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Job advertisement PhD scholarship: Groundwater dynamics in Flanders and impact on denitrification

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European Geosciences Union

PhD scholarship: Groundwater dynamics in Flanders and impact on denitrification

PhD scholarship: Groundwater dynamics in Flanders and impact on denitrification

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KU Leuven

KU Leuven is dedicated to academic education and research in nearly all fields. Its fifteen faculties offer classes and degree-granting academic programmes, whilst research activities are organised by departments and research groups. These faculties and departments are clustered into three thematic groups: Humanities and Social Sciences, Science, Engineering and Technology (SET), and Biomedical Sciences. Each of these groups sponsors its own doctoral school for organising and awarding doctoral degrees.


Leuven, Belgium


Relevant divisions
Hydrological Sciences (HS)
Soil System Sciences (SSS)

Full time

Entry level

See link 'working conditions' under heading 'Offer' below

Required education

Application deadline
Open until the position is filled

16 September 2022

Job description

In the context of the Arvesta chair on nutrient flows in Flanders and in the context of a VLAIO-funded project on irrigation, the Division of Soil and Water Management at KU Leuven is looking for a PhD student for research on groundwater dynamics and its impact on denitrification.


Flemish agriculture needs to rapidly evolve because of the nitrogen crisis and more frequent droughts. Flemish agriculture has to reduce its emissions of nitrogen into water and there is a need for more and more efficient irrigation. There are two interrelated bottlenecks for both challenges: (i) Flanders does not have a calibrated dynamic groundwater model and (ii) Flanders has no spatial model to estimate denitrification in soil and groundwater.

The surplus nitrogen in Flemish agriculture causes nitrate leaching from soil to groundwater. However, the conversion of nitrate to N2O or N2 in the soil and groundwater ensures that a large part of the residual nitrogen in the soil does not end up as nitrate in the surface water. This denitrification depends on the redox potential in the soil and the residence time of the water in the soil, both of which are related to the structure of the soil and the groundwater flow. Flanders has a very good digital soil map and map of the subsoil (DOV) and has an extensive phreatic monitoring network with digitally available data on the groundwater level and its chemical composition. That data is rarely statistically analysed to know where and when denitrification takes place. Moreover, there is no link between existing models for nitrate leaching and groundwater models because the latter are not available as a dynamic (non-stationary) model. Jülich’s research group developed a dynamic groundwater model for Germany with a resolution of 600×600 m and makes 10-day predictions. This spatial model also covers Flanders, but it has never been verified with the time series of groundwater levels in Flanders.

The aim of the research is to calculate denitrification in the Flemish subsoil so that area-specific N fertilization recommendations can be drawn up, namely the lowest recommendations where denitrification is low and vice versa. Roughly three steps are required for this. (1) the statistical analysis of data on nitrate concentrations in groundwater in relation to soil structure, land use and groundwater level; (2) calibrating the groundwater model with data from the phreatic groundwater and refine it to a resolution of 60×60 m (3) targeted periodic sampling of groundwater in 2-3 selected transects to estimate the dynamics of nitrate in the subsurface in relation to the redox zone. It is estimated that 2/3 of this research will consist of modelling and statistical analysis and 1/3 of fieldwork and associated analyses in the laboratory. The doctoral student will also be involved in educational activities and in dissemination of the results to the government.


We seek a candidate with a master degree in Bioscience engineering, Water resources engineering, Physical geography, Geology or an equivalent master degree that is relevant for the above mentioned tasks.

The successful candidate will have the following profile:

  • Creative with a strong interest in research
  • Good academic performance at the MSc and BSc levels, with good performance on the master thesis in particular
  • Good knowledge of the relevant chemical and physical processes in soil and groundwater
  • Experience with simulation modelling and computer programming (e.g., Python, Fortran, C, Matlab, R, etc.).
  • Demonstrated capacity to write (scientific writing) and communicate in English. Being fluent in Dutch is an added advantage but not a must (communication with farmers).
  • Good interpersonal skills: able to work in a team and to communicate with both farmers and other researchers.


  • Full-time doctoral scholarship for 2 years. After positive evaluation, the scholarship is extended with 2 additional years (4 years in total).
  • Multi-disciplinary and international professional environment in the Division Soil and Water Management.
  • Leuven is a charming historical university town, with a central location in Western Europe.
  • The PhD student will be embedded in a project team consisting of other PhD or postdoc researchers and the three supervisors at KU Leuven (Erik Smolders, Jan Vanderborght and Jan Diels).

At KU Leuven, PhD students are expected to obtain their PhD degree within 4 years. More information on the remuneration with a doctoral scholarship can be found at the following link: working conditions

How to apply

Only persons strictly matching the above profile should apply. Submit your CV, along with a motivation letter, and two names for references on-line at the following application link.

For more information please contact Prof. Jan Diels, tel.: +32 16 32 97 44, mail: or Prof. Erik Smolders, tel.: +32 16 32 96 77, mail: or Prof. Jan Vanderborght, tel. +32 16 37 21 49, mail:

The position will remain open until suitable candidate is identified.

KU Leuven seeks to foster an environment where all talents can flourish, regardless of gender, age, cultural background, nationality or impairments. If you have any questions relating to accessibility or support, please contact us at