How do you explain at family get-togethers what your doctoral research was about?

“I always lead off with the following question: ‘How many friends, neighbours and acquaintances do you yourself have? What do you do for each other, when do you do it, and why?’ That was what my research was about, but I didn’t focus on you and me, but rather on all of us in Europe. In addition, I looked into the differences between the various European countries, and the causes of these differences, focusing on cultural and social differences and migration.”

What was the main conclusion you drew after conducting your research?

“In most countries, family members are the most important source of support, and professionals the least important one, with non-kin ranking somewhere in between. This hierarchy is different for each country, type of help and type of household, and the differences in ranking are due to cultural differences, such as commonly held beliefs on who is supposed to look after family members.

“Literature on the subject often supposes that there is a major difference between Northwest Europe and Southeast Europe when it comes to receiving support from your relatives. It is commonly believed that people in Southeast Europe put a greater premium on family and that, as a result, people there receive less help from non-kin than people living in Northwest Europe. My conclusion was that these things differ from country to country, but not from European region to European region. For instance, I found the highest levels of emotional support by non-kin in Austria, Denmark and Norway, but also in Italy. When it comes to finding a job, Maltese and Romanians mainly look to their relatives, while people in Estonia, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Sweden depend first and foremost on non-kin.”

How did you come up with this subject?

“The ‘Families in Context’ research group told me I was free to come up with a subject of my own choosing as long as it involved a comparison between Eastern Europe and Western Europe, since I originally hail from Bulgaria myself. I wanted to research non-kin, because without that kind of research, you can’t say much about the importance of family. I also partly chose this subject because I find it interesting on a personal level to see what happens to your network when you’re a migrant. I expected non-kin to become more important, and this turned out to be true. For instance, my final chapter, on Polish migrants, shows that if you’re a woman and highly educated, you are very likely to end up in a network of people like that. Which was also true for myself.”

You stated in your acknowledgements section that your partner warned you, telling you that getting a PhD would be like waging a war. Was it really that bad?

“No, not at all. I had some ups and downs. Sometimes I felt good, when I had just had an article published, and sometimes I felt less good, when I had just had something rejected. Looking back, I really enjoyed doing it. The early stages were the hardest for me, because I was trained to conduct qualitative research, whereas my study was largely quantitative. But thankfully, I ended up being fine with that.”

One of the propositions you submitted along with your dissertation was that publishing should be a way to conduct science, rather than the objective. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

“Publishing is not what science is all about. When you’re doing a PhD, you’re under so much pressure to publish that you don’t have time to consider the message of your work and whether it’s important or interesting. In a perfect world, you’ll have four articles published, which can make the job a bit of an ordeal. By the way, that is not just true for the Netherlands. The idea behind all this publishing is that the impact of your dissertation can be measured in this way, even though it may actually have the opposite effect.”

What’s on the cover?

“Something I painted myself. I’m very proud of that. I used to draw a lot, but I didn’t have much time to do so while conducting my doctoral research. It’s a plant my partner gave me, a Jatropha. The plant more or less hibernates, during which time it’s nothing but a trunk. To me, it symbolises family – something that is always there. In summer it gets leaves and flowers, which to me represent social networks. Life is less fun without them. The same is true for the plant.”