Personal story researcher The Netherlands Institute for Social Research

Name: Joep Schaper
Master’s degree: Political Science at University of Amsterdam
PhD degree: Political Science at University of Amsterdam
Current position: Researcher at The Netherlands Institute for Social Research (Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau)

Ambition: What was your ambition in terms of career perspective, during your PhD?

I liked working on my Master’s thesis and my work as a researcher at The Netherlands News Monitor, so I saw my PhD as an opportunity to continue doing research. Understanding the world a little bit better by doing research always attracted me. I have never had a specific goal when it comes to my career, but I have two things I find important in my work life: keep learning and enjoyment.

Difficulties: Which uncertainties did you face?

Learning was never the problem, but during my PhD there were certain things I started enjoying less: working by myself most of the time, the focus on theoretical and methodological contributions (over societal relevance), teaching, and job uncertainty.

Helping hand: What helped you in taking the career step?

I decided to look for jobs outside of academia. I made lists of organizations I might find interesting. I started with a broad scope: from consultancy firms, corporations I like, to government institutions such as the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP), the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR), and the Dutch Research Council (NWO).

I asked around in my network and started talking to people who were doing this kind of work. This way I could check if I had the right impression, what the possibilities were and how I could approach the step from academia to jobs outside.

I learned how to translate my experience as a PhD to the outside world and got to know the names of more organizations in my field of interest. In the end I applied for a vacancy at the Netherlands Institute for Social Research that was close to my profile. I got the job using some of the application tricks I learned from consultants I had spoken to in my exploration of my next career step.

Personal growth: Why does this job fit you?

I’m still doing research, but now I work in teams, societal relevance is our first priority and there is no teaching involved. Personal development and a healthy work-life balance are also well discussed at the Netherlands Institute for Social Research.

I have grown in talking with external stakeholders to learn from them and to make sure that my research relates to the debates in politics and government. Bridging the gap between research and public policy is of vital importance to us and an exciting new skill to learn.

The takeaway: What can others learn from your story?

Talk to people about your career. Talk to your friends, your family, your supervisor (even if this may feel scary), and professionals in the field you aspire to work in. It helps you to figure out which aspects you like and dislike in your current work and what you want or don’t want for your next step. Ask around about organizations and jobs you might be interested in. People in the field you want to enter know better how to approach your transition and which other interesting organizations are out there. And it is perfectly okay if plans change, you’ll find your way.

Personal story researcher The Netherlands Institute for Social Research

Name: Lex Thijssen
Master’s degree: Social and Cultural Science at Radboud University Nijmegen
PhD degree: Sociology at Utrecht University
Current position: Researcher at The Netherlands Institute for Social Research (Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau)

Ambition: What was your ambition in terms of career perspective, during your PhD?

My fascination for doing social scientific research started during my Sociology studies in Nijmegen. I was hoping for a career in academia and I was very glad when I could start my PhD-research in the field of racial and ethnical discrimination in the labour market. Towards the end of my PhD more and more people asked me: your research gives most insightful results, but what exactly can we do to combat discrimination? A good question of course but one that I couldn’t really answer myself. Unfortunately, academia itself does not pay enough attention to these questions and I realized that my interest was exactly on that cutting edge of science, politics and policy. Learning more about what works (and what doesn’t work) and related problems of creating support for and implementing solutions were important incentives to me to start looking outside of academia.

Difficulties: Which uncertainties did you face?

My PhD-contract at the University of Utrecht ended in September 2019 and I started my new job at the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP) in March 2020. And although my search for a job outside of academia didn’t take long, I encountered self-doubt and tough competition. You do not only compete with other qualified PhD’s, but also with others who already have experience as a postdoc and/or as a (policy) researcher. Maybe I was a bit naive, but should I have known about this competition I would have explored this career path earlier and even applied earlier than I did.

Helping hand: What helped you in taking the career step?

During my PhD I was able to link with policy and with policy makers in different ways. For two years in a row I visited - amongst other things - the SZW-wetenschapsdag organized by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment. On these days, the Ministry invites PhD’s to present their research and creates opportunities to connect with other PhD’s and policy makers active in your discipline. I presented my research at one of these occasions which was a very worthy experience and it also gave me the opportunity to expand my network.

Furthermore, in response to one of my Dutch publications that attracted attention in the national media, I was invited to talk about my results with policy makers and societal organizations aimed at combating discrimination and promoting inclusion. By being visible in Dutch magazines, national media and/or social media (twitter mostly) you expand your chance of being referred to as an expert.

And last but not least it is recommended to plot the relevant professional unions within your discipline and contact them.

Personal growth: Why does this job fit you?

I’ve experienced personal growth in different ways. At the SCP, the dissemination of your research results is very important. More than at universities your research aims at making an impact on policy and practice. Already in the start-up phase of your research project you are asked to plot the relevant stakeholders, their strategic positions and interests, and how you want to disseminate your research results (standard publication and/or essay, use of infographics, internal/external presentations, digital platforms, etc.). I found and find it really stimulating to discuss the publishing strategy with my colleagues from the communication department.

Another asset of working at the SCP is working in teams. Of course teamwork comes with more meetings, but it also enables you to start bigger projects faster than on your own and it gives you the opportunity to learn from each other. The different research backgrounds of colleagues working together on a project also enables you to approach societal issues from different angles.

At the SCP there are many opportunities for broadening your knowledge. As an example: last year I was involved in projects concerning employment discrimination and social inequality - subjects close to my expertise - but I also worked on a relatively new subjects to me such as social cohesion and over-indebtedness.

Take away: What can others learn from your story?

Making a career move outside of academia doesn’t come easy. There is a lot of competition both in and outside academia. Make sure to keep yourself updated with important policy developments in the fields of your interest. Pay attention to policy in your dissertation - for instance promising policy initiatives or promising stakeholders. Try to broaden your network towards policy makers of your interest already during your PhD. Maybe this will lead to promising cooperation and/or an interesting publication on the impact of policy choices or policy interventions.

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