Masters in the Netherlands (I)

We started a new section on education in the Netherlands, focusing on Master’s studies. In this section we will explore, through interviews with current and former students, the system of postgraduate studies in the Netherlands, whose organization and content are very different from those in Spain. The interviews are conducted by the Head of Dissemination and Events of our association, Miriam Guillén Navarro, being herself an alumni of one of these masters and, therefore, well aware of the wide range of postgraduate training in this country.

Name: Miriam Guillén Navarro
Age: 26
City of origin: Requena (Valencia)
Master Studies: MSc Oncology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Previous studies: Degree in Biotechnology, Universidad Politécnica de Valencia
Actual mission: 2nd year Doctorate.
Topic: Alternative Splicing in high-risk childhood leukemia

Question: In what language can you study a master’s degree in the Netherlands? Do you need to learn Dutch to study in the Netherlands?
Answer: Dutch universities offer master’s degrees in English or Dutch. Many master’s programmes are taught in English, as universities seek to attract students of different nationalities. The level of English required is equivalent to a C1.
In everyday life, English is enough to relate to, as many people in the Netherlands (inside and outside the University) have an average level of English.

Q: Was it difficult to adapt to studying in English?
A: In my case I already studied part of the degree in Biotechnology in English, so the transition was easier for me. But I encourage everyone to try, because after a couple of weeks/months, English becomes a second language. This is very useful for the future, as the language of science is English.

Q: How was the master’s degree structured? Could you highlight differences with a typical master’s degree structure in Spain?
A: Masters in the Netherlands have a defined structure in content but there is a lot of freedom when it comes to how you decide to manage your time. Most master’s degrees last two years (120 ECTS) and usually include two internships, known here as “internship”. In my case, the first year started with a series of compulsory courses (30ECTS) and a minor internship lasting about 6 months (30 ECTS). During the second year, we had a block of optional courses (12 ECTS), literaturestudy (9 ECTS) and a major internship or master’s thesis (36 ECTS). In this second year, the order in which these three blocks are carried out may vary.
If we compare it with the masters in which I was interested in Spain, the end of masters work is usually about 15 ECTS and here we are talking about a total of 66 ECTS internships. Many people decide to go abroad for the second internship and from the University you are very encouraged to do so, both within Europe and outside it. There are travel bags and scholarships for this.

Q: What is literature study?
A: It’s what we call a bibliographic review in Spanish, it’s not usually part of a typical master’s degree taught in Spain. It consists of choosing a subject of interest and, under the supervision of a university professor or researcher, developing a critical review of the existing bibliography and also contributing your own ideas. Both the topic and the supervisor are chosen by the student.
The advantage is that if you do a good job and your supervisor is interested, you can always publish it. The way you choose the topic and the time you take to complete the work is completely free. This experience taught me to learn to organize my time independently. At university in Spain I was used to everything being jobs that had a fixed deadline, here everything is much freer so you have to learn to manage time responsibly to achieve your goals. In my opinion, it was a good preparation for the doctorate.

Q: Is the offer of optional courses limited to what the university itself offers?
A: Not necessarily, a series of optional courses are proposed within that master’s degree but other courses can also be chosen within the same university or even at another university through an application. It is quite common to take courses at another university, at no additional cost.

Q: What would you highlight about your master’s degree compared to a similar one you could have taken in Spain?
A: As I have already mentioned, one of the advantages was the strong practical training. This helps not only to improve the curriculum but also to experience the research work from within. In my opinion, a master’s degree can be a bit abstract. That is to say, we absorb a lot of theoretical content on a subject that interests us but it is difficult to visualize how to apply this knowledge in future jobs.
Another aspect that I quite enjoyed is that teachers encourage critical thinking and personal initiative. This is highly valued in the Netherlands.

Q: Could you tell us more about your work experience in a Dutch laboratory? Things that stand out compared to Spain?
A: First of all, I was given enough independence to develop the research project and my proposals were always taken into consideration as those of other colleagues with more experience. In my experience there is little hierarchy, we all participated equally in the scientific discussions. In fact, the students’ opinions were highly valued. Another notable difference is the amount of resources, greater compared to other laboratories in which I was in Spain. By resources, I mean materials, equipment or aids to go to conferences as a student.

Q: What is the University’s relationship with the company in the Netherlands?
A: You are very encouraged to look for internships in companies. Universities encourage the creation of start-ups, in general there is quite an entrepreneurial mentality. For example, during the Master’s we had the opportunity to attend several career days. These events consist of facilitating contact between companies and future employees who have been trained at Dutch universities. Several companies recruit people and organise workshops. For example, in one of these workshops they taught you how to improve your curriculum. It was a very good experience that helped me explore options beyond the university.

Q: What details about the master’s program caught your attention? (Anecdotes of cultural difference)
A: For example, for the ethical part during the animal experimentation course, they invited an animal anti-experimentation group to give us a talk. For me this was something very shocking that the Dutch colleagues did not find so strange.

Q: Would you recommend the master to other students with the same type of training?
A: Yes, especially if they are looking for a master’s degree in cancer research in a very international environment. It has been a very enriching experience both professionally and personally.

Q: What has the VU Master’s given you at a personal level?
A: On the one hand, I have learned to be independent and manage my time more efficiently to achieve my goals. On the other hand, I really enjoyed the international atmosphere. Meeting people from different cultures has taught me many things.


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