We have a vacancy for a PhD student to work on sign language technologies.

Research topic description

Sign languages are the primary form of communication for many deaf or hard of hearing people. Over the last decade, UGent’s AIRO team has performed research on automatically extracting information from sign language videos by developing powerful AI -models. In the SignON-project, the models developed at UGent are currently being integrated into a first prototype of an app that can translate in any direction between a number of European sign languages and a number of European spoken languages. At present, the technology for sign language translation is in principle available: the main limitation for achieving good accuracy is the lack of data.

Each step in the SignON project was taken in close interaction with the user community, represented by the European Union of the Deaf as well as several regional representatives (e.g., in Flanders, VGTC – Centrum voor Vlaamse Gebarentaal).

Now that SignON is approaching its end, UGent-AIRO wants to build upon the expertise it has developed and continue to collaborate with both, Deaf communities and sign language linguistic researchers such that they can maximally benefit from the models and know-how that have already been created and to exploit new opportunities.

More specifically, because the developed models capture a lot of information about the execution of sign language, several other possible applications exist that rely less on the availability of huge data sets. Examples are (in order of increasing complexity) the development of a lookup tool for video-based sign language dictionaries, the development of tools that give automatic learning support to sign language learners, or of specific tools that enable sign language linguistic research, for example to quantify the use of regional variations (similar to spoken dialects).


IDLab is a research group of UGent, as well as a core research group of imec. IDLab performs fundamental and applied research on data science and internet technology, and counts over 300 researchers. Our major research areas are machine learning and data mining; semantic intelligence; multimedia processing; distributed intelligence for IoT; cloud and big data infrastructures; wireless and fixed networking; electromagnetics, RF and high-speed circuits and systems. The AIRO (“AI and robotics”) team of IDLab has been studying various kinds of neural networks for more than 20 years. Our focus is on applications in robotics and in human-AI interaction. AIRO has been at the forefront of deep learning research ever since it became popular a decade ago. Illustrative of this success are an excellent track record at Kaggle competitions. thanks to a consistent focus on innovative ideas that are somewhat outside the mainstream “AI-hype”, many of our former PhD students are now working at top commercial research labs, such as Deepmind or Google Brain, or hold strategic senior R&D positions in companies.


Degree and background

  • You have the degree of Master of Science, preferably in Computer Science (engineering), ICT or Informatics, Artificial intelligence or natural language processing
  • Your degree must be equivalent to 4 or 5 years of studies (bachelor + master) in the European Union, it must include a master’s thesis, and you must have excellent grades, at least for courses related to this position
  • You did not receive a Flemish PhD scholarship before
  • You must have a theoretical background in and experience with machine learning and state-of-the-art deep learning models (from master-level academic course grades and hands-on work)
  • We particularly encourage candidates who are deaf or hard of hearing to apply. For other candidates, a personal motivation (e.g. a close connection with deaf people) is an asset.

Language skills

  • If you are a hearing person: you are capable of spontaneous (unprepared) conversation about scientific and non-scientific topics in written and spoken English, you are willing to learn at least the basics of (Flemish) sign language
  • If you are a deaf person: you can communicate in Flemish sign language or international sign and are sufficiently proficient in written English to be able to follow the state-of-the-art in the relevant domains and publish your results in high impact journals and at conferences

Other skills

  • You have an applied and pragmatic mindset and are motivated to perform user-driven research in close interaction with the deaf community
  • You are interested in and motivated by the research topic, as well as in obtaining a PhD degree.
  • You are creative, have excellent analytical and problem solving skills, and can work independently as well as in team.
  • You have good communication skills, you have an open mind and a multi-disciplinary attitude.

Our offer

We offer a fully funded PhD scholarship for a maximal period of 4 years. You will initially work on the SignON project in order to familiarize yourself with the techniques and concepts related to your research. After that, and depending on your interests, you will migrate to a suitable follow-up project.

Your initial contract will be for one year. In the case of a positive progress evaluation, you will then receive a second contract for the remaining three years.

The PhD research will have fundamental and innovative aspects, but also a clear application target which should be mainly driven by the needs and requirements of the targeted end-users. You will start from existing deep learning models that have been developed in our lab and adapt them to address the needs and bottlenecks of the targeted application(s) – starting with the dictionary lookup task. You will follow up on and use state-of-the art techniques from machine learning, deep learning and language technology. You will be encouraged to publish and present your work at project meetings and international conferences, or to attend useful summer schools.

You will join AIRO, a young and enthusiastic team of around 30 researchers, post-docs and professors. You will also collaborate with our many Flemish and European project partners: experts in various aspects of language technology, signing avatar generation, linguists who specialize in sign language, and the Flemish and European deaf communities.


Apply with the following documents (Incomplete applications will not be considered!)

  • Motivation letter: explain why you are interested in and the right candidate for this particular project! Standard motivation letters that have no relation to the research topic of this vacancy will not be considered!
  • Detailed academic results (including course list, grades and percentile)
  • Pdf of Master’s thesis and relevant publications (if any), possibly a description of project work that is relevant to the vacancy
  • English proficiency scores for candidates with degrees outside the EU
  • Two reference contacts

For any questions, contact prof. dr. ir. Joni Dambre (Joni.Dambre@UGent.be).

Timeline and closing date

This PhD position is available as of September 1st, 2023.

You can apply until Sunday, July 23rd via email to joni.dambre@ugent.be.

If you need additional information or early feedback on your application profile, contact Prof. Joni Dambre – joni.dambre@ugent.be.

Incomplete applications or generic applications that have no clear relation to this specific research position will be ignored.

After processing all applications, the top candidates will receive an invitation to the rest of the procedure, which will consider of:

  • an interview, in which you will present a research-related topic of our choice and your communication skills and technical background will be assessed during a spontaneous discussion.
  • we may also invite you to participate in a skills assessment in the form of a coding (machine learning) assignment related to the field