Postdoc highlight series: Dr. Renske de Leeuw (#2)

This week you are in for a treat on the Alternative Postdoc Superheroes. Dr. Renske de Leeuw comes from the Netherlands and in this interview, she speaks about struggles with dyslexia, tenacity in pursuing what interests her, and self-care.

Enjoy the read!

 Quick notes on Renske:
NameDr. Renske Ria de Leeuw
Countries she has academic experiences fromThe Netherlands and a research visit of 10 days in Australia
Renske in keywordsEnthusiastic, friendly, motivated to get things done
Renske as a scientist/researcher/academicI find it very important that my research is useful for practice. I call myself a pracademic. A pracademic is a practical academic, for me, that means I am highly invested in conducting research that serves practice and society and provides valorization of my research insights. This results in taking into account which research methods I should use to not only answer my research question but also benefits my participants. If it is not possible, I will go to arm’s length to provide a document or training session based on research insights that are useful for teachers or students.
Currently excited about:I am currently reading the Midnight Library from Matt Haig. When I am walking I like to listen to the podcasts from Brené Brown: Unlocking us; and during my PhD, I was a huge fan of the podcast: Hello PhD.
Renske’s typical day:        Get up at 7 am, take time to stretch, make a healthy breakfast with a cup of tea. Go for a walk or bicycle ride to “work” (going around the block, because I work from home these days), make a cup of coffee, and work behind the computer. There I have online meetings with colleagues or I code data, write papers, and (research)proposals.
After working, I go to prepare a fresh meal with produce I bought at the farmers market (love going there!). I try to have dinner ready when my partner gets home, which is around 6 pm so that we have the evening to either go for a walk, hit the gym for some Zumba or Spinning, or some relaxing time with music, tea, and crocheting. Because I need my sleep, I am in bed at 10 pm
Contact Renske at:Insta Renskeria
Web (in Dutch)
Twitter Renskeria

Hi Renske, thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Let’s start with what kind of student/pupil were you as a kid (what did you like and didn’t like about school)?

I was very much interested in how things work and asked a lot of questions and for demonstrations. My parents took me out on field trips to the nearby University if they had an open day for kids or if we visited a grain mill, I would ask for a tour to show every step that was just explained (I was only 6 years old).

I loved reading books but was very bad at spelling. Only at the age of 15, I was diagnosed with Dyslexia. What I didn’t like about school was that I was bullied for 5 years in Primary school. Plus following a fixed curriculum isn’t for me, luckily I went to a secondary school where they had the Montessori pedagogy. I believe that there the base was made for how I approach learning, at my own pace, and the space to choose an additional curriculum that interested me.

What did you study in your undergrad program?

I completed a Bachelor of Arts as a Speech and Language Therapist (Applied University Hanze, Groningen, the Netherlands) with a few side courses at different universities as part of the Minor. In the Minor of your Bachelor, you can choose to follow a pre-defined set of courses or select courses that fit your interest for 15 ECTS (European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System, 1 ECTS is 28 hours of study). I followed Statistics I, Disorders in Language Development I and II at the University of Groningen and Learningproblems and Philosophy of Science at the Radboud University, Nijmegen.

Because I wanted to specialize in Dyslexia and understand the statistics in scientific papers. During my Bachelor’s, I got interested in evidence-based practice and research. I always asked questions about why we needed to follow a program or intervention for clients and if there was any evidence it worked. This is not a skill you need as a practicing Speech and Language Therapist, so after working half a year I started a pre-Master Psychology, which allowed me to enter and complete the Master Psychology with a focus on education and development (University of Twente, Enschede, the Netherlands).

For the context, you should know that in the Netherlands there are a lot of different levels of education and when you have completed pre-university, you can go to the university for a Bachelor and Master degree. Because I had a lot of issues with learning languages I didn’t complete pre-university but higher general secondary education. Which leads to the possibility to go to an Applied University.

Why and how did you decide to go into a PhD?

I always asked questions and wanted to prove a few ideas that I had about how to best support people with Dyslexia. I did experience how Dyslexia can be a handicap when going to school, but I loved learning and growing and I wanted to share and inspire others with Dyslexia who struggled and lost interest in learning. I thought that if I proposed my research ideas and collected support for my claims, I could help people.

Yet, after applying to PhD positions for 5 years in the field of Dyslexia and reading development, I thought that a PhD wasn’t for me. But my mentor prof. Kees van den Bos gave me the advice to focus on other topics and within a half year, I got a PhD position at the University of Groningen on social inclusion of students with social-, emotional problems, and behavioural difficulties in regular primary education. I believed that if I would complete this PhD I proved to the world I could do research and go back to the topic of Dyslexia. However, during my PhD program, I found that I have so many more interests, of which empowering the voices and students (young, teenagers, or older) is one of them.

How is PhD program structured in your country?

In the Netherlands there is no fixed PhD program, most PhD’s are for four years in which you come up with your own project or you apply for a pre-designed project by a researcher/professor. For the latter, it is not that you just do what is written in the project, but make suggestions and alterations so that you are the owner of the project. Next to drafting, designing studies, you will collect data and recruit participants and teach a few courses and supervise students with their Bachelor and Master thesis.

There are also PhD tracks of three years, in most of these tracks the PhD candidate doesn’t need to teach and collect data.
A PhD in the Netherlands is (mostly) a paid job for four or five days per week. But it is also a training program in which you become an independent researcher, so you have to follow courses which help you in completing your PhD study successfully.

For a regular (full-time) PhD program in the Netherlands, you have to follow 30 ECTS worth of courses and training (think of methodological knowledge and skills, subject-related knowledge, and generic academic skills such as writing) and teach bachelor and master students worth of 30 ECTS. This teaching could be lecturing specific topics, tutor lab or skills-labs, and supervise theses and internship students.

Which track did you choose for yourself?

The PhD project that I applied for was a project for four years in which the PhD candidate 1) would investigate what primary school teachers do to facilitate the social inclusion of students with social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties (SEBD) in the regular classroom (this is a form of inclusive education), 2) would conduct interviews with students with SEBD and 3) design an intervention for the early years of primary education, because social status is most flexible in those years.

What was your PhD program experience?

Six months into the PhD program, the project proposal needed to be changed due to practical reasons. Also, I gave a lot of lectures in the first year, a colleague dropped out and I could step in with my expertise in language development and dyslexia. Although I loved teaching, I had a hard time combining the tasks and duties of my PhD project with re-organizing a PhD worthy study while teaching 2 courses, supervising 6 bachelor students, 4 internships, 4 master students, and all coping with the physical problems I had at that moment. Later on, I got diagnosed with a slow working thyroid and fibromyalgia. Recovering from all the stress and physical issues, I dropped out after two years in my program.

Holly molly that’s like a 10 years worth academic carrer…

This was done in 2 years, which almost covered my complete teaching load of the whole phd track.

I was very lucky with the support of my professor and the space I got to work on my recovery and start with only following courses before getting back to analyses and write papers on the studies which were conducted before I dropped out. The half-year that I was at home, gave me the space to slow down and think about what I wanted with my PhD project. So when I came back, I demanded to have more space for student voices and do another voice study. I didn’t believe it was possible to develop an intervention program to promote social inclusion for grade 3 and 4 (6- to 8-year-olds), based on the input of teachers and students from grade 7 and 8 (10 to 12 years old).

Looking back on that time of my PhD it is the moment where I found my current research interest because I had the time to slow down, reflect and think instead of surviving.

I also choose to work 4 days instead of 5, which meant that my PhD wouldn’t be completed in 4 years, but in 5 (and a half, when my sick leave was added to the extension). 

What advice would you give your younger self starting a PhD program?

Don’t work yourself to the ground!

There is always another to-do, always another course that you could follow to grow, but if you are to burn-out you cannot grow. Take good care of yourself, mentally and physically. Because then you are of value to others and yourself.

What have you decided to do after your PhD and why?

I am now working as a senior researcher, which you could compare with a post-doc or early years of a university researcher/teacher. Currently, I don’t teach any classes, but I have Bachelor students and Master students from other universities doing their final research project with me.

There is the option to work on my research path, which is a spin-off from my PhD studies and insights. But I also collaborate on other projects where I get to put my skills into use. Never had I imagined I would be working at the department of law and urban design. But I am!


It is so funny to see were research skills can take you.

A plus of working at an Applied University is that the people who I want to reach with my research are getting their degree at the Applied University (in the Netherlands you can become a primary school teacher and lower secondary school teacher with a bachelor’s degree from an Applied University). So there are short connections, compared with Universities.

Could we just stop here for a moment, please? What exactly is the difference between “applied university” and “university”? Is it a difference in options after finishing? Is it that certain careers are thought in uni and others at applied uni?

I had a talk yesterday with a PhD in Canada and there we came to the conclusion that an applied university is like college. At an applied university you are prepared for a “practical” job such as a teacher, therapist. The people who see and work with people or ICT systems. They learn to critically think of methods they could apply in practice but don’t know how to set up a complete study. Plus you can only get a Bachelor’s degree at an applied university.

Academic universities are more for teaching the students also research skills so that they can do the research themselves. The first 3 or 4 years at an academic university students get their Bachelor’s degree and can then continue for 1 or 2 years to gain a Master’s degree.

Ok, back to the topic.

The reason why I have shifted to an Applied University and not went for a traditional academic career is that I love doing research and answering all the questions that I have, but I don’t like and am not made for the stress and pressure within academia. Especially with my chronic illness, I need to take good care of myself and take rest when I am in pain. Within academia, I believe this isn’t possible. There is always the next grant to write, a next paper to publish, be the best teacher there is, and so forth.

After submitting my PhD I decided to also have a look at Applied Universities. This was for me, the best decision. It has only been six months yet, but there is so much more calmness. Even during this pandemic in which studies needed to change, education of pre-service teachers and others was moved online and how new projects will start is unknown. But I am conducting useful research of good quality. An applied university is not less than a traditional university.

What PhD has given you (knowledge, skills, mental aspects, etc.) and how you use it now?

During my PhD, I have learned a lot of skills, such as writing academic papers and grant proposals.

But mostly I have learned how to plan big projects, break them down into smaller projects and be flexible in the planning, yet still deliver.

All these skills are needed in my current position, the biggest difference is that I don’t have one topic that I am working on but I have one main project and 4 side projects in different fields, topics, and focus. The planning skills I have developed during my PhD are now very useful, I know which systems work for me and how to keep the progress in all the projects.

What are your other superpowers (passions, side (or main) hustles, hobbies)?

I think that one of my superpowers is to motivate and coach others with their PhD projects. I don’t identify myself as a coach (there are so many good ones), but I am very happy to provide a listening ear, help figure out what you are struggling with, and be the cheerleader who cheers you on to do the writing. I will review your work and give a lot of explaining feedback if you let me read your texts because I want you to learn from the feedback and not just correct. If you are a PhD who thinks that I could be of help, please don’t hesitate to contact me for an online coffee and coaching.

In my mind I am always very busy, to calm down I love to dance, do yin or aerial yoga. Yet the best way to calm down is to be outdoors. I love to walk and hike, cycle (I have multiple bikes each for a different purpose), play geocache, or work in the garden. I haven’t found the inner gardener to grow my crops and provide for myself. But having my fingers in the earth and watch what you sow, grow is so calming.

What is the hardest in doing what you are doing?

Not working too much, because I find it so much fun and want to dive into the projects. But also start too many new projects. Inclusive education is a fast developing movement at the moment and I would like to be part of that. I cannot do everything, so I plan walks and cycle moments during the day.

What are you the proudest of?

That I completed my PhD although not everyone on my supervising team believed in me because I was too much of a pracademic (personal and invested) and not a traditional academic (objective). And look at me now, publishing on student’s voice and invited as a guest speaker internationally and for teacher development evenings. What could I wish for more as a researcher in the field of education?

Who was the most influential person in your science journey, and how so?

My mentor Kees van den Bos, a professor in Dyslexia. He was my sparring partner when I was doing my Master’s and after applying for PhD positions. He always believed in me and gave useful advice. During my PhD so many people supported me. They have cheered me on when I was overwhelmed with the work, helped me celebrate milestones or take breaks, and have fun.

Who are your mentors or people you follow on social media and enjoy their content?

Online content of The Tending Year from Dr Kate Litterer has helped me a lot during the last two years of my PhD. She advocates the importance of rest and how to be productive while crafting out space for life next to your PhD. In my case balancing rest, work, and chronic pain.

Are there any tools, resources or software you are obsessed with at the moment?

I am a diehard fan of Pomodoro’s because they help me to either focus or to take breaks.

I can get into a workflow for 4 hours straight, which is not healthy for my body.

Other tools I would recommend to others is to find a reference system that fits them, it saves you so much time.

I also have two plugins which I cannot live without, the first is Grammarly (the free version is fine, I used the paid version to final check my dissertation), and the second is the plugin Library Access. It automatically checks if your university library or company has access to the paper you clicked on. No need to go and log in to the university’s library and search or click on a Google Scholar option to be re-routed to log in.


What are your future plans, upcoming projects, what is next?

I intend to further develop my research line in student’s voice and inclusive education, grow in how to communicate my research ideas and results to teachers so that they can implement these in their daily practice.

And who knows, maybe in the future I feel confident enough to start my side hustle as PhD coach with coffee and coaching sessions.

You should definitely try!

Is there anything you would like to add?

I am not a traditional Postdoc, but an alternative one in which it isn’t even called a Postdoc. But I hope that I can inspire people by sharing my story. Thank you for giving us this platform.

Where people can find you?

Insta Renskeria

Web (in Dutch)

Twitter Renskeria


Thank you for sharing!

If you want to read another interview with an academic coach, read this:

Postdoc highlight series: Dr. Ken Yan Wong (#3)

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