Doing research with high social relevance

Annemarie Nelen recently earned a PhD from Maastricht University for her dissertation on part-time employment. One of her findings: toddlers with working mothers perform better in school. “I want my research to be relevant and understandable. It’s rewarding when people outside the academic field are genuinely interested in the results.” Her supervisor was Professor Andries de Grip at Maastricht University’s Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market (ROA).

You can sense mutual appreciation between Andries de Grip and Annemarie Nelen, friendly and respectful at the same time.

“I wanted to write my dissertation at ROA because it would also give me the chance to do commissioned research with high social relevance, and that’s important to me”, says Nelen.

“I have a very clear memory of my first day here. Andries showed me my office and joked ‘See you in five years’. Perhaps that is the reality for some supervisors, but Andries was quite the opposite. In those first couple of years he supported me in every possible way. He taught me how to identify interesting research subjects, helped me think from an academic perspective and showed me how to write research papers. At first, we worked together at least once a week, but gradually he felt I could do it on my own. He knew exactly when to help and when to let go. That’s a great talent in a supervisor!”

Thorough

Nelen finished her dissertation in four years. This is impressive, considering she was conducting commissioned research as well.

She was then offered a job at the University of Wuppertal, Germany, where she studies part-time work in relation to health.

Her current subject is the health of mothers who combine part-time work with the care of young children.

“Annemarie’s future lies in research”, says De Grip. “She has the right mentality; she is persistent and thorough, and she never avoids problems but faces and tackles them with great conviction. One of her strengths is that she recognises an interesting research topic when she sees one. While working on commissioned studies, she often came across data that could add yet another perspective to her dissertation. And trust me, it was not an easy dissertation, because she studied part-time employment from four entirely different perspectives: human capital investments, firm and worker productivity, and the relationship between part-time working mothers and the cognitive development of toddlers.”

Annemarie’s co-supervisor Didier Fouarge also played an important role in her work. “Didier and Andries complemented each other”, says Nelen. “Didier supported me in different ways to Andries. For example, he was a great help when it came to using statistics programs. Even now that I’m in Wuppertal, I can still rely on him when I’m stuck. I greatly appreciate that.”

Striking results

What are the outcomes of Nelen’s research?

“We find that part-time workers on average benefit less from human resource practices, such as career counselling, so that their training participation remains below that of full-timers”, explains Nelen. “Firms are less inclined to invest in part-time workers because they think they will benefit more from investing in full-time employees. Part-time workers can only partly compensate for this lack of company support if they have high motivation to learn and a good vision of their future development. Another conclusion is that service-sector firms with a large share of part-time employment are more productive than those with mostly full-time employment. This is due to the efficient allocation of labour in firms with many part-time employees. As it turns out, part-timers work both fewer hours per work day and fewer days per week. Therefore, they can be deployed in such a way that they can cover the lunch breaks of their full-time colleagues, for example. And in sectors where the weekly opening hours are longer than the full-time work week, such as pharmacies or shops, part-time workers help to bridge this gap. ”

But the most striking result is this: maternal employment during children’s early school years correlates positively with their school results, measured by a language and sorting test.

The children of non-working mothers perform worst in the sorting test.

“We still have to refine this conclusion,” adds Nelen, “but these are sound academic results. This finding may relate to higher family income, but we weren’t able to find a wealthier home environment that could explain this relation.” That this finding strikes a chord became clear during Nelen’s dissertation defence. “Some of the committee members applied the results to their own home situations and asked questions about that. And of course, one member asked if I will work part time or full time once I have children. Somehow I never answered that question … ”

By Margot Krijnen


Andries de Grip (1954), PhD, is head of Research Employment and Training at the Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market and professor of Economics at the School of Business and Economics, both at Maastricht University.

Annemarie Nelen (1983) is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Health Economics and Management at the University of Wuppertal. She earned a master’s degree in Social Economics from Maastricht University and worked as a researcher and PhD candidate at the Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market at Maastricht University.

 

Source: Maastricht University Magazine, 23 October 2012

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