PhD student on the Generalization of Pain-related Avoidance Behavior

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 a sharp PhD student with a strong interest and experience in associative learning, psychophysiology, pain disorders or health psychology.


  • Location: Maastricht University, Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience Universiteitssingel 40, Maastricht
  • Function types: PhD positions
  • Scientific fields: Health, Behaviour and Society
  • Hours: 38.0 hours per week
  • Salary: € 2222 – € 2840
  • Education: University Graduate
  • Job number: AT2017.200

Job description
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 experimentalparadigms, 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.

Your job
You will further develop the designs of the studies that are described in the project. You will also be responsible for programming the experimental protocols, recruitment and data collection both in healthy participants and chronic pain patients. You will be trained in the use of the psychophysiological measures of interest. Next, you will analyze both psychophysiological and behavioral data, publish your results in scientific journals, present the results (on international conferences) to the research community, and write a doctoral dissertation based on the conducted research. A postdoctoral researcher that will be hired on the project and yourself will collaborate very closely.

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.

Conditions of employment
The terms of employment of Maastricht University are set out in the Collective Labour Agreement of Dutch Universities (CAO). Furthermore, local UM provisions also apply. For more information look at the website > Support > UM employees
Temporary employment for 4 years. Your salary would be € 2.222,– gross per month in the first year up to € 2.840,– gross per month in the fourth year according to the PhD-student salary scale. Each year an evaluation will take place.
Contract type: Temporary, 4 years

Maastricht University is renowned for its unique, innovative, problem-based learning system, which is characterized by a small-scale and student-oriented approach. Research at UM is characterized by a multidisciplinary and thematic approach, and is concentrated in research institutes and schools. Maastricht University has around 16,500 students and 4,000 employees. Reflecting the university’s strong international profile, a fair amount of both students and staff are from abroad. The university hosts 6 faculties: Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences, Faculty of Law, School of Business and Economics, Faculty of Humanities and Sciences, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience.

Additional information
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). Please submit your application online no later than 07-08-2017.
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).

See all the information at