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PhD student in Comparative bioacoustics, seal vocal development, evolution of speech, and/or music cognition

Comparative Bioacoustics Group

Applications accepted all year round Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

(Starting salary: € 33,305 p.a.)
4-years full time
Comparative Bioacoustics Group
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, the Netherlands

The Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, the Netherlands, is offering a fully-funded PhD student position in comparative bioacoustics/seal pup vocal development/evolution of speech/music cognition within the newly established Comparative Bioacoustics Group. The host research group, led by Dr. Andrea Ravignani, investigates the evolutionary bases of speech and music, mostly performing (non-invasive) cross-species behavioral research in seals, humans, and other mammals. The group has an international spirit and is open to diverse perspectives and approaches.

Job description

The PhD projects will investigate the cognitive, evolutionary and neurobiological bases of speech and musical rhythm in humans, seals and other animals. Research will focus on one, or span several, of the 5 research lines in the Comparative Bioacoustics Group (see for details).

Research lines and questions pursued by the doctoral candidate include:
1) Data-centred comparative research on rhythm and vocal learning to unveil macroevolutionary patterns across species relevant to human speech and music;
2) Empirical work in seal bioacoustics, targeting how seal pups develop their vocal learning (‘speech-like’) and rhythmic (turn-taking) capacities, possibly like human babies;
3) Wet-lab research on the comparative neurobiology and vocal tract anatomy in marine mammals;
4) Understanding the biological bases, cultural variability, and cultural transmission processes underlying the human rhythmicity in music;
5) Building mathematical and computational models to understand rhythmic and interactive communication in humans and other animals.

These research strands will be pursued with a wide range of methods including (but not limited to) sound recordings, behavioral methods, neuroimaging, neuroanatomy, EEG, vocal tract anatomy, spirometry, and computational modeling, depending on the nature of the project and
the candidate's interest.

Potential day-to-day activities for the doctoral candidate include:
• Performing seasonal projects with off-site animal facilities; in particular, performing (noninvasive) hands-on animal research with seal pups;
• Running large-scale cross-species analyses using already available data;
• Running lab-based, web-based and citizen-science studies with human adults;
• Reviewing the published literature relevant to the doctoral project;
• Data processing and data analysis;
• Participating in scientific dissemination activities;
• Selecting and supervising interns and master students, who may also help with data collection for the doctoral project.


The successful applicant will have as many of the following:
• Obtained or shortly expects to obtain a MSc or MA qualification in Biology, Animal Behavior, Zoology, Ecology & Evolution, Neuroscience, Cognitive Science, Experimental/Comparative Psychology, Speech, Language Sciences, or a related discipline involving the study of sound and/or cognition and/or behavior; Masters degrees should involve several months of experience and training on a scientific project;
• Notice, however, that motivation, curiosity, and interest in the research topic are much more important than the specific training the candidate obtained during their BSc or MSc;
• Some knowledge of speech, bioacoustics, neuroscience and/or animal behavior, and familiarity with methodologies used in experimental psychology and/or animal behavior;
• Affinity with or interest in animals, and potentially being comfortable around them;
• Good written and verbal English;
• Good social and organizational skills;
• Willingness to travel in the Netherlands (especially Pieterburen and Maastricht) and abroad;
• A solid background in experimental design and data analysis is an advantage;
• Experience with computer programming is an advantage, as is experience with the use of Python and/or R.

What we offer

The PhD position is fully funded for 4 years (starting gross salary is 2,569 per month). The institute and research group provide fully equipped research facilities, technical support, as well as a conference and travel budget. PhD students can be involved in the International Max Planck Research School for Language Sciences, which offers core and individually chosen coursework to complement the PhD research and training in soft skills such as writing and presentation.


The MPI in Nijmegen is an internationally leading research institute studying how our minds and brains process language including their underlying genetic architectures and similarities with other animals. The institute has a multidisciplinary stimulating research environment, excellent facilities and computing resources. We are situated on the campus of the Radboud University, and have close collaborative links with the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and the Human Genetics Department of Radboud University Medical Centre. Nijmegen is a young, diverse and student-friendly city. We are part of the Max Planck Society, an independent
non-governmental association of German-funded research institutes dedicated to fundamental research in the natural sciences, life sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. The Max Planck Society is an equal opportunities employer. Applications from women, people with disabilities and under-represented groups are particularly encouraged.

Application procedure

Please send the following documents in a single pdf file by e-mail to Lianne Peters (Secretary, Comparative Bioacoustics Group: ), with subject ‘PhD positions CBA group: application’. Please indicate whether we can keep your application details and personal information for up to 2 years, in the event that future positions at the MPI arise. Receipt will be acknowledged.
i. A one-page statement of why you are interested in this post and why you consider yourself a good match for the post;
ii. A one-page statement of which research projects you would like to pursue and the suggested starting date;
iii. A current CV, listing relevant experience and containing a list of your publications; iv. Names, email addresses and contact numbers of three referees who would be willing to
provide letters of recommendation

For informal scientific enquiries, please send an email to Andrea Ravignani, leader of the Comparative Bioacoustics Group () with subject ‘PhD positions CBA group: scientific enquiry’. For general enquiries, please send an email to Lianne Peters () with subject ‘PhD positions CBA group: general enquiry’. Short-listed candidates will be invited to participate in a skype interview and site visit to the institute. The job interview will be held in English.

Applications will be reviewed from August 24th 2020 onwards until the positions have been filled. The starting date is negotiable and should be between October 2020 and March 2021.

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