Supervising Master's students in the Netherlands

Eva Lantsoght
5 Jan ’23

When you are a new faculty member in the Netherlands, or if you are considering to apply for a faculty position there, it is good practice to inform about how master’s students are being supervised.

Some of the aspects of supervision of Master’s students in the Netherlands may be different from other countries. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Master’s students are students, PhD students are (generally) employees

In the Netherlands, Master’s students may have a small part-time position (1 day a week) as a student assistant to help with a certain course, but it is uncommon to have Master’s students who are graduate research assistants (as one would call them in the USA). There is a larger difference in funding schemes and expectations for research between Master’s students and PhD students. Make sure you understand these conditions, before you start expecting a Master’s student to carry out certain research tasks for you – they may still be interested in this option for their own thesis and development, but they don’t earn a salary to assist you in your research.

2. Supervision in teams

Master’s students in the Netherlands are supervised in teams: a chair of the committee, a daily supervisor, and typically two more members, of which one is external to the research group of the chair and/or daily supervisors. The relation between the student and the committee is different from what you would expect in, for example the USA, where there is an apprentice-master relationship between student and professor.

3. Milestones

Mileage may vary between universities, but the meetings with the committee typically consist of the kick-off meeting, about two intermediate meetings, a greenlight meeting, and a defense. Prior to the kick-off meeting, the student writes their proposal with the definition of the research questions, preliminary literature review, and planning. The kick-off meeting is then the time and place to discuss these topics. After a few intermediate meetings, an official greenlight meeting gets scheduled. The student sends the full thesis no less than a week in advance of this meeting, and presents an overview of the work in about half an hour. The committee then decides if the student can be cleared for the defense. The final thesis has to be uploaded in the repository before the defense, which takes place at least 3 weeks after the greenlight.

4. Many go to industry

In engineering, it is common for students to do a project in a company for their thesis. The thesis still needs to have a research component, identify gaps in the literature and be based on a research question, but at the same time the student gets to apply these insights in a practical challenge. These collaborations also often result in employment for the student in the company upon graduation.

5. Duration of thesis

The number of months a student works on the thesis varies. In the United States, the duration can be the total length of the graduate program. In Belgium, it typically is the last semester. In the Netherlands, 8 to 9 months are common, and this is reflected by the relatively large number of credits assigned to the thesis.

Tips for supervising Master's students in the Netherlands

In addition to these particularities of supervising Master’s students in the Netherlands, I also want to share some of my best tips with you that may serve you as you embark on this task:

  • Have an on-boarding meeting to set expectations
    A good practice for anyone you work with, is to set your expectations clear from the beginning. In a first meeting, it would be good to let the student know about the following: when you expect chapter drafts, and how you will send feedback on these chapter drafts. Discuss also what they should do when they need your input: write an email, drop by your office, or schedule an appointment (I use Calendly for this purpose).
  • Develop topics in line with your research interests
    As a new faculty member, you may have a number of ideas that potentially could become grant applications. A preliminary study in the light of a master’s thesis can be the first step here. In addition, you can work on topics for which funding may be harder to obtain, or work on topics that are in line with currently funded projects.
  • Keep communication in supervision team clear
    When supervision happens in teams, it is important to make sure everybody is on the same page. Make sure the student knows who in the supervisory team is responsible for what, who is an expert in which topic (and to whom they should turn for advice), and how to submit drafts to the committee.
  • Provide timely feedback
    Master’s students have a relatively short timeframe for their work, so if you take weeks to sit on a draft before submitting feedback, then you may be unnecessarily delaying their graduation. Try to provide timely feedback. Discuss within the supervision team who focuses on which aspect of the feedback to streamline the task of giving timely feedback.
  • Give assistance on additional skills
    Master’s students may need assistance with aspects of the writing, learning how to use the library resources, developing clear presentation slides, and/or planning their time towards completion of their thesis. Don’t assume they just walk in with these skills acquiredpay attention to their strengths and weaknesses and advise them as well on these matters when necessary.

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