vacant position PhD student Maastricht University


For the NWO VIDI project ‘When the good gets bad…and sticks! Understanding and challenging (the spreading of) pain-related avoidance behavior’, we are looking for an enthusiastic PhD student with a strong interest and experience in associative learning, psychophysiology, pain disorders or health psychology.

Please submit your application online no later than August 7, 2017:

Growing evidence suggests that pain-related fear and avoidance behavior are more disabling than pain itself, and contribute to the transition from acute to chronic pain. When avoidance averts genuine bodily threat, it is highly adaptive. In chronic pain, when avoidance behavior spreads to behaviors that do not pose a threat to the body, it is no longer adaptive. Unbridled generalization of avoidance behaviors may lead to excessive activity disengagement, culminating into a crippling disorder with substantial personal and societal impact. Avoidance behavior also compromises the accurate disconfirmation of bodily threat, contributing to the self-perpetuating cycle of pain, fear, and disability. Despite its prominence in chronic pain models, instrumental avoidance –a topic that has long fascinated researchers (and clinicians)– lacks systematic research due to the absence of appropriate experimental paradigms, leaving the mechanisms underlying its spreading and persistence poorly understood.

Research method
You will use an innovative operant conditioning paradigm to study pain-related avoidance behavior: a robotic arm-reaching task wherein pain can be avoided by performing more effortful movement trajectories (in terms of distance and resistive force) to reach a target. Avoidance behavior is operationalized as the maximal deviation from the shortest, pain-associated trajectory. Outcome measures include self-reports (pain-expectancy, pain-related fear), a psychophysiological fear measures (e.g. EMG eyeblink startle), and behavioral measures (maximal deviation, exerted force) but can vary depending on the specific research question.

We are looking for an enthusiastic candidate with
• Master’s degree in a relevant field, including (health, medical or biological) psychology, health sciences, biomedical sciences, or neuroscience;
• Keen interest in understanding pain-related behavior and pain disorders;
• Strong affinity with associative learning (Pavlovian and/or operant conditioning) and experience with psychophysiological research is desirable;
• Programming skills e.g. Matlab, or strong interest and willingness to acquire programming skills;
• Substantial knowledge of statistical methods, well-developed analytical skills and creativity;
• Ambition as high-potential researcher aimed at excellent scientific research;
• Excellent proficiency and communication skills in English language, both verbally as well as in writing;
• Social and organizational competencies.

The successful candidate will be employed at the Behavioral Medicine section of Maastricht University ( This research group offers an international, productive, collaborative, and interactive environment. Given the research group’s strong ongoing collaborations with the Health Psychology research group of the KU Leuven (Belgium) a joint doctorate with KU Leuven is optional. The candidate will join the Dutch-Flemish Postgraduate School ‘Experimental Psychopathology’ (, which will provide additional training and facilitate networking and collaboration with other researchers in the field of experimental psychopathology.

Inquiries may be addressed to Dr. Ann Meulders, principal investigator of the NWO Vidi project, via e-mail: The preferred starting date of this PhD project is 01-11-2017 (but this is negotiable). Applications should include a motivation letter, a full CV (including copies of your academic transcripts), and the names and contact information of two references (recommendation letters are optional).