What’s it like to obtain your doctorate in this time of crisis?

“It was a very special day. Of course, it was rather different to how you imagine after years of work. But more than anything, I was happy that it could go ahead. Other doctoral candidates had decided to postpone their conferral, so I was the only one on the roll last week. When something like this is postponed, you don’t know how long it will take: two weeks, two months, half a year? Fortunately, they had done a good job with the technical arrangements, meaning the members of the doctoral committee who are abroad could all join us via the internet. And some of my family members were allowed to attend the ceremony, while the rest of my family, colleagues and friends could watch it from home via a live stream.”

Were you extra nervous, considering the circumstances?

“Not more than usual. I was nervous in the days leading up to it, because it wasn’t certain whether the conferral could go ahead due to the corona measures. The situation could change from one day to the next, and that caused a bit of stress. It was only two days prior to the ceremony that I knew for sure that I would actually be presented with my doctorate.”

Have you been able to celebrate?

“Not the way I’d planned. But we did celebrate it in style at home with the family members who were allowed to attend – with cake and a nice lunch. In hindsight, it had something special to celebrate it with a small group. And people really spoiled me, with gifts and congratulations. I got quite a few visits from the postman and the florist.”

What did you research?

“Two subjects. In the first place, short-term volunteer work like the one-day action NLdoet. I studied how various non-profit organisations benefit from these initiatives and how this could be organised more effectively. The other subject was corporate community involvement: making a positive contribution as a company to your immediate environment. By donating money, goods or time, for instance.”

What were your key conclusions?

“My research into NLdoet shows that volunteers need to feel at ease, be productive and have the feeling that they’re adding value. However, within these activities they don’t really aspire to a form of responsibility. That is surprising, since according to all the existing literature on this subject, volunteers explicitly do seek some form of responsibility.

“With regard to corporate community involvement, I examined new channels that can be used by companies in this context, such as corporate foundations that are collectively funded by multiple companies. You also have social intermediaries, who can bring together charities and companies – a kind of matchmaker. It turns out that these channels can be a solution when it comes to removing the barriers for collaboration between the private sector and charities: an inability or difficulty to find the other party, ignorance or unfamiliarity with these kinds of collaborations, or a lack of resources and knowledge to effectively organise the partnership.”

What made you choose this subject?

“I wrote my thesis about NLdoet as a student in RSM’s Global Business and Sustainability master programme. I thought people’s decision to job-hop as volunteers for a day was an interesting phenomenon. After obtaining my master degree, I set to work at RSM as a junior researcher and lecturer. I combined this with a part-time doctoral study into short-term volunteer work. About a year in, I started missing the link with Business Administration, so I decided to add corporate community involvement as a subject. I handed in my thesis after four years of work.”

promotie Stephanie Maas 2 – Tara Lewis
Stephanie Maas was given the green light to defend her PhD thesis, although the ceremony partly took place online. Image credit: Tara Lewis

Wow, that’s quick.

“Yes, a lot of full-time PhD students don’t manage to round it off in that time. So that’s a feather in my cap. Fortunately, I could make a link between my work and my doctoral research now and then, because there was some overlap. For the rest, it basically came down to working hard but also enjoying myself whenever possible. For example, I often tried to combine an international conference or educational trip with a holiday, so I could travel around the country a bit. Trips like that give you the motivation and energy you need to get cracking when you’re back in Rotterdam.”

Did you run into any difficulties along the way?

“In his speech, my supervisor said that in my particular case he didn’t get the feeling I had run into a wall at any point. And I guess I agree. Of course, it can get a bit tough sometimes. Particularly the first few years, I occasionally wondered what I had gotten myself into because I didn’t really know yet what I was working towards. But after it became clear which four studies I would be conducting for my research, and I had put this to paper, I knew what I was doing it for.”

And you’ve even set up a volunteer programme at RSM since then.

“That’s correct! I was asked to structure this programme based on my research expertise. It’s great to be able to put the results of four years of research to practice. Our intention is to offer staff members and students an opportunity to do something for Rotterdam. In line with RSM’s mission: ‘creating positive change’. For example, you have students working to solve challenges faced by charities and foundations, and colleagues who work as a volunteer every now and then for a non-profit in Rotterdam.”

The summary in your thesis has been translated into no fewer than six languages!

“Normally, you get a Dutch and an English version, and possibly a third summary in the person’s native language. The many colleagues I’ve worked with and friends I made over the years have all sorts of nationalities. That’s why I thought it would be nice if my work could also be read by a range of different people. Various colleagues and friends have translated my summary into Italian, German, Spanish and Chinese. I rather like the idea of disseminating knowledge in this way.”