Time management: Finding the balance between energy, inspiration and just getting shit done

by Marije Blok| Reading Time: 5 Minutes

To be honest: it’s not always that easy to combine a fulltime job in a non-academic organisation with a PhD project. Or the other way around. Instead of one (PhD) project, I manage five team members, working on eight (international) research projects. All of these projects come with their own partners, tasks, and deadlines. Nevertheless, so far I survived 3,5 years, with satisfying results and progress. Currently I’m in a period of transition. After five years at the National Foundation for the Elderly, a charity combatting loneliness among vulnerable older adults, I’m about to start at Leyden Academy, a knowledge institute on the topic of ageing. In this transition, time management turned out to be a welcome skill. Although I have already quite some experiences, the course I followed did make me realize once again how important it is for a researcher to keep this skill on point. I’m happy to share my take-away’s with you. 

1.     Priority over time

“’No time’ normally means ‘no priority’”, a friend of mine uses to say – which in Dutch sounds even stronger. This course made me realize again that spending my time on things with priority, provide me energy whereas spending – or should I say wasting? – time on things without priority lead to stress and unhealthy pressure. I was already familiar with the matrix supporting to decide whether a task is important and/or urgent. The course triggered me, however, to define what important actually means to me. I started to recall my goals for this month– I monthly define my main focus – and checked whether a new task would contribute to these goals or not. Additionally, distinguished whether something was important in general, or for me personally. Sometimes the job was important, but not necessarily for me. 

2.    Itrinsic motivation over mood

This take-away is related to my first learning. When I define my yearly or monthly goals, I always start to reflect on why I exactly started all this in the first place. In my case this is particularly important, as I don’t do my PhD project for the university or anyone else: it’s all my own motivation and I could easily quit if I’m not motivated anymore. So, when I doubt my motivation, I start to recall myself: ‘Starting my PhD was my dream and gives me the great opportunity to specialize in the fascinating field of older adults and to valorise all the work I do.’ Luckily, I’m not often in this mood. But getting the bigger picture clear, helps me to stay motivated. Not only about the non-attractive PhD tasks, also in my ‘regular’ job. My regular job is also part of how I would love to conduct my research. Sometimes I rather would spend all my time on my PhD but I’m aware that a fulltime PhD position wouldn’t have satisfied me as much as this double role. Yes, and that also implies writing assignments on Saturdays every now and then.

3.    Pragmatic over Perfect

 ‘Ask someone without time to do the job and you can be sure it’s getting done’, is a saying I love. And I often even apply it to my own research project: planning a task when I don’t have so much time. Although I’m not the type of person performing very well under pressure, for some tasks this is the best way. Some jobs don’t need so much time and inspiration, they just need to be done. For instance, writing a proposal (or assignment / preliminary analyses / looking up some literature…) in order to get access to my data is obligatory, but this doesn’t necessarily mean I should spend all my time, inspiration and energy on it. Yes, in the end it was a useful exercise to get more insight in my own research, but some steps of the process felt rather bureaucratic. 

4.    Inspiration over Discipline

I’m happy to be blessed with a sufficient dose of self-discipline – I need it a lot in my full agenda. I have all types of routines and schedules on when, how, and where I work to get my tasks done. This discipline is not only displayed in my work, also in my leisure time. I only rarely skip a Monday morning run. During the course I realized how important these moments are – although I also feel guilty sometimes if this is at the cost of work. But is the latter actually the case? Sitting behind my desk early every morning doesn’t guarantee inspiration or productivity. The best ideas (with regard to the set-up of a study protocol, the title of a paper, the response to a colleague who annoys me) pop up during my runs. Especially as these on the road time has decreased in lock-down (no train, no bike to work), I really need to keep this space. Another learning: sometimes I totally planned to work on a certain piece of a paper, but suddenly get the inspiration for something else. I learned that’s it’s okay – even a must – to be flexible. Especially when I’m able to mainly work on important non-urgent tasks, it’s okay to postpone a task to do something else first. 

Last but not least

Plan in only 80% of your time – was recommended during the course. Earlier this month I read something similar in a blog on time management: Plan your tasks and then double the time planned for this. Both reminded me to be more realistic in what to achieve. Especially with the take-aways in mind, this will definitely help me. Not only to be more productive, but also to be more relaxed. I’m writing this blogpost on a Saturday. Because I’m intrinsically motivated, I have the inspiration after a run through the snow this morning. It contributes to my goals and I’m pragmatic: it just want it to be done, today. And yes, it was on my to-do list yesterday as well. But that list was not realistic. Instead of 80%, I planned in 120% of my time. Now I realize this, I’m fine with it and with my own time management skills – including the pitfalls.  

Marije Blok (MSc) is an (external) PhD candidate studying ageing and technology at the Sociology department (VU). She works as a researcher at Leyden Academy for Vitality and Ageing, studying the use of narratives to optimize the quality of residence care for older adults. Here she will share the experiences on her journey through science and society.

Structural unpaid overtime as ‘part of the job’ – don’t buy it!

by Yvonne La Grouw | Reading Time: 3-4 Minutes /

Structural unpaid overtime and wellbeing

On the Alarm Day on the sixth of April 2021, Dutch universities protested against structural unpaid overtime. The increasing scarcity in higher education and research had led to extreme work pressure and strongly influences academics’ wellbeing. In fact, the problematic wellbeing of academics is a recurring and almost normalized topic, as if it is just a part of the job that we need to accept. 

Structural unpaid overtime is a persisting problem in academia, in the first place due to increasing student numbers and decreasing funding. Universities are expected to provide top-level research and education and therefore, academics need to work harder for less. This is an essential problem that needs to be fixed in political decision-making arenas.

Logo of the Alarm Day 2021

The romantic myth of overtime and overachievement 

What can we as young scholars do, in daily working life, if we want to contribute to a system-change? I believe we need to change the romantic ‘overachieving’ academic work culture.

During the last four years, I observed a complex organizational culture of on the one hand being bothered by extreme working hours and lurking burnouts, and on the other romanticizing and ironically joking about it. The latter seems to be a coping mechanism to deal with the former. Check for example social media accounts for sharing experiences with the burden of being an academic, for example Dr. Exhausted and Panicking Postdoc. I haven’t found accounts for Burdened Bankers or Coping Consultants.

Although humor is the best de-stressor and acknowledgement of your struggles are comforting and therefore helpful, this type of discourse is risky as well. It risks normalizing and sometimes even romanticizing the problems of the job. It frames unpaid overtime as something we have to live through, actually, something we have to do.

Implicitly, the discourse tells us that if we do not work overtime until we are exhausted or panicking, we lack ambition, perseverance, relevance, resilience, and can therefore no be successful. The concept of ‘humble bragging’ may also apply here: some scholars are happy to share that their life exists of 24/7 work, work, work, and therewith implicitly tell us how their working hours reflect their success. It is true that some scholars happily practice the 24/7 workweek, but for a healthy working environment, this should not be the norm. It seems fairer and healthier to do the work you are actually paid for (your fte).

Between optimism and anxiety

Elsewhere, I explained how senior scholars put junior scholars under pressure through ‘cruel optimism’ (Berlant, 2008) through motivating them to optimistically pursue top publications, while it might run against their own wellbeing and future career perspectives (La Grouw, 2019). The romantic myth of overtime appears a similar cruel optimistic phenomenon. 

Ironic jokes and humble bragging create a double feeling of optimism and anxiety. Optimism will motive you to persevere in doing unpaid overtime (I can do this and will generate success and acknowledgement!), and anxiety will create stressed feelings that you need to do more (unpaid) overtime to be successful (it is never enough, I am always too slow!), just as your colleagues. A persistent cruel optimistic stance towards overtime is problematic, because it blurs the boundaries of your requirements and tasks, contributes to feelings of losing grip on the job and therefore feeds feelings of being overwhelmed and unqualified.

How can we break with this social norm of (showing off with) overtime? 

Foucault would argue that resistance is key. The Alarm Day is, therefore, a great initiative, as it focuses on reducing the tasks per academic, which will help in reducing work pressure. Individual scholars can resist by breaking with the romantic culture of overworked academics. We need to be brave and set boundaries and stop participating in the challenge of ‘who used the least holiday hours this year?’. 

When the workload is too much, discuss what you can do less. If you are not allowed to do less, delivery lower quality, and communicate this to your supervisor as a consequence of the high workload. I know this is tough, as our work is understood as a representation of the self, and again creates fear of not being successful enough for academia. Still, it is important to take a step back from this idea of the perfect self and a step forward to a healthier and happier work environment. Especially for PhDs, I believe a healthier, happier and relaxed you will lead to more creative and innovative work.

A crucial element of these acts of resistance is supervisors and colleagues respecting and accepting these boundaries. Acts of resistance of young, female, people of color and/or LGBTQI employees might be less likely respected than that of their older, male, white, straight and/or cis-gendered colleagues. Therefore, it is highly important to be attentive to acts of resistance of our colleagues and support them.

Unpaid overtime is, of course, okay as a necessary exception now and then (although paid overtime would be a refreshing alternative). Unpaid overtime is not an exhausting performance that deserves cheering, so don’t buy it!

Yvonne La Grouw is a PhD Candidate at the department of Political Science and Public Administration. She uses a critical, actor-level lens to study decision-making processes in healthcare and social policy settings, feminist perspectives and academic cultures.


Berlant, L. (2008). Cruel Optimism: On Marx, Loss and the Senses. New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics, 63: 33-51. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543067001043

La Grouw, Y. (2019). Seniors, vermijd wreed optimisme en gebruik je positie. Beleid en Maatschappij, 46(1), 164-169. https://doi.org/10.5553/BenM/138900692019046001012

Co-creation, older adults & Covid: six learnings

by Marije Blok| Reading Time: 3-4 Minutes

We would have loved so much to add it to our New Year’s resolutions: innovating together with older people – like in the good old days. But after almost a year with COVID, it doesn’t look like we can go back to normal yet. So… postponing again? That would be a shame! With a little flexibility and creativity, more is possible than you might think. Flexibility when it comes to the older adults; the methodology as well as the innovations itself. I am happy to share six learnings from the past year! 

The older adults

1.     Think close

Instead of recruiting participants, I engaged in a conversation with my own grandmother about how she had experienced the process after my grandpa passed away – something that, as a granddaughter I was reluctant to do at first and as a researcher I was reluctant to burden her with. Not only did my grandma not mind at all, it also resulted in a nice personal conversation.

You often don’t need to search far for good stories. The threshold for diving into the depths with close others is sometimes higher than with strangers, but it is worth it and saves a lot of (travel) time.

2.    Join what already exists

It was not easy: recruiting individual older adults for a focus group. Moreover, participants had to meet several conditions and had to be willing to come to our office in these insecure times. The solution? We looked to join an existing bereavement group.

Joining an existing group has many advantages. The group is already complete; people know and trust each other; location is already arranged; meetings are already in the agenda of participants and the (COVID) rules of the external organization can be followed, which makes everything a lot easier.

3.    Nothing new under the sun

Older people remain older people. For example, one lady showed up an hour early in an online group session while my colleague and I were still making preparations. Still, older people like to arrive on time. Another lady called me the day before her participation in an online test because she was in need for some social talk. Even, or perhaps especially, in COVID times, social contact is often an important motivation to participate in research.

Much has changed. Yet much has also remained the same. Do not expect older people to suddenly behave completely differently online. So, don’t do that yourself either. 

The methodology

4.    Don’t wait

A planned focus group was replaced by individual phone interviews in order to get to know our target group. Crying, a lady who had recently lost her husband, answered the phone. The anonymity of the phone made her feel safe in her vulnerability. We would never have achieved this extra layer of depth in a focus group session.

Of course, it is a pity if you cannot carry out the activities as planned. But what a pity even more to wait without doing anything? You can learn so much in the meantime!

5.    Learning by (just) doing

‘Are older people able to do that, online research?’ Why not just try? My test-user had a tablet, but meeting me through TEAMS, sharing the screen, opening the app with camera and microphone, was too much to ask for. Both for her and for the tablet. But she was clever – and so were we. With the camera on and the lady in front of the mirror, we could still look at her screen. And by calling her by phone, we could even hear each other.

Trying something new requires creativity and perseverance. But it is very rewarding! Not just feedback on a new idea, but also insight into the research method itself: win-win.

The innovation

6.    A flexible service design

We tested a toolkit to support older people in sharing stories. The pilot, which resembled the real service as much as possible, consisted of some online activities and two physical sessions. Just before the second session, the COVID measures were tightened. The pilot was put on hold.

If this crisis has taught us anything, it is the importance of (user-friendly) digital solutions for older adults.  So if the implementation of our innovations needs to be postponed because of social restrictions,  are these then actually ready for the new normal? The new normal requires innovations with a flexible service design in which a group activity can easily be exchanged with one-on-one sessions, online or telephone activity; in which family members or caregivers play a role, if we have difficulty meeting the elderly; or by having the intervention fit in with activities that continue even with limitations, such as therapy or a care trajectory.

I am convinced that we will only come up with more sustainable solutions if we continue to involve older people in our research in creative ways. I am curious about your most important lesson from the past year!

Marije Blok (MSc) is an (external) PhD candidate studying ageing and technology at the Sociology department (VU). She works as a researcher at Leyden Academy for Vitality and Ageing, studying the use of narratives to optimize the quality of residence care for older adults. Here she will share the experiences on her journey through science and society.

Hackers of Science: Lessons from interdisciplinary science in a Hackathon

by Myrthe Reuver & Nicolas Mattis | Reading Time: 7 Minutes

Note: This blog is based on the hackathon work by the authors as well as Marijn Sax, Felicia Loecherbach and Sanne Vrijenhoek during the Media Hack Day Hackathon on Diverse Recommenders on 9-10 October 2020 . Felicia wrote a personal blog about her experiences at this hackathon as well.

Who doesn’t want to be a hacker? The word Hackathon, which combines the words hacker and marathon, might evoke images of nerdy looking guys in hoodies, coding away with green letters on a large black screen. However, we were hackers not conforming to this stereotype: our most experienced programmers were the women in the team, and we were not primarily coders but problem-solvers from different scientific domains (from communication science, philosophy, computer science and computational linguistics). Moreover, we did not hack banks, governments or elections. We hacked a societal problem: a lack of diversity in news recommendation, in a 24-hour hackathon organized by public broadcaster NPO! The public broadcaster has their own “Netflix”-like recommendation system: a video portal where users can watch public TV programs and documentaries. With “diverse recommendation”, the NPO meant users of this system would get recommended different items than ones only based on their personalized preferences. This means, for instance, users getting recommendations on different topics, genres, and ideas than their usual preference of NPO videos.

This is especially important because non-diverse (news) recommender systems can actually damage democracy, leading to online filter bubbles or echo chambers. For instance, personalization of online news can lead to the user only consuming news that immediately interests them: about football, or only about one perspective on the U.S. elections. Such a limited perspective harms the deliberative aspect of a functioning democracy, where different perspectives and ideas should be heard and debated.

We attempted to diversify the NPO Start recommendation system in a 24-hour hackathon and learned much and more not only about diverse recommendation, but also about science and interdisciplinary collaboration!

Why is diversity in recommender systems important? 
Diversity in recommender systems is a ‘hot topic’ nowadays. You might know it as the “fabeltjesfuik” recently discussed in the Dutch television show ‘Zondag met Lubach’, or as talk about Filter Bubbles (Pariser, 2011) and echo chambers (Sunstein, 2009). A system that only gives users more of the same content can lead to polarization or a very limited perspective on current issues. This can be dangerous for democratic participation in a society (Helberger, 2019). For instance, a sports fan only gets more recommended news articles or videos on sports, but new topics and other ideas are excluded from this user’s news consumption.

As a public broadcaster, the NPO is ultimately driven by the public value of diversity and providing a public discussion space. And from this perspective, it is not hard to see the need for diverse news exposure. Only when we, as members of a society, are aware of the different voices and opinions that are out there we can constructively discuss and decide on the best way forward.

Therefore, NPO asked 5 teams to design a diverse recommender system for their video platform NPO Plus. Instead of getting more recommended news based on one’s personal preferences, users should have the opportunity to encounter diverse content. We participated as team “Geeky Griffins”, an interdisciplinary team of scientists (PhDs and postdocs from the VU and UvA) from the fields of computational linguistics, philosophy, and communication science, and took on the challenge of a 24-hour hackathon.

And as an interdisciplinary team of five junior researchers, we did not just hack recommender system diversity. We also hacked the scientific disciplines! We identified some lessons we learned from working with different disciplines on one complex topic. Is such a disciplinary shake-up perhaps the answer to complex problems like recommender system diversity? We feel like such an approach would also work well for other complex societal problems, where technical, philosophical, and experimental knowledge is all needed.

Our team logo

What did we do during the hackathon?
After hearing the word “hackathon”, you might think of other kinds of hackers who write complex computer programmes, and ‘hacking’ taking place mostly behind computer screens and in code. The reality is more complex though: hackathons can be about any kind of non-computational problem. These range from problems in wildlife preservation to education, and non-programmers make also valuable contributions to a team. The idea of a hackathon is to explore a problem, and build a prototypical solution, in a very short time frame. Teams compete against each other and present their solutions to a jury at the end of the Hackathon. The best solution (and team) wins!

Usually, a hackathon is in one location where food and drinks are provided so ‘hackers’ can focus on the problem at hand, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic we had a virtual hackathon from our homes. This was a strange experience for us: food was delivered to our house so we could spend all our time working on the problem, for which NPO provided video data such as subtitles and metadata on the videos. We worked throughout the night in our separate rooms and houses, and only connected through video chats in Microsoft Teams. This was especially strange because for most of the 5 team members, this was the first time we met each other or worked together. In 24 hours, we not only got to know each other’s preferred working styles, but also experienced quite some stress together.

This hackathon was like an intense hazing period for our “Rethinking News Algorithms” project. For this NWO-funded project, the authors of this blog and their fellow hackathon teammates intend to work together during the coming 4 years. In 24 hours, we already experienced all kinds of common pitfalls of interdisciplinary science, from miscommunication to the threat of not communicating at all.

What did we learn?
Our virtual video-calls started with mapping our respective strengths, with each of us coming from different fields. This was particularly valuable, as the problem at hand involved unique challenges that required the perspective and know-how from more than just one academic discipline. For example, when it comes to designing a diverse recommender, there is the technical programming perspective (‘how’), but also the philosophical and ethical perspective (‘why’ are we doing this). We feel such an approach might be more useful to other complex societal problems as well.

In addition, when tackling complex societal issues, the participation of (non-academic) stake-holders is essential. Throughout the hackathon day, we were able to talk with experts (such as data scientists and programmers) working with the current NPO recommendation system. Their ideas on, and terminology about, diversity in recommender systems were not the ones common in academic research. However, these terms and ideas were closer to how our designed systems would be used in non-academic contexts. This meant speaking to these non-academic stakeholders was especially useful!

Screenshot from the Award ceremony

We decided to split into two teams, one working on the technical implementation and the other on theoretical argumentation of our ideas. While this approach played into everyone’s strengths, it also created a certain disconnect. Due to our set-up the theory and tech were treated as two separate parts of the project. This was something that we only realized in hindsight and we might have wanted to avoid. We had some meetings where everyone came together during the day. That was nice. However, during long stretches we made choices on our ideas without leveraging advantages of each other’s expertise. This might have been less than ideal. Our takeaway is that the connection and collaboration is the most important to this interdisciplinary project and should be at the core of such projects on complex societal problems.

Our diverse understandings of science and recommendations were useful for solving the problem. One example was how to explain the recommender’s diversification to users. Should we visualize cluster and/or topic distance between items, which is a more computational approach? Or should we keep things simple by merely providing user-friendly content suggestions, because offering a technical visualization might overwhelm users? This latter idea came from the communication scientists in our team. We also extensively discussed the implications of our definitions and approaches thanks to the philosopher. In the end, all these ideas came together in our prototype. Our idea consisted of (among other aspects) a “peek behind the curtain” idea, where users would be enticed to see what other users and perhaps famous people are seeing, and embedding the subtitles of every video in a multi-dimensional space to distance between videos was visible and calculatable.

In the end, there were some differences in approaches and ideas, but our final product contained aspects of each of them. We presented our prototype to the jury, consisting of experts in recommender systems at the NPO and at Media Perspectives, and to our own surprise our team won! The jury was impressed with our story, where we put the user experience central but also used the newest computational techniques.

We recently heard other good news: the NPO is possibly interested in further developing our concept! This strengthened us in our idea: a shake-up of traditional scientific disciplines, and involving people with different perspectives, could help solve complex societal problems such as recommender system diversity!


  • Helberger, N. 2019. On the democratic role of news recommenders. Digital Journalism, 7(8), 993-1012.
  • Pariser, E. 2011. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. London: Viking/Penguin Press.
  • Sunstein, C. R. 2009. Republic.com 2.0. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Myrthe Reuver (MA MSc) is a PhD Candidate in Computational Linguistics at CLTL at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU). She researches how to automatically capture news diversity in recommendation systems in the UvA/VU project “Rethinking News Algorithms”. One of her interests is combining knowledge from linguistics and other fields in the humanities and social sciences with new techniques related to machine learning, AI, and data analysis. If you want to know more, you can follow her on Twitter.

Nicolas Mattis is a PhD candidate at the department of Communication Science. He studies news selection and exposure diversity in news recommender systems. His research is part of the interdisciplinary project “Rethinking News Algorithms: Nudging users towards diverse news exposure”.

What we can learn from older adults in this crisis

by Marije Blok| Reading Time: 5 Minutes

What we can learn from older adults in this crisis

Whereas in February we were still joking about the situation in China – only one month later we found ourselves in the midst of a global crisis. Fierce restrictions and containment made our world smaller overnight, forcing us to make the best of our daily life in a different way than we were used to. We needed coping strategies to deal with all of that, but no one seemed to have any previous experience we could take lessons from.

No one? No. There ís a group we can learn from in this extraordinary time: the older adults. This population, in this crisis often considered a vulnerable group, can be seen as a source of inspiration, as older adults already have experience in dealing with limitations in life.

I’m referring here to what is known as the paradox of ageing. Although older people are often confronted with physical, mental, and cognitive challenges, they score surprisingly high on quality of life. Theories in the field of social and emotional ageing describe the coping strategies older people follow to ensure these levels of quality of life, despite decline (Charles & Carstensen, 2009). Coping strategies we all can benefit from in this exceptional era.

Forced to choose 
In the crisis, we suddenly had to choose and select. We were asked to only travel with public transport if strictly necessary, and only to meet-up with a limited number of friends. Striking – and somewhat confusing –  was the RIVM’s call to limit social contacts to only one sex buddy; a message that was already revised shortly.

Whereas most of us were overtaken by these restrictions, the older ones among us were already familiar with limitations before the crisis, as both their energy level and time left are limited. The socio-emotional selectivity theory (Carstensen et al, 1999) explains that older adults are particularly good in choosing and selecting. They focus on most valuable relations – family members, close friends – and activities in life. And guess what? It turns out to be a successful strategy to maintain wellbeing.

Early in the crisis, my grandfather passed away. We had no other choice than only invite the closest relatives to his funeral. After the disappointment, we embraced this extraordinary setting. It was more intimate than we could ever have achieved in a packed church service. I learned to appreciate the restriction, as it helped us to focus on most important things and persons in life.

Alternative strategies
For almost everything that had been totally normal in daily life, we suddenly needed alternative strategies. Skype meetings, walking routes, queue management, disinfection routines. Whereas some of us dealt very well with it, others had more difficulties in getting used to new strategies such as working from home.

New strategies for older adults? Been there done that! The theory of Selection Optimization & Compensation (Baltes & Baltes, 1990) explains how older adults, more than younger ones, are good in finding alternatives. When getting older, they continuously have to deal with physical and cognitive decline and restrictions. Although the COVID restrictions are of a different kind, older adults seem to know how to handle this. Selection refers to selecting the relevant goals that, realistically, can be achieved in the particular circumstances. Optimization is defined as optimizing the own capabilities to achieve these goals. Compensation includes the alternative strategies where objectives cannot be achieved in the usual way.

Being able to develop compensation strategies can be very beneficial these days. Personally, I needed the crisis to say goodbye to my gym. I’ve become a happy runner over the previous months, but I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have happened without the gym closing its doors. My grandmother, instead, easily switched to the church service on her Smart TV, because at her age she didn’t always visit the service live anyway.

Everything under control
Control, what’s that? Over the previous months, we have lived our lives week by week. We started counting down towards April 7, soon that became 1 Juno. At first only the terraces would open, then the restaurants and bars followed. Will my appointment at the hairdresser take place? My vacation? Most of us found it hard to accept this uncertainty.

According to the lifespan theory of control (Heckhausen & Schulz, 1995) older adults are better in accepting things they cannot influence or change. Due to cognitive and physical decline, they are more used to this. My team at the National Foundation for the Elderly has worked hard setting-up a corona panel, consisting of 500 older adults whom we asked for their opinion on crisis related issues. Remarkable was that the eldest group, aged 75+, turned out to feel less mentally effected than the younger group, who indicated to feel more lonely than before. We may explain this by the fact that older adults already before the crisis learned to accept things they cannot change. Facing age-related decline, they got used to adapting their expectations in daily life.  

Many of us have successfully developed new habits during this crisis. Others are still doubting and considering whether and how they want to go back to their – stressful- pre-COVID lifestyle. Older adults learn us that Fear Of Missing Out won’t make us happy but focussing on most important things in life will do so instead. So, the next time you don’t know how to handle a crisis? Ask some older people (stay safe at six feet :)) to share their experiences. Because most of all we need to do this together.


  • Baltes PB & Baltes MM. (1990). Selective optimization with compensation. In: Successful Aging: Perspectives from the Behavioral Sciences. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Carstensen LL., Isaacowitz D. & Charles ST (1999). Taking time seriously: a theory of socioemotional selectivity. American Psychology Journal, 1999 54(3), 165–81.
  • Charles, ST & Carstensen LL. (2009). Social and Emotional Aging. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2009. 61:383–409
  • Heckhausen J & Schulz R (1995). A Life-Span Theory of Control. Psychological Review 1995, 2(2), 283-304.

Marije Blok (MSc) is an (external) PhD candidate studying ageing and technology at the Sociology department (VU) and a project manager in the Innovation department at the National Foundation for the Elderly (Nationaal Ouderenfonds). Here she will share the experiences on her journey through science and society.

The myth of the ivory tower


Bubbleby Rosanne Anholt | Reading Time: 3-4 Minutes /

In the social sciences, we often obtain our data from people. We may collect opinions, experiences or understandings from different groups of people through various methods, like surveys, observations or interviews. As researchers, we have the responsibility to do our research participants no harm, and to behave ethically and with integrity towards them. Often however, there are others involved in our research – in addition to research participants – and we have a responsibility towards them, too.

To protect those who allow us to interview them, partake in our focus group discussions or document their lives in our photovoice projects, we obtain informed consent, ensure confidentiality and put data protection measures in place. Besides research participants however, we may encounter a range of other people at various stages of the research process. Fixers, for example, who help us arrange interviews with people we might otherwise not have access to, or interpreters and translators, who help us understand our research participants. There may also be student-assistants, who transcribe our interviews, take over our teaching duties during our fieldwork, or accompany us in order to gain some research experience. Sometimes, we seem to forget that the “do no harm” principle applies just as much to them as to the people we interview or observe – of which the following true story is a deplorable example.


During one of my fieldwork trips for my PhD research on how humanitarian and development practitioners interpret the idea of “resilience” and translate it into practice, I am hosted by a young Syrian who works for a humanitarian organization. One morning, as he and I are having chai (tea) outside in a hesitant Spring sun, he tells me about a time he was hosting a student from a European university who was studying the experiences of Syrian refugees for his master thesis research project.

Without any Arabic speaking skills nor access to the Syrian refugee communities, the student asked my Syrian host to help him out. They agreed on a decent compensation, after which my host organized more than a dozen interviews with different Syrian families both inside and outside the country’s different refugee camps, as well as acting as an interpreter during the interviews. When the student left the country, he promised to transfer the payment for the hours of work my host put in and the expenses he made – like travel costs and small gifts for the Syrian families participating in the study.

In the few months after the student left, there were different excuses to delay the payment. From bank accounts allegedly not working, to money running low due to hospital expenses made for a family member. The student even went as far to propose using his university department’s charity fund on the condition that my host could produce a counterfeit company name and registered address – the illegality of which could have put my host in real danger. My host declined, and when the student stopped replying to his messages, he eventually gave up.

If we fail to practice our research in a principled manner, as this student has, we may cause harm to the people we work with. We also risk discrediting the scholarly community, and ultimately put people’s trust in researchers and their willingness to work with them at stake. Transparency is one important measure we can take in order to be accountable to the people we engage with throughout the research process. This means, for example, to negotiate a contract when outsourcing research-related activities. We may also share information about the institutions and individuals – including supervisors – involved in a research project, to give research participants and others the option to file a complaint in case agreements are violated.

Contrary to popular belief, researchers don’t operate in a vacuum. The ivory tower, where researchers are completely cut off from the world in order to cook up scientific theories, is a myth. Even when we don’t co-produce knowledge through the interaction with research participants, we are ultimately embedded in institutions where we engage with our colleagues, students and non-academic staff. Moreover, universities increasingly interact with the outside world – not just with other academic institutions, but also with societal partners like municipalities or non-governmental organizations. That also means we may have more responsibility than we think.

Rosanne Anholt is a Lecturer and PhD Candidate at the department of Political Science and Public Administration. Her research focuses on how humanitarian and development organizations interpret and use the policy buzzwords resilience, humanitarian-development nexus and local ownership in responding to the impact of the Syria crisis in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.


Call for papers

Get reacquainted with the Amsterdam Social Science: A postgraduate journal for publication of academic articles and essays on contemporary, everyday analyses.

Amsterdam Social Science (ASS) is a biannual journal jointly funded between the UvA, VU and Nuffic. The journal was founded in 2012 by students who wanted to create a platform for high quality work that often doesn’t go further than a marker’s desk. We are a multidisciplinary home for fresh perspectives, new ideas, tryouts, untested methods and unknown territory. Currently, ASS is organized by students and alumni from both participating universities. The journal publishes double-blind peer-reviewed articles and essays written by Master, PhD and postdoc students from Amsterdam and abroad. Available both digitally and as a hard copy, ASS is the leading journal in Amsterdam for discussions related to the Social Sciences.

The journal has a new board and the team is looking to bring it back up to speed with more frequent issues as of September 2017.

Do you have an essay or article that you think should be read by a wider audience, do you want to publish the results of your thesis, or are you wanting to contribute to a future focussed publication? With ASS Journal, postgraduate students have an opportunity to realize these wishes.

During the revision process writers can expect excellent support from the our editors, working in tandem with them to ensure that our style and quality requirements are met. Due to our peer reviewed, double-blind process, published work in ASS obtains a mark of quality.

The journal is open to receiving papers all year round. More information can be found at socialscience.nl

Volunteer: gain hands on experience alongside fellow students by becoming a board member. When vacant, positions are listed at socialscience.nl/category/vacancies

We are often looking for editors and peer reviewers, e-mail: info@socialscience.nl


How to go from black tie to bathing suit? Gendered reflections on conference processes that shape our careers

By Luzan Koster & Thijs Willems | Reading time: 8 minutes

For many scholars, summer time means conference time. In winter we write an engaging abstract or paper to get accepted for a relevant conference. In summer we present our work to our scientific community who can challenge our line of thought. We hop from conference room to conference room to attend the presentations of others and engage in stimulating conversations during breaks and social events. Indeed, participating in conferences entails learning how to become a scholar and includes network activities that help sharpening our paper’s argument. The process therefore is a valuable and vital part of our work. But is this process as easy breezy as it sounds?

Smart debating does not only take place in the formal setting of conference buildings. Participants meet in various foreign countries, where one location is even more exotic than the other. In fact, so we argue in this blog, the informal events during conferences may potentially mark how our careers unfold. During such events, the boundaries between the formal/informal and professional/personal become blurred. This should urge us to be more aware of our role and that of others during conferences. We address this issue from one specific perspective: we show how our gender may shape how informal events at conferences are experienced.

Sunny setting

The following story takes place with the beautiful emerald blue Ionian Sea as its background. Here, at a yearly symposium, scholars gather to overthink theory and methods based on the theme ‘Process Philosophy’. The protagonists of the story are two PhD students, one male and the other female, who try to find subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways to blend in with ‘the professionals’. The convenor opens with: “This is not just a conference but a symposium, emphasizing the importance of good food, drinks, and company”. Work goals and holiday moods might seem contradictory, but scholars widely agree that the open and relaxed atmosphere is inspiring. Yet, it may be hard to follow work ethics when you are invited to after curriculum activities…

Conference evening of a woman: “Gender trouble”!

Tonight is the conference dinner, so I do my hair and put on a black springy gown. The long dress has a closed neckline and small see-through at the back, nothing too revealing. There normally are no strict dress codes, but most women do their best and bring their party clothes. When my Dutch colleagues and I arrive at the open-air venue, almost all tables covered with white linen at the seaside are already taken. The last table is held by only one man, so we ask if we can join him. We start talking and laughing, and when his group of friends arrives, we mingle. It turns out, the man is a renowned professor, but hierarchical positions do not matter now.

We move to a beach club to have more drinks. Everyone gets a big summery cocktail and sits down at the luxurious lounge. One of our new friends starts chartering everyone to go for a dive in the sea under the moonlight. While our group of the evening seems to have no problem to take their suits off, the rest of the conference participants raise their eyebrows. I feel somewhere in between, which presents a dilemma. On one hand, I do not want to be a spoiler and break the newly forged bond with an interesting group of scholars. On the other hand, I wonder how the image of my half naked body could harm my reputation in this scientific community! I hear a splash; the professor has dived in.

Conference evening of a man: Free your mind

Getting back to my room after an exhausting conference day, I take a cold shower to cool off. I unpack my suitcase to select the most fitting attire for tonight’s conference dinner. But what to wear? Stay on the safe side and wear something formal and too warm for the Mediterranean summer nights? “They won’t dislike me because of my choice of clothes”, I convince myself, “and besides, I’m a man and they would probably respect my laissez-fair attitude”. I hop on my comfortable short and airy t-shirt, and a few minutes later I am sipping a lovely local white wine with colleagues. Once seated, I notice that, while most women are dressed in a similar style as the luxurious setting of the restaurant, the other men wear their shorts, sandals, and half open shirts too.

At our table, theoretical approaches are casually merged in dinnertime stories. A heated discussion arises on Judith Butler’s ideas of ‘gender performativity’, referring to the fact that our gender is not given by nature, but very much socially constructed; the meaning of gender is created by humans as we act according to socially accepted and desired behavior. We leave the issue and move to the seaside bar where waves rhythmically hit the shore. When my mojito is almost finished, some part of our crew has raised the idea of a midnight swim. I waver for a second, hesitant to the idea of taking off my clothes in front of future colleagues. But the crowd clearly expects me to show some bravery, and shouts: “Come on man, don’t worry too much”. We jump in.

“Bodies that matter”: normative chains?

The work of Judith Butler (1990, 2011) shows that our gendered behavior is always to some extent prescribed by roles, gestures, clothing, and speech that are socially desired, depending on our male or female body. Our stories above indeed reflect how our body and gender influenced our thoughts, doubts, emotions, and choices for action. Whereas females usually ‘have to’ behave according to some undefined feminine standard, their scholarly male counterparts can break the rules as this portrays some undefined sense of ‘masculinity’. A woman may be frowned upon when dropping her dress, showing her body, to dive into the water, while a man may be applauded for having the guts to do so.

In no way, of course, we mean to say that women are determined to behave as women, and neither that there would only be one way that a man is expected to behave. The variations are endless and gender comes in many different shapes. However, what we want to address with this blog is that conferences are not some self-evident trips just for fun (in Dutch: ‘snoepreisjes’). When it comes to informal events at conferences, it matters ‘who we are’ and ‘how we are seen’. Especially so when we consider that there may be a difference, or tension even, between who we are as a scholar and who we are in private time. There are certain rules and expectations we should be aware of, which can play out differently for men and women.

In the process of becoming a scholar, PhD’s are often asked what kind of scholar we want to be. Seniors advise us to carefully think through our written work and to reflect on producing novel, exiting work as opposed to automatically following the main stream. However, what about informal factors? Who we meet at conferences affects our research perspectives and interests, opportunities for future projects and jobs. If conferences and informal networking are career changers, do we really have a choice to break conventions? What are the consequences if we do or don’t? How do these choices differ for men and women?

We hope this blog has inspired you to better reflect on your own role during informal events. For now: Happy conference season! 

Luzan Koster is a PhD candidate in the department of Organization Sciences. Her research focuses on ‘the interpretation of the new discourse by patients, professionals and informal caregivers and on the way this affects their identities‘.

Thijs Willems is a PhD candidate in the department of Organization Sciences. His research focuses on ‘The role of collaborative routines during disruptions in the Dutch railway system’. 


Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (2011). Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of “sex.” London: Routledge.

Brexit: Dirty, Spicy or Hairy? Why Metaphors Matter

By Britta Brugman | reading time: 6 minutes

Even for me as a teacher and researcher in political science, explaining world politics to students is often a challenge. The main reason is that many political issues and events are also difficult to understand. Fortunately, politicians often use metaphors that help me explain the political world to my students better. The metaphors I choose to use, however, considerably influence how my students understand the political issues and events under discussion.

Metaphors are figures of speech that define one concept in terms of another concept. In politics, metaphors work by connecting political concepts to non-political concepts. Political debates that are often explained metaphorically are EU debates. For instance, the most common way to discuss Brexit is by referring to a “hard Brexit” or “soft Brexit”. Yet, what does it mean when Brexit is described as “dirty”, “spicy” or “hairy?

Hard or soft Brexit

The metaphors “hard Brexit” and “soft Brexit” compare the negotiations between the EU and UK to the firmness of objects like rocks or pillows. They define how much the EU and the UK are prepared to compromise on issues such as UK’s access to the EU’s internal market. A “hard Brexit” implies firm positions of both parties and therefore a total divorce of the UK from the EU. In contrast, a “soft Brexit” implies that both parties will maintain as close a relationship as possible.

Clean or dirty Brexit

Prime Minister Theresa May introduced alternative metaphors to the Brexit debate. She uses the metaphor “clean Brexit” to describe the UK’s strategy in the Brexit negotiations. Political opponents within the EU have responded that a “dirty Brexit” may instead be more likely. The words clean and dirty generally mean the degree to which objects or places are cleaned and organised. By using the metaphor “clean Brexit” Theresa May emphasises a “clean break” from the EU, meaning that the UK will leave quickly and completely. A “dirty Brexit” rather entails no agreement after months of deliberation.

Nevertheless, there are multiple interpretations of the metaphors “clean Brexit” and “dirty Brexit” possible. They may for example also encourage people to think about the integrity of the Brexit negotiations. A “clean Brexit” would imply that the EU and UK take their time to negotiate a precise, comprehensive and mutually beneficial deal. A “dirty Brexit” may indicate hasty and unfounded judgements. The interpretation of these metaphors thus depends on the context in which they are used and the politicians who use them. 

Spicy or mild Brexit

In one of their reports, the European Commission has spoken about a “mild Brexit” scenario, which would be the opposite of a “spicy Brexit”. The words mild and spicy usually indicate whether or not food has a strong hot flavour. In the context of Brexit, one of the most straightforward interpretations is that the words illustrate the degree of consensus between the two parties about important decisions. A “spicy Brexit” is for instance characterised by increased tension between politicians, while in a “mild Brexit” scenario there may not be as much political conflict.

Hairy or shaven Brexit

Finally, Boris Johnson has even warned the UK public for the possibility of a “hairy Brexit”. The positive equivalent of this metaphor would be something like a “shaven Brexit”. In ordinary language, the words hairy and shaven indicate the amount of hair on a body. However, with regard to Brexit, Johnson meant to stress the perceived complexity of the negotiations between the EU and UK. Whereas a “hairy Brexit” is complex and potentially dangerous in terms of the political and economic implications, a “shaven Brexit” may simply run relatively smoothly.

Metaphorical reasoning

Taken together, these examples show how different metaphors can influence our understanding of political issues and events differently. The metaphors “hard Brexit” and “soft Brexit” limit our understanding of Brexit to what outcomes the EU and UK want to achieve. At the same time, metaphors like “dirty Brexit”, “spicy Brexit” and “hairy Brexit” focus on the nature of the negotiations (integrity, political conflict, complexity). These metaphors each emphasise a different aspect of Brexit, which means that they can only provide a complete picture of the political dynamics of Brexit when they are used in combination.

Previous research shows that the degree in which metaphors influence our understanding of politics depends on multiple factors. My own research also focuses on examining when political metaphors are most persuasive. One factor that already seems to be important is the complexity of the topic. The more a political topic is difficult to understand, the more likely people are to rely on metaphors to understand political debates. Since many political issues and events are considerably complex to begin with, metaphors can play a crucial role in our political reasoning.

Thus, explaining world politics to my students becomes easier by using metaphors but it is important to be aware of how these metaphors may influence their understanding of political issues and events. Because each metaphor uses a different non-political concept as the basis for comparison, each metaphor emphasises different aspects of the political concepts under discussion. Therefore, to do justice to the complexity of today’s political world, a diverse set of metaphors is necessary to make my students adequately understand world politics.

Britta Brugman is a PhD candidate in the department of Political Science & Public Administration. Her research focuses on ‘the effects of metaphorical frames on voters’ political attitudes‘.


Brugman, B. C., Burgers, C., & Steen, G. J. (2017). Recategorizing political frames: A systematic review of metaphorical framing in experiments on political communication. Annals of the International Communication Association, 41(2), 181-197. doi:10.1080/23808985.2017.1312481

Burgers, C., Konijn, E. A., & Steen, G. J. (2016). Figurative Framing: Shaping public discourse through metaphor, hyperbole and irony. Communication Theory, 26(4), 410–430. doi:10.1111/comt.12096

Lakoff, G. (2002). Moral politics: How liberals and conservatives think. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Annual PhD Day ’17

Friday afternoon May 19th from 14.00-17.00pm, we will have our annual PhD day! This lively afternoon is filled with a variety of research conducted by PhD candidates of the Faculty of Social Sciences from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. We would like to welcome you all to drop by at the Department of Organization Science (3rd floor, Wing A).

PhD’s can join the PhD day by oral or poster presentations, you can register your contribution in a google document. Please provide:

  • Your name
  • Your department
  • A preliminary title (50 words max.)
  • A short intro of your topic (100 words max).
  • Select one option: A poster presentation or an oral presentation.

Previous PhD days were a huge success thanks to the large number of faculty members paying a visit to the presentations and we look forward to an even higher attendance this year.