Although 2017 was actually already a pretty decent prelude, with Keizer landing both a Vidi grant (EUR 800,000) and an ERC Grant (EUR 1.5 million). But you might say it all started back in 2014, when she was given an endowed chair in Fatherhood at the University of Amsterdam.
“I’m quick with just about everything,” quipped Keizer in a short interview with EM at the beginning of this year on the occasion of her appointment. An early student (just turned 18), an early graduate (21) and quick to earn her doctorate (26), and become a mother (ages 24, 27 and 29 respectively). And now, at age 35, she’s already a full professor.
However, she isn’t in a hurry to hold her inaugural lecture . “My inaugural lecture in Amsterdam wasn’t that long ago. The past 18 to 24 months, all I’ve been working on was funding applications. And now I’m busy setting up my research team. I prefer to wait for the results of our research. After all, when people take the trouble of attending your lecture, you need to give them something new.”
Someone who will definitely be sitting on the first row is her mother: “In Utrecht, I had to pick up my master’s diploma at the information desk: I was abroad when they were holding the ceremony. She was very disappointed about that. Of course, my mother was there when they awarded me a doctorate. Occasionally, you tend to forget how important moments like these can be for the people around you.”
Renske Keizer was the first – and until now, the only – member of her family to go to university. She had to find out everything on her own. “I went to the Studiebeurs information fair in Utrecht with a friend – no way our parents were coming too. Nowadays, the hall is full of parents during information days.”
She wanted to do something with strong social relevance. Initially, she thought about the pabo (university for teacher education), but eventually reconsidered. She went for Social Sciences. Most of her former classmates stayed closer to home, choosing a programme in Enschede or Groningen. She decided on Utrecht. She joined a student association to help with her social integration. ‘I shouldn’t keep to myself all the time after moving to a new town,’ she thought, ‘I need to make friends.’ After a few years in the student association, she decided it wasn’t her scene. In her year club, most people wanted to watch a soap opera on the telly after eating together. “I wasn’t really into that. We had different interests.”
She already liked learning stuff in primary school – sometimes they called her ‘little professor’. In her home region of Twente, where the tall poppy syndrome is in full effect, she stood out because she couldn’t leave it at that when someone gave her a ‘just-so’ answer: “No, I remember thinking there’s no way things are just a given.”
When she picked up her diploma, her mother – with the best intentions – said: “just put it in your bag, otherwise the other kids might feel bad.” Incidentally, this is the same mother who started on a post-postgraduate continuing professional education programme after Keizer earned her doctorate, she adds with some pride. “My mother provided a constructive environment; a loving home.”
Things could have gone differently though, because she actually grew up without her biological father. Her parents divorced when she was two, and she’s no longer in touch with her father. Which brings us to the inevitable question: do you think your own background growing up without a ‘real’ father is a source for your research into family relationships and fatherhood?
Keizer understands why we’d ask that and patiently explains that her research didn’t necessarily originate in her own fatherless childhood. She actually came across this subject by accident. She had applied for a doctoral position that involved researching childlessness. Preparing for this research, she was struck by the fact that research into childlessness focussed exclusively on women – never men. And this set off her somewhat stubborn curiosity again: who said that it doesn’t have an impact on men if they don’t have children, or are unable to conceive? Has anyone ever done any research in this area?
And this was the germ of her interest in fatherhood and researching fathers’ roles in childrearing. It was only later that she realised that her own past must have unconsciously played a part in all this. “Of course, it was confronting for me every now and then. When research shows that fathers play an important role in building children’s self-confidence, for example – particularly in the case of daughters.” But she’s already ‘dealt with it’ and doesn’t feel like dwelling on it for too long.
Particularly since for the past 18 to 24 months she seems to have been on a roll. Although she’d like to clear a few misconceptions here. “When I was appointed as a member of the Young Academy . last month, some of my colleagues were like ‘Renske again…’ Because what they put up on the panels (the information displays at ESSB where they post faculty news, Eds.) tends to be success stories. What they don’t write is: Renske was rejected in the first round of ERC Grant applications – even though that happened too. And another thing that’s never on there is ‘Your colleague such-and-so just scored a 9 out of 10 on a professional evaluation.’” By which she means to say that the plaudits don’t necessarily go to people who are just as deserving: those who work as educators, for example.
And ambitious as she is, she even set up a new master programme last year, called Social Inequalities. This programme focuses on growing social inequality in society and how this insidious problem can be addressed through the right policies. “I’m responsible for the Introduction to Sociology courses given at the start of the academic year. I thought: well that leaves me with time to continue working on the master programme that starts in January. The one thing I didn’t think of is that all the information brochures and texts actually need to be done by then. So I ended up doing both at the same time.”
Over the course of 2018, she also became more and more accustomed to her new role. She was no longer first and foremost a researcher; she’s a manager now. And she’s enjoying it. “I’m good at separating the main issues from side issues. I’m efficient and I’m usually able to get people on board.” She is currently heading a team of some nine researchers (from trainee research assistants to post-docs and an assistant professor). As well as a club of student-assistants who visit people in their homes for field research, to map out which roles mothers and fathers play in the development of their children. “I’ve let them practice on my own family,” she tells us.
Top research and still go home in time
Her own family (husband and three children aged 5, 7 and 10) is important to Keizer. That’s why on a regular week day, she leaves for home at 4:30 to pick up the children. This year she finally managed to persuade her husband to drop them off at school in the morning. She wants to show people – and not least her younger female colleagues – that it’s possible: perform world-class research, become a professor and still be home on time in the evening.
“I want to impart on my younger colleagues what I learned from others myself: that you need to work on your profile and build your network. For example, always be sure to ask a question during conferences. This allows you to stand out from the crowd, and afterwards, there’s a big chance that someone will approach you to discuss the matter in further detail. I did this during a conference one time; it’s how I got involved in the successful application for an ORA grant (totalling over EUR 1 million) with colleagues from Germany, the UK, France and Japan. I asked a question: I picked up one of those mikes in a hall with people. And got talking with people afterwards. That was the seed of what ultimately became a joint funding application.”
Of course, she also knows the stories about women in science having fewer career opportunities than their male counterparts. Although she hasn’t experienced too much obstruction personally – but this could also be attributed to what they call the ‘survivor effect’, she notes. Someone can make it in spite of opposition, rather than thanks to a lack of opposition.
“You need to have people around you who are supportive and help you achieve your goals,” she says. She’s referring to her mentor, professor of Empirical Sociology Pearl Dykstra, who also served as her doctoral supervisor. And she was delighted that she could become professor herself, slightly earlier than expected, via the Westerdijk Talent Impulse programme . This extra funding from NWO could be used by the Netherlands’ universities to nominate talented female scientists for a professorship, to boost the share of senior women academics.
Although Keizer knew that she would probably land a chair at some point in the foreseeable future. Somewhere at least. At receptions, people would ask her whether she still liked working in Rotterdam. And those inquiries eventually reach your boss’s ears too. But thanks to the Westerdijk Talent Impulse, the funds required to appoint Keizer to a full professorship were available without further restrictions. “I didn’t have to wait until someone retired.”
She has followed the debate that has been going on within Erasmus University about this subject. EUR only filled four of the seven chairs that could be paid for with NWO money. Responding to the argument that women could experience such an appointment as a stigma – as suggested by those faculties that declined to nominate a female academic for a Westerdijk chair – she says: “My own experience is neutral. The people who were ultimately put forward and appointed are all very competent individuals.” And she’d like to leave it at that.
Sowing not harvesting
It’s not that she lacks a political perspective. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why she wanted to join the Young Academy. “There’s no better time than our own to be a member. You’ve got distrust in science, there’s the issue of how best to gauge quality, career policy issues, ethical questions, etc. I’m interested in working on issues like these. And it’s good to know that they also appreciate this within the faculty. When they announced my appointment, the university showered me with flowers. Let’s wait and see if the appreciation is also reflected in my time budget,” she adds with a grin.
Because you can’t do everything. Renske Keizer has to set priorities too. “The past two years, I published a lot less than before because I invested a lot of time in my team. And I no longer say ‘yes’ every time the media or policy-makers ask me to make an appearance. Because they keep asking me to talk about paternity leave: that’s the research theme most people know me for. I want to have something new to tell people. The period ahead is all about sowing. Harvesting will have to wait for the moment.”
Prof. dr. Dr Renske Keizer (1983)
2005 – Study of General Social Sciences, Utrecht University
2010 – PhD at NIDI in The Hague, promoter Prof. Dr. Pearl Dykstra
2010-2018 – Postdoc, assistant professor, associate professor, Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences
2014 – Endowed Professor of Fatherhood, University of Amsterdam
2018 – Professor of Family Sociology, Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences