PhD position in Natural Language Processing: conflicting interpretations in dialogue (0.8 – 1.0 FTE)

PhD position in Natural Language Processing: conflicting interpretations in dialogue (0.8 – 1.0 FTE)

Published Deadline Location
9 Nov 3 Dec Utrecht

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Study misunderstandings in dialogue and how conversational agents can recognise and resolve them.

Job description

In conversations, we produce language under time pressure. One of the effects of this time pressure is that less attention is paid ensuring that expressions can be interpreted univocally, resulting in misunderstandings that often go undetected. Such misunderstandings between dialogue partners cause problems for all aspects of NLP research. The first problem is that specifying that an expression was interpreted in one way by one participant and in another way by the other participant is difficult with present annotation methods. In turn, this makes it difficult to train models that can produce participant-specific interpretations and/or recognise disagreements in interpretation. In this project you will study misunderstandings in dialogue and how conversational agents can recognise and resolve them.

You get the opportunity to partly shape the PhD project based on your own preferences. There are, however, a number of topics we would like to address within the project:

  • Develop guidelines and create data sets suitable for studying meaning negotiation and misunderstanding in dialogues.
  • Develop models of utterance interpretation in dialogue that are aware of the possibility that participants may not interpret an expression in the same way. 
  • Develop spoken dialogue systems able to recognise misunderstandings and able to carry out strategies for repairing them.

This  position also offers the opportunity to develop teaching skills, next to doing research. Typically, PhD candidates dedicate around 15% of their time to teaching in the department, in the form of tutoring or co-supervision of theses.

You will join the Natural Language Processing (NLP) Group, which is part of the AI & Data Science division of the Department of Information and Computing Sciences. Our currents research strengths include the following themes: NLP and Society, Natural Language Generation and, connected with the latter, Vision and Language. In all these areas we work closely with Utrecht University’’s (UU) Language Sciences department. It is foreseen that all PhD projects in the AiNed project will be jointly supervised with Language Sciences. The NLP group contributes to various areas of teaching, for example via  UU’s cross-faculty Bachelor and Master’s degrees in Artificial Intelligence. The group is strongly aligned with  UU’s focus area Human-centred Artificial Intelligence .

This PhD position is one of five inter-connected PhD positions focussing on variation in NLP, under Utrecht University’s AiNed project “Dealing with Meaning Variation in NLP”, led by Prof. Massimo Poesio. We are simultaneously recruiting for two other positions in this project. We invite you to also check out these interesting vacancies on our website: PhD position in Natural Language Processing: subjectivity in the detection of problematic language and PhD position in Natural Language Processing: variation in co-reference and reference.


Utrecht University


We are looking for a  motivated researcher with a curious and critical mindset. We would also like you to bring :

  • a Master’s degree in an area relevant to this project, which lies at the interface between corpus linguistics of conversations, NLP (coreference, reference), and conversational agents. Thus, relevant areas could  be Artificial Intelligence, Computational Cognitive Science, Computing Science, Conversational Agents, Linguistics, or Statistics.
  • A good mastery of deep learning, of dialogue, and of conversational agents is essential.
  • Excellent English communication skills.
  • You take a strong interest in at least two of the three following areas: (1) conversational agents, (2) deep learning, and/or (3) experimental psychology.

Conditions of employment

We offer:

  • a position (0.8-1.0 FTE) for 4 years;
  • a full-time gross salary between €2,770 and €3,539 in scale P of the Collective Labour Agreement Dutch Universities (CAO);
  • 8% holiday bonus and 8.3% end-of-year bonus;
  • a pension scheme, partially paid parental leave, and flexible employment conditions based on the Collective Labour Agreement Dutch Universities.

In addition to the employment conditions from the CAO for Dutch Universities, Utrecht University has a number of its own arrangements. These include agreements on professional development, leave arrangements, sports and cultural schemes and you get discounts on software and other IT products. We also give you the opportunity to expand your terms of employment through the Employment Conditions Selection Model. This is how we encourage you to grow.

For more information, please visit working at Utrecht University.


A better future for everyone. This ambition motivates our scientists in executing their leading research and inspiring teaching. At Utrecht University, the various disciplines collaborate intensively towards major strategic themes. Our focus is on Dynamics of Youth, Institutions for Open Societies, Life Sciences and Pathways to Sustainability. Shaping science, sharing tomorrow.

At the Faculty of Science, there are 6 departments to make a fundamental connection with: Biology, Chemistry, Information and Computing Sciences, Mathematics, Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Physics. Each of these is made up of distinct institutes that work together to focus on answering some of humanity’s most pressing problems. More fundamental still are the individual research groups – the building blocks of our ambitious scientific projects. Find out more about us on YouTube.

The Department of Information and Computing Sciences is nationally and internationally known for its research in computer science and information science. The Department provides and contributes to the undergraduate programmes in Computer Science, Information Science, and Artificial Intelligence and a number of research Master's programmes in these fields. It employs over 200 people, working in four divisions: Interaction, Algorithms, Data Science & Artificial Intelligence and Software. The atmosphere is collegial and informal.


  • PhD
  • Natural sciences
  • 30—40 hours per week
  • €2770—€3539 per month
  • University graduate
  • 1216421



Padualaan 8, 3584 CH, Utrecht

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