By Joris Buis – One of the challenges that we as educators at the FNWI – and most other faculties – face, is the large increase in student numbers over the past few years. One issue that arises is the match between education and later career perspectives, since there are far fewer options for careers in academia, then there are in business or societal environments. Only ten percent of all UvA students continues in a doctoral (PhD) position. For our Faculty that percentage will be higher, but I assume it does not exceed fifty percent. At the same time, more and more employers are asking for graduates with professional experience on top of their academic training. So the question is, what does the FWNI offer students who want to pursue careers outside the university realm?
A promising direction: TESLA
One FNWI initiative to address this issue is the Tesla minor: a 30EC track for graduate students who are in the final phase of their Master’s programme. Companies and societal organisations (e.g. Unilever, TNO, ASML, municipality of Amsterdam) provide small groups of students with a question or problem, who set up a 5-month research project with the goal to provide the organisation with a solution. The problems are real (meaning the client has a real demand for a solution), require contact with different stakeholders, lack obvious or easy solutions, and ask for a thorough academic and interdisciplinary approach. Moreover, all projects contribute to a societal goal such as improvement of sustainability or general health.
An example of one of the projects is ‘Green Science Park’, commissioned by the municipality of Amsterdam. Two ecology students and one student of general biology, researched the environmental state of a 1.5 hectare plot at the Science Park campus and designed a plan for improvement of the ecology, recreational value and possibilities for food production. Next to soil sampling and biodiversity inventories, the student did social surveys to monitor stakeholder demand, and lay the foundations for a large network of individuals and organisations around the science park who want to join the efforts. Their hard work has paid off, in terms of a high quality report and design, but also because the municipality has agreed to execute and fund the development of the plot. It is expected that the work will start early 2015 to restructure the piece of land, and to create the multiple elements – as designed by the students – to improve the ecological state, including a permaculture garden, accessible to all Science Park commuters.
Goals, means and results
During the research project students have access to expert knowledge from senior research staff in the faculty. Tesla also offers students intensive trainings on various competencies such as problem solving, presenting, networking, writing, project management and interviewing. Students use these trainings as a toolbox for successful accomplishment of their project goals.
The Tesla minor facilitates our FNWI graduate students who want to broaden their horizons and explore the interface of science, business and society. It also benefits the valorisation of knowledge within the FNWI by allowing students to use science and expertise for societal solutions. Now that the first two editions are behind us, it shows that the Tesla alumni value it exceptionally high – with a course rating of 9.2 out of 10. Many find a suiting place to work, outside or within science (three of our alumni started a PhD, and more are to follow). But more importantly, alumni gain insight into the world outside university and into their own capabilities and drives, enabling them to make well-grounded decisions about their own future, which starts right after graduation day.