Joining ECCO

We regularly get inquiries from all over the world from people who would like to join the ECCO research group, most often in order to make a PhD here, or do a PostDoc stay. However, since our group is growing quickly while our funding and infrastructure is limited, we need to be very selective in the people we accept.

There are different possibilities for joining or collaborating with us, from more to less involved. As a general rule, the more support you expect from us (e.g. supervision and funding to make a PhD), the more we will demand from you before accepting your application. If you don't need much, e.g. because you already work in a research group or are autonomously funded, you may be able to join as an "affiliate". The conditions are that your research fits in clearly with our overall philosophy, is of high quality, and you are motivated to collaborate with us on various projects.

The following frequently asked questions summarize the different options for collaborating with ECCO.



Who can join?

Which kind of people are welcome to make a PhD in ECCO?

First and foremost, people are attracted to ECCO because of their enthusiasm for our research philosophy, i.e. the very broad and deep, transdisciplinary perspective on how complex, intelligent systems emerge and evolve. Most present ECCO researchers have joined because they found an open-mindedness and depth of thinking here that is rare in other academic institutions, and because they didn't quite see where else their own ideas might fit in. However, enthusiasm and motivation, while definitely helpful, is not sufficient to engage in international-level research.

Since it was announced on the Principia Cybernetica 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. (in 2004 alone not less than 5 new PhD students joined ECCO, and many more applied). Our research center is not yet large enough to provide much supervision, infrastructure or financial support. This means that we have to be very selective in accepting further PhD candidates.

We give preference to the people that best satisfy the following general criteria:

  • show unusual intellectual capabilities, in particular creativity, capability for abstraction, analytical and synthetic thinking
  • have a solid education in at least one academic discipline, whether in technology, natural sciences, social sciences, or humanities
  • are very open-minded, willing to explore ideas and approaches very different from their original background (e.g. art for a physicist, mathematics for a philosopher, or biology for a sociologist)
  • 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). 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.


Applying for membership

If you think you recognize yourself in this profile, and moreover seem to fulfil the formal requirements for admission as a PhD student at the VUB, you can apply in the following way:

  • send an email application to the ECCO director, Francis Heylighen, explaining in some detail why you would like to do research in ECCO, and what your initial research ideas or interests are
  • indicate whether you think you can get financial support on your own
  • attach your full curriculum vitae, with your educational (and possibly professional) experience
  • attach if at all possible any representative texts you have written (e.g. papers, bachelor's or master's thesis, essays, even short stories...) that can give us an impression of how you develop and explain your ideas (even if only a review of existing literature). These need not be about the subject on which you would like to do research, but are very helpful for us to estimate your writing and thinking capabilities.

If your application appears to fit with the general profile, you will be invited for a personal meeting at the center, so that we can talk in more depth about your and our research ideas, and get to know you in the flesh. If here too our impression is positive, we will immediately start discussing the practical issues that need to be tackled for you to start working in ECCO.



PhD requirements

What are the formal requirements to make a PhD at the VUB/ECCO?

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 a Belgian Master's degree. If you only have the equivalent of a Bachelor's, 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 the ECCO domain.
  • find a professor who is willing to be the "promotor" (supervisor, thesis advisor) of your research. For a PhD at ECCO this most likely will be the ECCO director Francis Heylighen, who officially is affiliated with the philosophy department. However, for administrative reasons, for people without a philosophy background, it will in general 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) which need to be processed by the administration before you can be formally registered. This is a minor formality for people with a Belgian degree, but demands some extra effort for people with a non-European degree.
  • pay a yearly registration fee (about 250 Euro or $400 for the first year, 60 Euro for the following years), 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 international experts from other institutions. If the committee accepts the thesis, you get your degree. However, your promotor will see to it that poor PhD work is unlikely to make it to the stage where it is defended before a committee.

There are no other official requirements, except that while you are registered, you are supposed to write short yearly reports on the work your have done, so as to allow the faculty to check 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, and practical training in research-related skils such as academic writing, making presentations, applying for funding, etc.

For more information on all aspects of becoming and working as a PhD student at the VUB, see the website of the Central PhD support programme.

Every PhD student is 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. See further which activities are expected from a PhD student in ECCO.

Making a PhD usually takes between 3 and 7 years, with a legal minimum of 1 year (which only makes sense for people who already have done most of the work before they register as a student). 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.



I already work in a research group. How can I become an affilliate ECCO member?

Being a member of an existing research department does not exclude becoming a member of ECCO as well.

Belonging to different research groups

The VUB rules do not limit the number of research groups to which an individual can belong, though in practice few people will belong to more than three. These rules also do not distinguish between degrees of membership: you can be an official member of a group even though you have hardly any contact with the other group members. This is understandable, given that research groups are very flexible entities, and that someone's domain of research can touch on many domains, without any one of them being predominant.

However, this can create an "inflation" in group membership, where a group seems much bigger when you look at its official membership list than when you see the people who actively take part in its activities. To avoid that, ECCO distinguishes "full" or "core" members who spend most of their research activities in ECCO, from "affiliate" members whose main academic activity lies elsewhere. This distinction is by necessity fuzzy, and people's activities may shift so that they become either closer involved or farther removed. So, we leave it up to the people themselves to decide whether they want to be listed as "full" or "affiliate".

Becoming an affiliate

Joining ECCO as an affiliate member is easier than becoming a full member. The fact that you already belong to another research group means that most of the requirements are already fulfilled: you will mostl ikely already have some research experience, a focus of interest, a source of funding, a promotor, an official status as student or researcher, ... The main issue then is whether your research focus is sufficiently close to the one of ECCO. That is best discussed by exchanging some papers, or you presenting a seminar to ECCO.

If it turns out that our interests are parallel and that your work may contribute to some on-going ECCO projects, we will gladly welcome you as an affiliate member. If the collaboration intensifies, you may want to change your status and become a full member, while remaining affiliated with your first research group.

Where does my work get listed?

VUB research groups are evaluated on the basis of the scientific output (publications, presentations, conferences, theses, ...) of all their members, full or affiliate, as entered in the R&D database. For affiliate members, it remains ambiguous which part of their output should be listed under ECCO and which under the other groups of which they are members. There is no a priori restriction on listing the same output under different research groups. But we should also avoid an "inflation" scenario where groups apparently produce huge outputs simply because the same works are counted several times. We leave it up to the members to decide which of their work they want to list under ECCO. As a rule of thumb, it seems that work on ECCO themes, or inspired by discussions with other ECCO members, should be listed under ECCO, though it can be simultaneously listed under another research group.


Voluntary researchers

Can I be an ECCO researcher even without a research contract?

Yes, you can!

It could happen that you have been accepted as a member of ECCO, and are eager to start doing research, but haven't yet managed to secure funding (scholarship, or research contract) for it. Or perhaps, you don't need funding because you already have a (part-time) job outside of the university, or simply have large savings.

In that case, it is understandable that you would like to get some kind of official recognition for the research work you do, and get access to the same facilities as your paid colleagues. A solution specifically for those situations exists.

Voluntary researcher status

The VUB legally recognizes the status of voluntary researcher ("vrijwilllig wetenschappelijk medewerker"), i.e. someone participating in the activities of a VUB research group, but without being paid for it. This status basically provides the same rights and privileges as the one of a researcher employed by the VUB. For example, it entitles you to an insurance for accidents that might occur while working at the VUB, a VUB email address, access to the network and machines, the use of software for which the VUB has a licence, or of books and papers in the VUB library.

To get such a status, you should submit a form to the VUB personnel department, stating that you do research work at one of the recognized departments, and have it signed by your promotor or head of department.

Student status

An alternative for registration as a voluntary researcher is registration as a PhD student. The student status gives you largely the same rights and privileges, though there are some subtle differences. E.g. students are entitled to reduced fees for public transport, unlike voluntary researchers, but have to pay a (small) yearly registration fee. The student status also makes less sense for people who already have a PhD.

ECCO membership without special status

Finally, you don't need any legally recognized status with the university to become an official member of ECCO, whether full or affiliated. This means that your name would be listed on the ECCO members page, and that you would be entitled to mention ECCO as your academic affiliation on any publications or conferences that you participate in.

If needed, you can moreover get a VUB network account, that gives you access to email, electronic library holdings, etc. For that, you need to fill out a registration as visiting researcher, and have it signed by your head of department (F. Heylighen). This does not entitle you to an insurance, though. Therefore, this option is interesting mostly for people who work outside the VUB.


Moving to Brussels

What can I expect when moving to Brussels?

If you are a foreign researcher considering to move to work or study at the VUB in Brussels, Belgium, you will find the following information useful.

For more detailed info, you may check the brochure "Before you take off" for foreign students coming to the VUB. You can ask any further questions at the International Relations and Mobility department:

  • phone: +32-2-6291279
  • fax:+32-2-6291501
  • email: international. relations @ vub. ac. be (remove spaces).

Visa and other formalities

If you come from a non-EU country you will normally have to apply for a residence visa as student or employee before you can settle in Belgium. You normally need to apply from your own country, though in exceptional circumstance you can try to have a tourist visa (valid for short stays, up to 3 months) converted to a long term visa while already in Belgium. The simplest way to get a visa is to apply as a PhD student at the VUB. The university's letter of acceptance is normally all you need to get the visa, though this may take some time, as Belgian visa services can be slow.

For more details see:


Compared to other European capitals, costs for living in Brussels are still relatively low, both for renting apartments and for food. You should be able to find a comfortable apartment starting from about 500 euro/month, i.e. less than a third of a normal PhD scholarship. Good places to start looking are:

  •, and the journal called "Vlan" (free) or "Vlan+". This journal has the largest offer. That's the journal Belgians use to find an accomodation.
  • Quartier Latin, this site is extremely well done, but search mainly for "kots" (specifically for students).
  •, other announcements, from agencies.

Some good (not too expensive, easy to reach from the university) areas to check are:

  • center of Brussels close to the Grand Place and to the Antoine Dansaert street. The cheapest place are at the end of the Dansaert street near the Canal;
  • Saint-Gilles is close to everything with many places to rent.
  • area arond the place Flagey in Ixelles
  • Etterbeek : all the area of La Chasse
  • area around the ULB campus Solbosch in Ixelles is also nice but more expensive

You can search these areas by entering in the websites:
location appartement
1 chambre
budget : 500 EUR
Bruxelles 1000; Etterbeek 1040; Saint-Gilles 1060; Ixelles 1050

If you plan to rent a van, to help you to estimate the volume of your belongings, go to (in french).

Public Transport

In Brussels, there are three methods of public transportation: bus, tram and underground (metro). It's possible to buy daily tickest for one or ten travels, weekly tickets and montly or yearly based season tickets. To find ticket prices and the shortest trajectories connecting any two places in the city, go to the website of the Brussels public transport company,

Work opportunities

Students for Bachelor's and Master's degree have the right to work for 20 hours per week apart from their weekly school programs. PhD students, if they do not take any courses, have the right to work full-time. Jobs for students are announced via the university job service, (job @ vub. ac. be). The salary is paid on an hourly base, and varies between 5 euros up to 11 or 12 euros per hour. On the other hand, newcomers should not be very hopeful about finding a job, because, as Belgium has two official languages, French and Dutch, most candidates are asked to be bilingual. This means that in practice Belgian citizens have priority in most of the job interviews.

See further: financing your studies

Foreign student support services

The university provides extensive medical, social and other services for registered students and researchers, for little or no fee. Particularly helpful is the Foreign Students Integration Service), where you can go for all kinds of assistance and support to the very amiable and experienced Patrick Boekstijns, and the service for foreign researchers at the R&D-International Relations department. These can help you with the different legal and other issues, such as visa, health insurance, etc.


The VUB restaurant provides inexpensive, healthy meals.

Registration formalities


Steps to take

In summary, which steps should I take before coming to work in ECCO?

Let's assume that you have become interested in ECCO research, e.g. through this website, publications or lectures, and that you consider joining the group. What do you do?

After receiving several dozen applications to join ECCO over the past few years, from which about a dozen were successful, we have gathered quite some practical experience with the process and its likely pitfalls. This allows us to summarize the full procedure in the form of an "algorithm" or decision tree, with the following steps (note that some of these steps may not be necessary for you, e.g. because you have the Belgian nationality, already live in Belgium, or don't need a PhD registration).

  1.  Get to know us better: simply read different documents available on our website, study some of our research, perhaps have conversations with some of our members. If you still think that this is where you fit, go to the next step,
  2. Present yourself: send us all the material that may help us to get to know you, indicating why you would like to join. If we like what we see, we will invite you to the next step.
  3. if you plan to register as a PhD student, you can already try to collect the necessary documents to fulfill the formal university requirements, or look for financial support
  4. Come to visit us: if you come from abroad we can help you with some practical things such as providing temporary accommodation or writing invitation letters, but we normally cannot pay your travel costs. If your and our impression is still positive, you have been accepted to join ECCO, and you can use the occasion of your visit to Brussels to submit the necessary documents to the university. However, these documents can also be submitted by mail later.
  5. Wait for the admission letter that allows you to register as a PhD student. This can take a couple of months, depending on the period (slower in summer) and the faculty to which you apply.
  6. if you are not an EU citizen, apply for a student visa at the Belgian consulate in your country, submitting the admission letter and some further required documents.
  7. once you are allowed to reside in the country, move to Brussels, where we will try to arrange temporary accommodation for you, while you look for an apartment.
  8. register in person as a PhD student at the VUB, and visit the different student support services that will help you with health insurance, residence papers, etc.
  9. start working in ECCO