PhD Position in Computational Language Evolution

ETH Zurich Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering

PhD in Computational Language Evolution

100%, Basel, fixed-term

The Computational Evolution Group, led by Prof. Dr. Tanja Stadler, in the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering (D-BSSE) at ETH Zurich works at the interface of mathematics, computer science and evolutionary biology. We develop phylogenetic and phylodynamic methods to understand evolutionary, ecological, epidemiological and developmental processes on different scales based on genetic data.

Our research group is located in Basel, Switzerland’s oldest university city and a European hot-spot for biomedical research. Our department is in close proximity to several other academic research institutes as well as major pharmaceutical and biotech companies. We are also part of the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics, a major developer and provider of bioinformatics services and resources.

Applications are invited for the position of doctoral student with Prof. Dr. Tanja Stadler. The position is fixed-term for 4 years.

Project background

Just as biological species evolve in complex ways as depicted in phylogenetic trees, so do human languages. The application of phylogenetic and phylodynamic methods developed from the study of biological species and populations has become increasingly commonplace in the field of linguistics over the last decade.  This PhD project seeks to use and improve these methods to better understand the mechanisms and historical dynamics through which the current global linguistic diversity arose.

Job description

The open position entails working closely with Prof. Dr. Tanja Stadler and other team members of the Computational Evolution group on developing, implementing and applying new inference methods in computational Bayesian phylolinguistics.  The overarching goal is to develop the statistical and computational tools necessary to answer key questions in evolutionary linguistics surrounding the gain and loss of ancestral languages, and how this process correlates with human population dynamics and linguistic features.

The initial aim of the project will be to develop improved models for studying the correlated evolution of biological and linguistic traits and diversification rates on language phylogenies. Currently-used models are adapted from macroevolutionary models of trait-dependent speciation.  We aim to develop these further to allow for greater numbers of continuous and discrete traits, paying special attention to horizontal transfer events which are critical to consider in the linguistic context.

This position will be part of the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Evolving Language, a Swiss consortium with the ambitious goal of creating a new discipline, Evolutionary Language Science, that targets the past and future of language. The consortium consists of leading scientists from traditionally separated academic domains, which allows us to harvest the diverse expertise from the humanities, social sciences, computational sciences, natural sciences and medicine towards a broadscale interdisciplinary collaboration.

Your profile

We are looking for a highly motivated candidate with strong quantitative skills. You will have completed a MSc in applied mathematics, biostatistics, statistics, physics or a related discipline prior to starting the position. Experience with linguistics, phylogenetics or phylodynamics is beneficial, but not a requirement for the position. You will engage in interdisciplinary research as part of a team, so clear and effective communication skills are a priority. We value an open and inclusive group culture. As a member of the Computational Evolution group, you will be expected to help us maintain a positive team dynamic and a welcoming work environment. Our working language in the group is English and no knowledge of German is required. In line with our commitment to an open and inclusive group culture we welcome applications from individuals of all demographic groups and personal backgrounds.

Your workplace

We offer

We offer a dynamic and supportive working environment with flexible working hours. ETH Zurich is a family-friendly employer with excellent working conditions and offers highly competitive salaries. The position also comes with funding to attend international conferences and workshops and you will have the opportunity to participate in personal growth and career development opportunities offered by ETH Zurich and the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics. Switzerland offers top quality of life – including beautiful natural scenery and fantastic infrastructure. We look forward to showing you why Basel, a very international small city ranked the tenth most livable city in the world by Mercer, is a great place to live and work!

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We value diversity

In line with our values, ETH Zurich encourages an inclusive culture. We promote equality of opportunity, value diversity and nurture a working and learning environment in which the rights and dignity of all our staff and students are respected. Visit our Equal Opportunities and Diversity website to find out how we ensure a fair and open environment that allows everyone to grow and flourish.

Curious? So are we.

We look forward to receiving your online application with the following documents:

  • Curriculum Vitae including your educational history and full list of publications.
  • Letter of motivation of max. 2 pages covering your past research experiences and future research interests, goals and how they would relate to and fit in with the Language Evolution project and the Computational Evolution group’s research domain and activities.
  • Names, e-mail addresses, and phone numbers of at least two references, mentioning for each the professional relationship you have with them.

Please note that we exclusively accept applications submitted through our online application portal. Applications via email or postal services will not be considered. We will review applications as they come in, until the position is filled.

For further information please visit our lab website. Questions regarding the position (no applications) should be directed to Dr. Timothy Vaughan (

For recruitment services the GTC of ETH Zurich apply.

About ETH Zürich

ETH Zurich is one of the world’s leading universities specialising in science and technology. We are renowned for our excellent education, cutting-edge fundamental research and direct transfer of new knowledge into society. Over 30,000 people from more than 120 countries find our university to be a place that promotes independent thinking and an environment that inspires excellence. Located in the heart of Europe, yet forging connections all over the world, we work together to develop solutions for the global challenges of today and tomorrow.