After completing her senior general secondary education, Kristel de Groot moved on to pre-university education. Like every prospective university student, she ultimately had to choose a degree programme. De Groot: “My parents didn’t go to university and they weren’t bothered whether I did or not. I didn’t receive much guidance from anyone else, either.” She chose Psychology, the programme that had struck her at open days as being ‘far more scientifically rigorous’ than alternatives like Sociology. “I had no idea.”

Number of books per year: “Not enough. I read papers all day, every day, so in the evening I just want to do a puzzle or something like that. Anything that contains very few letters.”

Favourite genre: Non-fiction

Last book read: Meester van de medicijnen (Master of medicine) by Karel Berkhout

Primary motivation: “Non-fiction genuinely teaches you stuff, like how the pharmaceutical system works in the Netherlands. Fiction immerses you in another world. A month after finishing a book, I might still be relishing the fact that the author created such a richly layered story.”

Bad science

At the same time, the eighteen-year-old wondered what science actually was. “This was the era of Diederik Stapel, so questions as to what constituted good science were rife in society.1” De Groot bought the book Bad Science by Ben Goldacre to help her figure out when a theory is true and how resolute scholars are entitled to be. The book dissects media claims and advertising slogans to clarify the distinction between science and charlatanism.

It also discusses notorious research, such as that conducted by Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield came to prominence for his claims regarding the relationship between vaccines and autism. “That study caused a furore”, De Groot remembers. The media ran with it, in spite of allegations of academic misconduct, conflicts of interest and the pursuit of profit. His research returned to prominence during the coronavirus pandemic when antivaxxers used it to support their claims, despite the fact that it had been debunked many years ago.

Major effort, major output

It would be fair to say that De Groot has learned a thing or two about how science works in the meantime. She published a bachelor’s thesis and three master’s theses off her own bat, organised an application to the Dutch Research Council (NWO) on her own and is currently supervising various students. A previous application to be a tutor was rejected, apparently because she talked too much. “A student said the other day: ‘Kristel talks a lot, but what she says helps me to find the right answers of my own accord.’ I wish I could relay that to whomever turned me down for the tutor role at the time.”

In addition, De Groot has inadvertently ended up studying for two PhDs simultaneously. At the Erasmus School of Economics, she is studying whether there is any correlation between electrical activity in the brain and making financially or personally risky decisions. At the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences, her psychological research focuses on inclusive education. Upon completing her master’s degree, she submitted an application to the NWO for a PhD. However, nobody told her what that process would entail. “I didn’t know that it would take a while before you were accepted or rejected and I had some cash flow issues, so I took up a position as a junior researcher in economics. Several months later, I was suddenly awarded a grant for a psychology PhD as well.”

The academic world

And yet, being part of academia is not self-evident for De Groot. It sometimes hits her that she was a first-generation student. “Although it never occurred to me while I was studying, when I look back now I realise there were times when university life was more disorientating for me than it was for fellow PhD students, who often stemmed from academic families.”

The distinction is subtle, says De Groot: “It’s the way in which people speak to one another or how they dress, the cultural baggage, the social baggage and sometimes the financial background that people have. When I was faced with choosing a degree programme, I had no clue as to the range that existed. I had to do my own exploring. Now that I’m a PhD student, I still have no idea what counts as appropriate dress when defending a thesis.” In recent years, De Groot has grown more aware of her background. Although she has had to find her own way, she stresses that it was no big deal. On the contrary, there were even benefits. “I was never pushed to be a high achiever. My parents stopped taking an interest in how I was doing academically well before I left middle school.” The fact that she is now studying for two PhDs is something she puts down to her intrinsic motivation ‘and maybe a bit of a desire to prove myself as well’.

The world of the elites

De Groot finds herself increasingly internalising the university’s mores. She has twice been a paranymph when fellow PhD students defended their theses, taking notes beforehand on what was expected of her. “I memorised when to clap and when not to.” Her interests outside of academia include art. She likes visiting museums and is learning to spot more connections. “A couple of years ago, I went to Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw with my boyfriend for the first time. As soon as I arrived, it felt like I’d entered the world of the elites.” Still, she has a lot to learn. “I don’t know anything about classical music, but I know what I like – whereas my boyfriend is capable of saying things like ‘That’s a typical piece for this composer.’”

By contrast, De Groot is a competent reader. A good teacher in secondary school taught her to pick out thematic layers in books. In that respect, she has more practice than her boyfriend. “He’s from an academic family and is more advanced than I am at pretty much everything, but when it comes to literature I can at least hold my own.”

Kristel de Groot graduated in Biological Psychology. She works at the Erasmus School of Economics, where she is engaged in research on the correlation between electrical activity in the brain and decision-making in uncertain and risky circumstances. She also works at the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences, where she is researching the impact of disabilities and functional impairments on university students’ academic achievement and well-being. An inclusive education advocate, she serves as coordinator of the Erasmus Functional Impairment Studies.

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  1. A professor of Social Psychology who committed wholesale academic misconduct in 2011–2012 ↩︎