PhD Scholarship Value of Big Data in Research

Updated: about 1 month ago
Deadline: 15 Jun 2020

Scholarship opportunities

Data are essential to define, understand, establish urgency, and address global issues encapsulated in the Sustainable Development Goals. Within the University of Groningen, Campus Fryslân and the CIT investigate how we can develop sophisticated data practices that can help address these issues.

Campus Fryslân offers a four-year scholarship to complete a PhD on Valuing Big Data. The PhD student will be connected to the Data Research Centre of Campus Fryslân and supervised by Dr JA Beaulieu, Dr O. Gstrein, and Prof R.P. Stolk. The PhD student will be enrolled in the Graduate School of Campus Fryslân (GSCF) and in the graduate school WTMC. PhD candidates can benefit from affiliations at research institutes of the University of Groningen, among others, as appropriate to the PhD Project.

Topic Description
We live in a digital world in which our dependence on technology is increasing and in which datafication of our activities is a growing dynamic. In this context, many of our actions produce traces that are recorded and monitored by a multitude of sensors, cameras, microphones and all kinds of technological devices that communicate this rich input into virtual clouds. An increasing number of decisions depend on data-driven systems: from reliance of physicians to recognize illnesses and patterns of diseases, to public institutions which govern societies, to the reliance of private companies to develop business intelligence to retrieve information from a weather or traffic app. Such data-based evidence originates from creating and analyzing large sets of data: ‘Big Data’. The use of large amounts of data allows us to draw detailed inferences about the lives of individuals and groups. On the basis of this seemingly novel source, algorithms are designed to seek and identify patterns that enables actors to make predictions and even decisions by applying Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies. Clearly, this approach to knowledge has implications and it is urgent to consider its development and application critically.

Main issue
The use of Big Data is reshaping the ways in which research is being done. This leads to fundamental changes in how we as society explore and understand the world, as well as what we define as useful findings. Arguably, Big Data changes methods (e.g. machine learning in data analytics) and challenges the whole notion of theory driven research (e.g. correlation rather than causation, a data set does not represent a sample but the whole population) in favor of a radical empiricist approach. In other words, Big Data changes methods, methodology and epistemic assumptions much more fundamentally than just questions of internal and external validity. How much insight is added with increasing amounts of data? Does the augmented diversity of larger data sets hamper their scientific value? Is the relationship between ‘Big Data’ and ‘Big Insights’ appropriately understood, or even understandable? Finally, what are the consequences of aiming for greater collection and circulation for our notions of individual privacy and collective autonomy, property, creativity and freedom? The answers might have huge implications for future research practices, both for data collection as well as data analysis.

As more and more areas in and beyond research use Data Science and Big Data as part of knowledge generation, the data sets used are extended both with more variables to account for more potential modifiers and intermediates, as well as with more observations to detect smaller effects. The current paradigm therefore conforms to the assumption that “bigger is better”. This line of thought has fueled the construction of the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC), in order to make data from research projects from all over Europe available for re-use in a FAIR data format that allows computer algorithms to harvest these data. Another example is the recent report of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences on the “reuse of public data”. This initiative aims to make all governmental data available for scientific research. Is more data always better, and if so, for whom? Are the current concepts and regulatory frameworks that we use to evaluate the use of data, specifically when considering privacy and proportionality, sufficient to effectively safeguard fundamental rights and human dignity?

Main research topic
These considerations lead to the project’s main research topic, Valuing Big Data. This project will help address how do we value the size of data. Proposals that address value as a multi-layered concept that connects ethical, epistemological, and legal modes of valuation are of particular interest.

Scope of project
The proposed PhD project (4 years) will explore how we value the size of data with regards to issues of privacy, regulation, and the transformation of data into evidence. This will provide insight into how we value size from a scientific perspective as well as how we value the size of data from a social, ethical and epistemological perspective. This work will be based on empirical knowledge of ongoing data intensive research at the University of Groningen, and include cases in medicine, intelligence gathering in security contexts, as well as ecology. The project will result in a conceptual framework based on interdisciplinary research to understand how we value data, as well as practical guidelines for researchers using Big Data.

The proposed research will benefit from the broad institutional setup of the UG, with expertise in computer science, human rights law, data protection and privacy law, science and technology studies, ethics, epistemology, interdisciplinary data science and much more. The project will be based within the Data Research Centre of Campus Fryslân. Principal Investigators are Dr Oskar Gstrein, Dr Anne Beaulieu and prof Ronald Stolk (UMCG/Clinical Epidemiology, also CIO of the university).

Embedding of PhD
• The candidate will be part of the Data Research Centre, Campus Fryslân
• There are ongoing collaborations with related research projects in other faculties of the UG, including the UMCG

Profile of candidate
The candidate must have an intrinsic interest in research data with an interdisciplinary background, including a solid component in social science and demonstrable affinity with the areas of research involved in the project (science and technology studies, quantitative social science, data science, epistemology, human rights law and ethics).


We are looking for a candidate with the following qualifications and strengths:
• Master’s degree in a relevant academic field (social science, science and technology studies, law and governance)
• Demonstrable affinity with data-driven and quantitative research methods
• Highly developed conceptual capacity and analytical skills
• Very good individual and collaborative working skills
• Presenting skills
• Planning and organizational skills
• Very good command of spoken and written English
• Strong motivation to complete a PhD dissertation in four years

The following are considered an asset:
• Research experience
• Dutch proficiency
• Programming skills and basic knowledge in machine learning


Since its foundation in 1614, the University of Groningen has enjoyed an international reputation as a dynamic and innovative university of higher education offering high-quality teaching and research. Balanced study and career paths in a wide variety of disciplines encourage the 32,000 students and researchers to develop their own individual talents. Belonging to the best research universities in Europe and joining forces with prestigious partner universities and networks, the University of Groningen is an international place of knowledge.

Campus Fryslân is the ambitious eleventh and newest faculty of the University of Groningen, located in Leeuwarden. Campus Fryslân is an interdisciplinary faculty that works closely together with regional, national and international partners on worldwide (sustainability) problems and local solutions. The sustainable development goals of the United Nations thus serve as an important guideline.

The Data Science Research Centre of Campus Fryslân (in cooperation with the Center for Information Technology, CIT, of the University of Groningen) focuses on interdisciplinary research. The centre conducts interdisciplinary projects that focus on data as a source of scientific and social insight.


The PhD Scholarship student will be enrolled in the PhD Scholarship Programme and receives a scholarship of €2,181 per month (gross) from the University of Groningen. For more information on the RUG PhD scholarship programme and its benefits please check the website at .
The PhD Scholarship contract is offered for four years. A successful candidate will first be offered a temporary contract of one year with the option of renewal for another three years. Prolongation of the contract is contingent on sufficient progress in the first year to indicate that a successful completion of the PhD thesis within the contract period is to be expected.
A PhD training programme is part of the agreement and the successful candidate will be enrolled in the Graduate School of the Faculty as well as the Netherlands Graduate School for Science, Technology and Modern Culture (WTMC). As part of the programme, the PhD student will take part in the Career Perspectives Series, which provides a thorough preparation on the career after the PhD, inside or outside academia. During the course of the doctorate, the student will develop research and teaching competencies as well as leadership skills. For this, the PhD students will receive a tailor-made programme from the GSCF.


Candidates may apply for this opportunity before June 15th 2020 Central European Time by using the Apply button.

Candidates must submit the following documents:
1. a recent curriculum vitae
2. a letter of motivation of a maximum of two A4 pages, explaining your interest in the project and detailing your suitability for the scholarship
3. a copy of your diplomas with a list of course grades
4. 2 letters of reference from academic referees
5. a research proposal of up to 2000 words, covering state of the art, main research question, key objectives, and relevance, the proposed (methodological) approach, a brief description of the relevant literature, and a provisional timetable
6. a writing sample of no more than 5000 words, e.g. an essay or part of a Master’s thesis.

Please provide the documents in pdf format. We will only consider applications that include the 6 requirements listed above

Interviews will be scheduled in June 2020, probably online. Candidates may be asked to give a presentation.

The intended starting date is 1 September 2020. An earlier start is possible by mutual consent.

For information about this PhD project, please contact Dr. Anne Beaulieu ( ).
For general information about PhD scholarships at Campus Fryslân contact Dr. Joop Houtman, coordinator of the Graduate School of Campus Fryslân: .

Please consult the websites for further information about the University of Groningen ( and the Faculty Campus Fryslân (

Unsolicited marketing is not appreciated.


For information you can contact:

  • Dr. Anne Beaulieu,
  • Dr. Joop Houtman,

Please do not use the e-mail address(es) above for applications.


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