Vacancy: PhD position – From signs to understanding: taking the next steps in sign language translation



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. In particular, the group has been studying various kinds of neural networks for more than 20 years. It 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 and the fact that four of our former PhD students are now working at Google’s Deepmind and one at Google Brain.

The job

The AIRO team of IDLab has a long history and a current leading position in recognizing sign language signs from video. In the recently approved European project SignON, we want to take the next step and move from sign recognition to actual translation. On the one hand, this means moving from signs to language models and meaning, but in the other hand, it also means filling in the gaps between signs, where signers use mimicry and facial expression instead of ‘standard’ signs. One of the main difficulties in this field is the lack of labelled data, so any approach will have to build heavily on unsupervised learning, grounding and transfer.

You will collaborate with enthusiastic colleagues at IDLab, linguists who specialize in (Flemish) sign language, and the Flemish deaf community, as well as our international partners in the SignON project. You will research and develop solutions aiming at understanding and translating sign language, using state-of-the art techniques from machine learning, deep learning and language technology. You will be encouraged to publish and present your work at international conferences, or to attend useful summer schools.


Degree and background

  • You have the degree of Master of Science, preferably in Computer Science (engineering), ICT or Informatics
  • Your degree must be equivalent to 4 or 5 years of studies (bachelor + master) in the European Union, you must have a solid academic track record (graduation cum laude or grades in the top 25% percentile)
  • You are eligible for a Flemish PhD scholarship
  • You have knowledge of and experience with machine learning. Having prior experience with deep learning is an asset
  • 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 fluent in written and spoken English, you speak and understand Dutch or are willing to learn on short notice, you are willing to learn the basics of Flemish sign language
  • If you are a deaf person, you can communicate in Flemish sign language 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 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 (upon positive progress evaluation). The PhD research has fundamental and innovative aspects, but also a clear application target. You will join a young and enthusiastic team of researchers, post-docs and professors. This PhD position is available immediately.


Apply with extensive motivation letter, scientific resume, diplomas and detailed academic results (courses and grades), English proficiency scores for candidates with degrees outside the EU, relevant publications (if any), and two reference contacts. Incomplete applications will not be considered!

For any questions, contact (

After the first screening, suitable candidates will be invited for an interview (also possible via Skype) and may get a skills assignment.

Closing date and timeline

The project is currently scheduled to start on Jan. 1st, 2021. Candidates who are not yet available (e.g., because they haven’t graduated yet) will not be considered!

Because we have very little time to find someone, we will use a 2 step procedure:

  • We will begin our selection procedure on December 15th, 2020. Do not expect any answers to your application before that date. Promising candidates will be invited for a video call interview
  • Any applications we receive after December 15th, 2020 and before Jan 15th, 2021 will be considered only if we haven’t found a suitable candidate yet.