enhance this support as we continue to strive to make our student communities more inclusive.   

If you have any questions on the scheme, you are welcome to contact Dr Stephanie King (Postgraduate Faculty Education Director for Life Sciences) with any questions -

For project-related enquiries, please contact the project supervisor (

Funding Notes

This project is only available for UK students of Black or mixed Black Heritage. The studentship duration is four years, and it includes an annual stipend set at the current UKRI recommendation of £18,622.  Tuition fees and research costs are fully supported by the studentship, as well as an allowance for paid sick leave and parental leave, in addition to 5 weeks of paid leave each year.


Tibbetts, E. A., Pardo-Sanchez, J., & Weise, C. (2022). The establishment and maintenance of dominance hierarchies. Phil Trans R Soc B 377: 20200450
Keeping, M. G. (1992). Social organisation and division of labour in colonies of the polsitine wasp, Belonogaster petiolata. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 31, 211:224
For general inspiration to do a PhD in social evolution: Dawkins, R. (1979). The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, Oxford
Please feel free to email for PDFs of papers if needed (

Before submitting a full application, I'd recommend getting in touch to have an informal chat about any questions you may have about the PhD and to see if it would be a good fit for you. You can email me at 

Bristol Scholarship for UK students of Black or mixed Black heritage
This PhD opportunity is available only to  UK home-fee students of Black or mixed Black heritage  as part of the University of Bristol PhD Scholarship. If you are not eligible for this PhD, you may be interested in the other project I am currently advertising (click here for details). 

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