Congratulations on getting your PhD. How did your viva go?

“Quite well, actually. The questions weren’t too hard. After the reception, I had dinner with friends and family at Vicini in Kralingen and after that we partied in Utrecht, where I live. We had a lot of boozy fun until the wee hours. Last week I spent a week in Berlin, to celebrate getting it over and done with.”

What was your PhD dissertation about?

“Personality questionnaires used in recruitment procedures and career development planning allow us to measure a person’s social desirability. In actual practice, social desirability is often regarded as a problem rather than as a positive trait, even though there is literature on the subject that has found that it actually reflects a personality trait, with positive outcomes. My research shows the same thing.”

Was that you main finding?

 “Yes, it was. Among other things, I examined to what extent social desirability predicts work-related outcomes. It turned out it does predict work-related outcomes, which is in line with the idea that it reflects a person’s ‘social effectiveness’, and so results in that person attaining his or her goals. For instance, if a person knows how to behave in a socially desirable way, he will make friends more easily and get promoted more easily. I also found that the extent to which social desirability plays a role does not change depending on the situation – for instance, whether the answers are given in a recruitment procedure or in a career development counselling session. This suggests that, yes, it is in fact a personality trait, and does not reflect the degree to which people try to give off a better impression than they really are. I wouldn’t be much of a scientist if I didn’t try to qualify this to some extent. First of all: do not base your decisions solely on test scores. Secondly: the drawback of ‘social effectiveness’ is that it theoretically could be used to manipulate people.”

Do you know how you score in terms of social desirability?

“No, I can’t say I do. I’ve become too familiar with the tests to be able to take them, but you might still be able to dig up the test I took the last time I applied for a job. By the way, I should also point out that I had to complete a test before embarking on my PhD, to check whether I had perseverance and enjoyed presenting my work.”

Did you always want to get a PhD?

“I got a Bachelor’s degree and research-based Master’s degree in Utrecht. After applying for several PhD positions and being rejected, I did some travelling in India and lived in Berlin for a while. Thanks to some connections, I ended up at my current employer, a publisher of IQ and personality tests. I wasn’t surprised when my boss asked me if I’d like to get a PhD.”

Was it hard being an external PhD candidate?

“It was, particularly in the first two years. I only had one day in the week to do my research on top of my job, so I did a lot of work in the evenings and on the weekends. I managed to complete the whole thing in five years, like most PhD students, even though most of them are able to work on their dissertations full time. One of the statements I submitted along with my PhD thesis was as follows: ‘I wouldn’t recommend having a baby in the final year of your PhD research, as my final year turned out to be my penultimate year when all was said and done.’”

What will you be doing now that you’re all done?

“I haven’t quite made up my mind yet. I really enjoyed the combination of being on the work floor and conducting science. Getting things done in academia is like wading through treacle. It may take you a year or longer to get your article published, while in the business community, I can produce a test in two weeks. Only the latter doesn’t always have the required depth. Both things have pros and cons.”

What’s on the cover of your dissertation?

“The outer circles are the ‘big five’ personality test traits: openness, conscientiousness (a.k.a. having a conscience), extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. People with a high social desirability score tend to receive relatively high scores in all five of these aspects. The inner circle overlaps the others and represents social desirability as a general factor that drives the average scores in related fields up or down.”