PhD in Virtual Reality as Empathy Machine: Validation Research on Humanitarian Communication (1.0 FTE)

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PhD in Virtual Reality as Empathy Machine: Validation Research on Humanitarian Communication (1.0 FTE)

Job description
Virtual Reality is a booming industry and is considered to be a game changer. So far it has mostly been used for entertainment and to give a sense of extraordinary experiences. However, it has also been used effectively in the military field to enhance training and simulate risk situations, in the health sector to practice surgical interventions as well as to treat mental disorders and addictions and to aid rehabilitation, in the realms of education, museums, sport, HR, architecture and for climate awareness. In the last decade Virtual Reality has also been increasingly used to think about minority and diversity politics, by making the viewer experience what it is like to face racial prejudice or survive a perilous migration journey. For these reasons VR is widely acclaimed in the humanitarian sector. Would you like to help critically investigate the role of VR for humanitarian appeals by asking how and to what extent humanitarian VR can function as an empathy machine, bridging the distance between viewers and mediated others? Then you have a role to play as a PhD researcher within this broader research project.
The NWO Open Competition Project 'Virtual Reality as Empathy Machine: Media, Migration and the Humanitarian Predicament' is looking for two PhD candidates to participate in this project. You will be working with PI Prof. Sandra Ponzanesi, Professor of Media, Gender and Postcolonial Studies at Utrecht University, Department of Media and Culture Studies, and ICON (Research Institute for Cultural Inquiry), and a team of two PHDs, a postdoc and a project assistant.
You will also be part of The Postcolonial Studies Initiative (PCI)/Graduate Gender Studies Programme and be connected to the UU Focus Areas: Game Research/Migration and Societal Change/ and Governing the Digital Society and IOS Platform Gender, Diversity and Global Justice.
Virtual Reality is a technology which creates a multisensory, immersive, realistic 3D environment, which can be interactive and has the power to make us experience different worlds. This can affect our cognitive and emotional responses and possibly change our attitudes or behavior regarding issues or realities that are usually remote or removed from our daily existence. For this reason, it has been postulated as the ultimate 'empathy machine', a technology of feeling that promotes compassion, connection and intimacy by allowing the viewer to experience the lives of those who are distant others, for example migrants or refugees. It has been increasingly used to this effect in humanitarian appeals to solicit donations and renew public engagement.
The aim of 'Virtual Reality as Empathy Machine: Media, Migration and the Humanitarian Predicament' is to make an innovative and urgent intervention into the field of VR for humanitarian communication by evaluating the potentialities and pitfalls of immersion and empathy through technological innovation.
This project will critically investigate the role of VR for humanitarian appeals by asking how and to what extent humanitarian VR can function as an empathy machine, bridging the distance between viewers and mediated others.
The project will critically investigate the impact of VR for humanitarian appeals, in particular concerning issues around migration and refugees. It will do so by contributing to evaluation, methodology, ethics and design in an innovative and interdisciplinary way.
For this purpose, the project will combine media analysis and empirical research through a postcolonial approach, with one of the dissemination results also being the creation of an alternative VR projects and collaborative practices. The project draws from different disciplinary fields such as (digital) media studies, postcolonial theory, science and technology studies, psychology, gender studies, anthropology, development studies, conflict studies, game and film studies and humanitarian communication.
The project is relevant for the fields of migration, technology and humanitarian appeal, but it has wider implications for society, governance and the industry.
Currently two PhD positions are available:
1) PhD1: Virtual Reality as Empathy Machine: critical media analysis in humanitarian communication  
2) PhD2: Virtual Reality as Empathy Machine: validation research on humanitarian communication
The role of PhD1 will be to offer a media analysis of VR affordances, cinematic and narrative strategies (360-degree videos, installations and documentaries) dealing with migration and refugees. This PhD project will focus on how VR affects the relationship between spectator and distant sufferer through its immersive affordances, cinematic strategies and alternative storytelling techniques.
PhD1 will have a background in media studies, with a specific focus on new, immersive and interactive technologies, such as games and VR.
The role of PhD2 will be to perform empirical research and develop interdisciplinary methods to test and validate the persuasiveness of VR as an 'empathy machine' and assess whether VR leads to actions and enhanced public engagement. This PhD project will focus on how we can empirically assess the effect of and response to VR for humanitarian purposes.
PhD2 will have a background in media, psychology or the social sciences, and expertise in validation methods and participant observations.
This position concerns PhD2 Virtual Reality as Empathy Machine: validation research on humanitarian communication.
For more info about the project see:

The ideal candidate has a background and proven interest in media studies, postcolonial critique and humanitarian communication. In addition,
  • You should hold a completed master's degree in a relevant field (media studies, social and behavioral sciences, science and technology studies, postcolonial theory, humanitarianism, gender studies or a comparative field of studies).
  • PhD2 will have a background in media, psychology or the social sciences, and expertise in validation methods and participant observations.
  • Demonstrable experience in media analysis and empirical fieldwork (test and validation studies) is highly recommended.
  • You are fluent in English (you must possess Cambridge Certificate or equivalent at C1 level, unless you have a degree from an English-language university), or you are a native speaker.
  • You are able to work independently and flexibly, taking initiative where needed.
  • You have good interpersonal skills, and you have good written and oral communication skills.
  • You are able to communicate and collaborate effectively in a team setting.
  • You are interested in participating collaboratively in the events, training programmes and activities planned for the duration of the project.
  • You have administrative and organisational skills and are well-acquainted with managing social media.
  • You are willing to live in the Netherlands during the contract period.
  • You are dedicated to completing the PhD research, as well as the contributions to the other project deliverables (expert meetings, conferences, final PhD dissertation), within the allotted time of four years.
  • You preferably have knowledge of Dutch or are ready to learn the basics.

This is an appointment of 1,0 FTE for the duration of 18 months. Starting June 1, 2023, with the possibility of extension for a further maximum of 30 months after positive evaluation in the first year.
The gross salary starts with € 2,541 per month in the first year and increases to € 3,247 per month in the fourth year of employment (scale P according to the Collective Employment Agreement of the Dutch Universities) for a full-time employment.
Besides that, you will receive a holiday allowance of 8% and a year-end bonus of 8.3%. Utrecht University also has an appealing package of terms of employment , including the choice for a good balance between work and private (a good arrangement for leave, among other things), possibilities for development and an excellent pension scheme. More information on working at Utrecht University can be found here .

About the organization
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 societal themes. Our focus is on Dynamics of Youth, Institutions for Open Societies, Life Sciences and Sustainability.
The Faculty of Humanities has around 7,000 students and 1,100 staff members. It comprises four knowledge domains: Philosophy and Religious Studies, History and Art History, Media and Culture Studies, and Languages, Literature and Communication. With its research and education in these fields, the Faculty aims to contribute to a better understanding of the Netherlands and Europe in a rapidly changing social and cultural context. The enthusiastic and committed colleagues and the excellent amenities in the historical city center of Utrecht, where the Faculty is housed, contribute to an inspiring working environment.
The Department of Media and Culture Studies supports teaching and research in the fields of film, television, games, new media and digital culture, theatre, dance and performance, gender and ethnicity, musicology and cultural policy. Culture is a dynamic mix of artistic, creative and everyday practices with which people shape their identities and actions, and within which societal structures and institutions take shape. Media (old and new) are crucial factors in these processes.
As PhD candidate you will be member of the Institute for Cultural Inquiry  (ICON). ICON is one of the four research institutes of the Faculty of Humanities. The researchers are working in six different research fields. PhD candidates are also embedded in the Graduate School of Humanities, which offers seminars and courses to improve your academic skills.

Additional information
For more information about this position, please contact Professor Sandra Ponzanesi (Professor of Gender and Postcolonial Studies) via .

Everyone deserves to feel at home at our university. We welcome employees with a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives.
To apply, please send your application via the 'apply' button.
The application should include:
  • a letter of motivation (not exceeding 500 words, in font size 12), explaining why you are a good fit for the position;
  • a full academic CV (max two pages, font size 12);
  • a 1000-word research proposal, connected to the PhD description and including a theoretical framework, methodological approach, possible case studies and references;
  • the names and contact details of two references, including your thesis advisor, who may be approached by the selection committee;
  • a writing sample, such as a thesis chapter (20 pp.) or a published publication;
  • a copy of your Master's diploma and a copy of your full transcript listing subjects studied and grades received;
  • a proof of language proficiency according to the Utrecht University requirement (Cambridge or Toefl, level C1).
Shortlisted candidates will be invited to participate in either online or in-person interviews, and will be subject to pre-employment checks prior to any appointment. Interviews will be held in mid-March 2023.
Here you can find the link to the other PhD position: PhD in Virtual Reality as Empathy Machine: Critical Media Analysis in Humanitarian Communication (1.0 FTE).

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