PhD Position in Existential Suffering and Geriatric Depression

Catholic University of Leuven Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences


Meaning & Existence is a collaboration between researchers of the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences that focuses on the existential layer of human life. It aims to gain and deepen our insight in how people cope with their ultimate concerns, how they try to find meaning in life, and how existential challenges influence their psychological and physical health and well-being. Based on research, Meaning & Existence creates a vision on health care that includes the existential aspects of life and strives to develop concrete meaning-focused applications and existential therapeutic interventions. Meaning Research Late Life is a sub-team of Meaning & Existence that focuses on existential concerns in frail older adults. It aims to conduct fundamental and applied research that informs care policy and offers training and education for nursing professionals.


Our world is facing an unseen growth of the older population. Currently, 125 million people are aged 80 years or older and this proportion is expected to increase further. This demographic shift has been paralleled by a dramatic growth in nursing home residents. Alarming high prevalence rates of depression are reported in nursing home residents which is twice as high as in community-dwelling older adults. This poses major challenges for elderly care professionals and a huge burden on residents themselves. Simultaneously with reports of high depressive burden are reports of nursing home residents struggling with existential concerns. In contrast with the reports on depressed symptoms, these reports of existential struggling have received little attention in psycho-gerontology, psychology and nursing studies. Existential concerns are described as fundamental issues of human life such as meaning of one's life, life's finality, and the fundamental aloneness in life. Difficulties to cope with these concerns can result in existential suffering and distress visible in feelings of despair, hopelessness, and a desire to die. Understanding existential distress has become a focus of research in cancer care and palliative care but is understudied in the nursing home context. This is surprising since existential themes like life's finality, social isolation, and loss of meaning are pertinent in a nursing home context.

"At the edge of existence" is an FWO-funded project that aims to clarify the experience of existential suffering of nursing home residents and aims to unravel how existential suffering is related to (the development) of geriatric depression. The project combines qualitative (phenomenological and cross-case) studies with quantitative (longitudinal and daily measurement) studies including the perspective of the resident and the perspective of the care professionals. The project is a collaboration between Jessie Dezutter (psychology, KU Leuven), Siebrecht Vanhooren (psychology, KU Leuven) and Ingela Beck (health studies, Kristianstad University Sweden). For some of the studies,collaboration with Gorill Haugan (nursing studies, NTNU Norway), Helena Larsson(health studies, Kristianstad University Sweden) and Suvi Saarelainen  (theology, University East Finland).


  • We are looking for an enthusiastic and highly motivated candidate with a Master degree in a relevant discipline (psychology, gerontology, health studies, or equivalent).  Final-year students who will have obtained their Master degree by July 2021 are encouraged to apply.
  • Candidates have an genuine interest in the experiences of frail older adults, are motivated for interaction with older adults and their carers, and are open to reflect on existential themes.
  • Candidates are team-players that are willing to join other ongoing studies and share their expertise.
  • Candidates have excellent organizational skills and strong academic writing skills.
  • As the PhD student will work with nursing home residents, candidates must master the Dutch language.
  • Experience with quantitative analysis is a prerequisite, experience with qualitative analysis is an asset.
  • Furtherassets are a creative mind, good problem solving skills and a collaborative and collegial attitude.


  • Full-time PhD-position for 4 years (based on a successful intermediate evaluation at KU Leuven after 2 years).
  • An inspiring and stimulating research environment with a collegial atmosphere.
  • Salary is competitive and in accordance with the University salary scales for PhD students.
  • Opportunities for training, education and career development via the Leuven International Doctoral School for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

  • Possibility to contribute to better elderly care through research


Meer informatie is te verkrijgen bij prof. dr. Jessie Dezutter, tel.: +32 16 32 61 27, mail:

Solliciteren voor deze vacature kan tot en met 10/05/2021 via onze
KU Leuven wil een omgeving creëren waarin alle talenten maximaal tot ontplooiing kunnen komen, ongeacht gender, leeftijd, culturele herkomst, nationaliteit of functiebeperking. Hebt u vragen in verband met toegankelijkheid of ondersteuningsmogelijkheden, dan kan u ons contacteren via
  • Employment percentage: Voltijds
  • Location: Leuven
  • Apply before: May 10, 2021
  • Tags: Psychologie

In your application, please refer to


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