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Esdit PhD position - Ethics of Data-Driven Mental Health Diagnostics (1.0 FTE)

The Faculty of Humanities is looking for a PhD position - Ethics of Data-Driven Mental Health Diagnostics . Interested? Please read the full profile and apply!

2 maanden geleden


Domplein, Utrecht, Utrecht
Tijdelijk contract / Tijdelijke opdracht
Uren per week:
38 - 40 uur
€ 2395 - € 3061 per maand


In the context of the inter-university research consortium "Ethics of Socially Disruptive Technology (Esdit)," the Ethics Institute of Utrecht University is looking to hire a PhD researcher for a four-year project on “Ethics of Data-Driven Mental Health Diagnostics”

As part of the Esdit research line on “The Human Condition,” this project addresses a complex and multi-faceted range of issues raised by recent and expected developments in machine learning and predictive data-driven analytics. Through the development of ever-more complex computational techniques to analyse large data sets, translational bioinformatics and other computational approaches increasingly enable medical researchers and clinicians to develop diagnostic approaches that are more fine-grained, personalized, and predictively accurate than those based on current categories of disease. Although “precision medicine” is relatively well established, parallel approaches in psychiatry are quite new. For the data scientists, research psychiatrists, and mental health professionals developing these approaches, these emerging technologies raise vexing ethical issues – issues that are also central to research in philosophy of psychiatry, disability studies, philosophical anthropology, data ethics, and philosophy of technology.

The aim of this PhD project is to investigate the following cluster of questions: What ethical concerns are raised by integrating data-driven analytics and translational bioinformatics into psychiatric diagnoses? What implications does the highly personalized character of these computational approaches have for reconceptualizing what is “normal” for human beings? How should these concerns shape these emerging technologies' regulation and ongoing design in this highly contested domain?

The PhD researcher will pursue independent research that engages these and related questions in a way that supports key research goals of the Esdit consortium and the Human Condition research line in particular. The project will be led by Sander Werkhoven and Joel Anderson (from the Ethics Institute), in collaboration with Prof. Thomas Bäck (Leiden Institute of Advanced Computer Science) and Prof. Floortje Scheepers (Psychiatry, UMC Utrecht), as well as other members of the Ethics Institute and the Esdit consortium. With regard to ethics and philosophy, the project will devote particular attention to two aspects of how data-driven diagnostics approaches are socially disruptive in distinctive (and ambivalent) ways: First, it has the potential to displace current diagnostic categories of mental disorder (such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, or ADHD) – categories that have increasingly come to be seen as lacking scientific grounding, even as they continue to play important roles in individuals’ self-understanding, identity, and claims to appropriate treatment or accommodation. Second, owing to the particularly “interactive” (Hacking 1995) relationship – in the case of psychiatry – between diagnosis and health, fundamental changes in diagnostic methods are sure to have significant though unpredictable effects on human well-being, especially when algorithmic and AI methods generate results that are counterintuitive or insufficiently "explainable."

To ensure that the project results are informed by close familiarity with these technologies and reflect an awareness of their complex contexts of application, this project will be decidedly interdisciplinary. The PhD researcher will collaborate on theoretical and ethical aspects of Prof. Bäck’s ongoing research projects on health-related predictive analytics, as well as with Prof. Scheepers’s research in psychiatry, involving narrative datasets (e.g., the "Verhalenbank," 200 transcripts) and clinical anonymized patient data. In this way, we can ensure that the practical guidelines and recommendations resulting from the project go beyond the more familiar issues of data ethics (e.g., privacy and informed consent) to articulate insights that are useful to psychiatrists and data scientists (and other stakeholders) in (1) further developing and (where suitable) implementing the diagnostic techniques, (2) making sense of how emerging technologies are disrupting our familiar understanding of the relationship between diagnosis and mental health, and (3) ensuring that these disruptions are, on balance, for the better.

Employment will become effective November 1, 2021 (although an earlier or later starting date may be possible). The PhD researcher will participate in training activities and courses in the 4TU Graduate School and may have the opportunity to devote up to 10% of work time to teaching or to other non-research activities aligned with the researcher’s career plans and the Esdit programme objectives. A research stay abroad is encouraged, and funds are available to cover related expenses.


The successful candidate will have:

  • a Master’s degree or equivalent degree in Philosophy or Ethics. Other Master's degrees will also be considered if you have demonstrable expertise in analytical/conceptual problems and approaches to normative justification, in close connection with the themes of the research project;
  • some demonstrable familiarity with data-driven research methods, machine learning, and/or AI;
  • some demonstrable familiarity with and interest in the mental health domain and its unique set of challenges;
  • affinity and aptitude for interdisciplinary research and/or interdisciplinary reflection, especially in the areas central to the Esdit consortium;
  • the ability to work both independently and collaboratively, with good organizational and communication skills;
  • creativity and is innovative in her/his work;
  • proficiency in spoken and written English.


This is an appointment for the duration of 18 months (1.0 FTE). In case of good performance and a positive evaluation, the contract will be extended for the remaining period of 30 months (4 years in total). The gross salary starts with €2,395 per month in the first year and increases to €3,061 per month in the fourth year of employment (scale P according to the Collective Employment Agreement of the Dutch Universities) for a full-time employment. Salaries are supplemented with a holiday bonus of 8% and a year-end bonus of 8.3% per year. In addition, Utrecht University offers excellent secondary conditions, including an attractive retirement scheme, (partly paid) parental leave and flexible employment conditions (multiple choice model). Here you'll find more information about working at Utrecht University.

Additional information

For more information about this position, please contact Sander Werkhoven via s.werkhoven@uu.nl of Joel Anderson via j.h.anderson@uu.nl.