Max Kleijberg, doctoral student at Medical Management Centre/Innovative care

Max Kleijberg is a designer who never pictured himself as a researcher. But now, this newly registered doctoral student has set out to explore how children and elderly people can meet to discuss issues related to dying, death and bereavement to learn from each other.

Close-up portrait of Max Kleijberg wearing a beige shirt

Max is from the Netherlands and has a bachelor degree in industrial product design, which is about designing products for mass production. He learned to see himself as a problem solver and also learned very quickly that he enjoyed developing ideas and visualising them all the while making sure that the product would be technically viable in the end.

“I liked the creative and the technical parts that come together in the process of designing products, but what I missed was critically thinking about what we were designing. I mean, do we really need yet another chair? I was struggling with that issue”, Max explains.

Along with his studies he worked extra in a nursing home for elderly people. He started when he was fifteen and was the first young person to get a summer job there. He truly enjoyed it and found it rewarding, but he was also frustrated with the things that he thought were wrong in the way society takes care of its elders.

“As a young person I got a lot out of working with elderly people and I felt that I could give something back to them as well. What I did not really understand was why this kind of intergenerational interaction doesn't happen more often, informally, in the rest of society”.

That is when he began to ask himself how he, as a designer, could help to improve quality of life at the end of life.

The desire to work with these questions led him to Sweden and Konstfack, University College of Arts, Crafts and Design. He followed the master programme Experience Design. What attracted him to this program was that it aimed to address social issues but didn't necessarily try to find solutions in the form of products, but also in new or improved services, systems or even mind-sets.

Max’s degree project, “An ageless state of mind” explored social norms in relation to aging in Swedish society. He brought together a group of people from different ages, from 23 – 74, and used theatre and design methods to explore these social norms together with them.

Through this project he came in contact with Carol Tishelman and Olav Lindqvist, who collaborated with the Experience Design program at Konstfack. At the time they were establishing the research program DöBra that aims to diminish avoidable suffering related to dying, death and bereavement based on a health promotion perspective.

“I like that the DöBra research program is interdisciplinary, and also that it intends to address social issues. It’s not only research that is looking at something, but also research that tries to improve something in collaboration with stakeholders—as a designer I find that a stimulating way of working.”

“Before I didn't think of myself as a researcher, but at the same time I was also critical to the way I was working as a designer. What was the impact of my design projects and how could I know if they actually improved a social issue? My design projects were often very short, it felt too shallow for me.”

He realized that maybe a PhD would be a way for him to continue to work with these kinds of issues. And through the DöBra program he got the opportunity to develop his research project.

Simultaneously he worked at the Unit for Bioentrepreneurship, also at LIME. Together with Linda Johansson he worked on projects KI 2.0 and KI 2.1 about implementing elements of entrepreneurship in the undergraduate programs of Karolinska Institutet. At the end of 2015 they celebrated the release of a book they wrote called “Toolbox” (free to download), with practical tools for creativity, new perspectives, and collaboration.

Now, being a doctoral student, an academic career is not Max’s main goal. He wants to learn how to do research in a medical and health care environment and combine this with his design background.

The title of Max’s research project is “Death as a social issue – engaging Swedish school children and elderly using the arts”. One basis for the DöBra program is that we don’t talk much about death, and this can lead to people being unprepared for it when they encounter dying, death and bereavement in their personal lives. The two age groups in his project have quite different perspectives that could complement each other. For children the end of life is often something distant and vague, whereas for elderly people it may be more part of their daily life. In collaboration with other stakeholders Max would like to develop ways for children and elderly people to meet and learn from each other. The arts will be used as a way to facilitate this.

So, how is it going so far?

Max is glad that he is finally registered as a doctoral student; it was a long process. His research plan was rejected the first time he presented it to the admission committee at LIME. He thinks it was partly because he didn't describe his research plan precisely enough for this situation, with people with a variety of research backgrounds.

“During the application process I was worrying that my non-healthcare background was going to be a problem. I perhaps tried to adapt too much. As a result I wasn't clear enough in my research plan,” he explains. “The admission seminar was intimidating and stressful. You have ten minutes to present and twenty minutes to answer questions.”

Max found it helpful to get feedback on his research plan. This helped him to understand in what ways he could be more precise and scientific in his writing. In fact Max is starting to realize that not having a health care background can actually be an asset. He thinks that LIME is the right place for him because there are many others with non-healthcare backgrounds and the department recognizes the need for collaborations across disciplines and cultures.

The second admission seminar was successful, and Max feels he got questions and feedback that will help him in his further research.

What are your expectations and challenges?

“With my background I think that I will always be a little bit of the odd one out here. But I’m expecting to become better at working across disciplines and learning from them.”

Right now (April 2015) Max is writing an application for the ethical approval that he needs to start his research. He is in the process of applying for courses, which he is really excited about. He is also about to start with a literature review.

“I’m accepting my inner nerd because I realized that I’m really enjoying asking questions and finding ways to answer them,” he says laughing.

Max’s advice to future doctoral students:

It’s important to find supervisors that you enjoy working with, who can challenge you, but also back you up when needed. As Carol, Max’s main supervisor, says: “I only work with people I also would like to have a beer with.” I agree that it is important to have a good connection on a social level too.
The PhD title can be a goal in itself, but I would advise that is not the only goal. I think you need to be really passionate about the project that you are going to do and that you find it meaningful.