Doing PhD or PostDoc Research with Principia Cybernetica
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Doing PhD or PostDoc Research with Principia Cybernetica

it is possible to do PhD or PostDoc research on Principia Cybernetica themes at one of the PCP centers, in Brussels or in Los Alamos

We regularly get inquiries from people who would like to do PhD or PostDoc research on one of the themes of the Principia Cybernetica Project, with the people involved in the project, on a variety of PCP related topics. Such inquiries are of course welcome, but the following practical considerations apply. There are two main centers for Principia Cybernetica research, the European office, led by Francis Heylighen, which is part of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition group (ECCO) at the Free University of Brussels (VUB), and the American office, led by Cliff Joslyn, at Los Alamos National Laboratory


In Brussels, the situation for studying is relatively flexible, since the VUB is a full university, educating students from countries all around the world. The Evolution, Complexity and Cognition group (ECCO) is an interdisciplinary research department, working on evolutionary cybernetics, with special focus on the emergence of social and cognitive organization. We research theoretical and philosophical questions, but do also applied and empirical research, e.g. in multi-agent simulations and the emergence of distributed cognition in groups. For more detailed info, check the "doing PhD or PostDoc Research in ECCO" page.

Formal Requirements

To get a PhD (Doctorate) at the VUB, you need to fulfill the following basic requirements:
  • have a university degree that is considered equivalent to the Belgian degree of "licentiate" (cf. the structure of higher education in Flanders). This will usually mean a Bachelor's, although sometimes a Master's might be required. If your degree is considered insufficient, it is possible to get a Master's here. There are some Master's programs at the VUB in English, e.g. a MSc in computer science that may include courses on adaptive systems, AI and other topics related to cybernetics.

  • find a professor who is willing to be the "promoter" (supervisor) of your thesis work. For a PhD at ECCO this could be the ECCO chair and PCP editor Francis Heylighen, who officially is affiliated with the philosophy department. For people without a philosophy background, it may be necessary to find a second, "co-promoter" in the department of their specialization, although that is usually a formality. For a promoter to decide whether he would be willing to supervise your work, he should at least receive a clear statement of your interests, your curriculum vitae, and, if possible, some samples of work (papers) that you have done before. These are preferably discussed by email. If these seem acceptable, a meeting can be arranged in Brussels for in-depth discussion.

  • once a promoter is found, submit a number of documents and forms depending on the specific faculty (speciality) in order to be formally registered, and pay a (small) yearly registration fee (about 25 Euro or 30 $), at least in the year when you plan to defend your thesis, or during the whole period of your study work if you want to profit from having a "student" status. However, formal registration as a student is not strictly required in the first years of the research, although it would be necessary to get a student visa for non-EU residents desiring to live in Brussels.

  • when the PhD work is finished, submit and defend the thesis for a committee of VUB professors and invited experts from other institutions. If the committee accepts the thesis, you get your degree. However, poor PhD work will probably never make it to the stage where it is defended before a committee.
There are no other official requirements, except that you are supposed to write short yearly reports on the work your have done, so as to allow the faculty to give feedback on your progress. PhD students do not have to do coursework or take examinations, but are encouraged to participate in the PhD support program that organizes research seminars, practical training in writing, doing presentations, applying for funding, etc. You are further encouraged to go to conferences (for which some funding is normally available), give lectures and publish papers, thus exchanging ideas with other researchers, locally and globally. In the end, whether you succeed or not will depend wholly on the dissertation itself, but any paper written or seminar given will be a significant step forward towards this end.

Making a PhD usually takes between 3 and 6 years. The official language at the VUB is Dutch, but practically everybody is fluent in English and French, and the work can be done wholly in English. It is in principle possible to work part of the time outside of Belgium, as long as there is sufficient contact with the promoter to allow supervision of the on-going work. This will depend on the promoter and the topic.

Financial and other support

Grants or scholarships (basically wages for research assistants) for financial support during the research in Brussels may or may not be available, depending on the funding the Center receives for its different research projects, but this may imply that you have to adapt the topic of your research to the theme of the project, or that you may have to work part-time as a teaching assistant. A PhD scholarship typically pays 1500 euro (about $1800) net per month. It is generally more difficult to find money for PostDoc research on such projects, though. Bright students (basically, with excellent marks, and, in the case of PostDocs, a number of peer-reviewed publications) from countries of the European Union can personally apply to the Belgian Fund for Scientific Research for a 4 year scholarschip (to make a PhD) or 3 year, renewable PostDoc, without constraint on the topic. Students from Eastern Europe may be able to get grants from the European Union.

Compared to other European capitals, costs for living in Brussels are relatively low, both for renting apartments and for food. The university provides extensive medical, social and other services for registered students and researchers, for little or no fee. If you are accepted as a research student, the Center will provide you with the necessary office space, (computer) infrastructure and administrative support.

Selection Criteria

After it was announced on this webpage, our program offering interdisciplinary PhDs has to some degree become the victim of its own success, attracting more candidates than we can comfortably handle. Our research center is not yet large enough to provide a lot of supervision. This means that we have to be very selective in accepting further PhD candidates, giving preference to the people that best satisfy the following general criteria:
  • show unusual intellectual capabilities
  • are very open-minded, willing to explore ideas and approaches very different from their original background
  • wish to focus on a research subject that fits in with on-going research at ECCO
  • are able to work largely autonomously, with little direct supervision
  • have enough maturity, self-discipline and emotional stability to successfully carry through the long and uncertain process of preparing a PhD
  • can find their own financial support (possibly with our assistance)
  • are willing to collaborate with and give/receive mutual support to/from other PhD students at our center
These criteria are fuzzy and to some degree subjective. It is unlikely that any one candidate would perfectly fit all requirements. However, a high score on some criteria (e.g. exceptional intellectual capacities) may to some degree compensate for failing to fulfil another criterion (e.g. lack of independent financial support). Also, the situation is somewhat different for candidates who would work mostly at a distance, compared to those who would stay in residence at the center (e.g. in the former case financial support is less important, but autonomy and maturity more).

Therefore, these criteria should not be seen as strict admission requirements, but rather as guidelines that will help candidates estimate how well they fit the profile. Some will probably recognize themselves rather well in this profile, while others may think: "that's not really me". In the end, the judgment will of course be made by us, on the basis of the impressions we get from the curriculum vitae, texts, and research proposal you submit, and, if these seem acceptable, from personal meetings at the center.

Los Alamos

The Los Alamos National Laboratory is an applied science laboratory operated by the University of California for the Department of Energy of the US Government. While the primary laboratory missions include nuclear weapons and safety, a wide variety of research is carried out in many different groups, both pure and applied.

Los Alamos staff who are involved with PCP are concentrated in the Computer Research and Applications Group (CIC-3) of the Computer, Information, and Communications Division, and in particular within the Distributed Knowledge Systems and Modelling team within that group. There they carry out research which is both generally and specifically related to PCP activities and interests.

While Los Alamos is not a degree-granting university, it has extensive programs for students at all levels, including undergraduate and graduate, and postdoctoral researchers. These positions become available when funding for particular projects permits, and are unusual in that they are effectively full-time work positions in an active research environment, and pay very well. For the student positions, it is assumed that the student is enrolled in good standing at some university. Commonly, the student is in residence for a summer or a year away from his or her university, although there are also part-time students from local universities. The student's academic work (e.g. coursework, thesis writing) is then supported within the context of these project efforts, and at the discretion of the supervising staff. In practice, students and staff actively collaborate with faculty at the student's university, and there is usually ample opportunity for students to engage in a full life of research and publication in the context of their required project work.

See also:

Copyright© 2004 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen, & C. Joslyn,

Jul 28, 2004 (modified)
Mar 8, 1999 (created)


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