PhD Studentship Opportunity – (Re)conceptualisation of Human Rights in the Digital Age

Three-year PhD studentship to undertake research on the (re)conceptualisation of human rights in the era of big data and associated technologies

About the HRBDT Project

The Economic and Social Research Council-funded Human Rights, Big Data and Technology Project, based at the University of Essex’s Human Rights Centre, maps and analyses the challenges and opportunities presented by the use of technology and big data from a human rights perspective. Drawing on the wide range of expertise of its interdisciplinary researchers and partner organisations, the Project considers whether fundamental human rights concepts and approaches need to be adapted to meet the rapidly evolving technological landscape. The work brings together practitioners in the fields of human rights, technology and Internet governance, the United Nations, technology industries, and academics, to assess existing regulatory responses and the need for reforms in order to maximise effective human rights enjoyment and protection.

About the Studentship

This funded three-year doctoral studentship is associated with Work Stream One of the Project.

  • Work Stream One

Work Stream One acts as a hub for the other three Work Streams. As well as providing the overarching framework within which the other Work Streams operate, this Work Stream seeks to advance knowledge and understanding of how big data and associated technologies are reshaping the conceptualisation and meaning of human rights. It seeks to provide insight into the nature of, and connections between, the positive and negative human rights implications of big data and associated technologies. It maps the wide range of threats posed, and opportunities offered, by big data and associated technologies. It also maps and analyses the existing and developing legal responses at the national, international and multi-stakeholder forum levels. Finally, it analyses proposed solutions, overlaps and tensions between different approaches.

  • (Re)conceptualisation of Human Rights

We are seeking to appoint a PhD student to work on issues associated with how the use of big data and associated technologies impacts on the meaning and scope of rights, and the extent to which human rights require reconceptualisation in the digital age.

Research questions currently being considered by the Project are:

(1) What new human rights related concerns and opportunities are generated by big data, new technological advances and technologically-mediated practices?

(2) How are the human rights implications of data best conceptualised? How should privacy, ownership, consent and human dignity be conceptualised in a digitised era both threatening and offering opportunities for better human rights protection and implementation?

(3) If it follows from the above that a reconceptualisation is needed, what form should this take?

The studentship, which is one of five to be associated with the HRBDT Project, will be under the supervision of Professor Lorna McGregor (Work Stream Co-Lead) and Professor Maurice Sunkin (Work Stream Co-Lead). Other members of the Work Stream will also provide guidance and support. The successful candidate will work with their supervisors and the Work Stream team to develop their precise PhD project.

Candidate Profile

The successful candidate will have a first degree and a postgraduate qualification, at least one of which should be in law or a related discipline. They will be able to demonstrate: an awareness of the theoretical issues associated with human rights law; an ability to undertake qualitative research of a high standard; an ability to write work of publishable quality; and an ability to disseminate research findings to a range of stakeholder and expert communities.

Candidates will also need to show that they can work as part of a multidisciplinary team and assist with the broader activities of the HRBDT Project, including the organisation of meetings and impact engagement activities.


The award is for three years and is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). It covers annual home/EU fees and, for UK residents, provides an annual maintenance grant of £14,553.

Under ESRC rules, UK residents are eligible for a full award (fees and annual maintenance grant). EU citizens who are not ordinarily resident in the UK and do not meet the residential eligibility criteria set by the ESRC are eligible for a fees-only award. Overseas students (non-UK, non-EU) are not eligible for an ESRC award. Please click here for more information on ESRC eligibility.

The details of any funding package will depend on eligibility and potential applicants are encouraged to discuss their individual circumstances. Part-time applicants will be considered.

Eligible candidates can apply for a Research Training Support Grant (£750 p.a.) and Overseas Fieldwork Support (£450 p.a.), and the successful candidate will receive Proficio funding from the University of Essex.

Additional Information

PhD students associated with the Project will benefit from the University’s professional development scheme Proficio, which provides a wide range of courses in advanced research methods (including the world-leading courses run by the Essex Summer School in Social Science Data Analysis and the Human Rights Centre’s Summer School in Human Rights Research Methods), career management, communication skills and public engagement. The holder of the doctoral studentship will also be a full member of the University’s Human Rights Centre.

In the recent Research Excellence Framework, 77% of research at the University of Essex was classed as ‘world leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’ (REF 2014). We offer world-class supervision and training opportunities, and our research students work at the heart of an internationally-acknowledged and well-connected research community.

How to Apply

Applications must be made online through the University of Essex’s postgraduate applications page: Please apply through the School of Law.

The following information is required for the application:

  1. A letter of motivation/personal statement (1,000 words), detailing special areas of interest in this field and explaining aspects of your academic and professional background that are relevant to the studentship. If you will require a Tier 4 student visa to study in the UK, then your letter should refer specifically to your reasons for wishing to study in the UK;
  2. An up to date CV;
  3. Two academic references, dated;
  4. A sample of recent written work;
  5. A sample research proposal including proposed methodology (1,000 – 2,000 words);
  6. Official transcript(s), in English or a certified translation, of your academic results to date, showing marks or grades;
  7. Evidence of any academic or English language qualifications that have already been awarded and that you have cited in your application.

Applicants are asked to notify Professor Lorna McGregor <>, cc’ing Ms Catherine Kent <>, that they have submitted an application.

Closing date: Monday 29 May 2017 

Interviews will be held by Skype or in person at the University of Essex during the week commencing Monday 12 June 2017. The successful candidate would be expected to start on Thursday 5 October 2017.

Informal enquiries should be made to Professor Lorna McGregor <>, cc’ing Ms Catherine Kent <>.