Since November of last year, physics professor Paul Koenraad has been at the helm of the Graduate School at TU/e, home to the masters (MSc), Professional Doctorate in Engineering programs (PDEng) and the statutory periods of doctoral study (PhD). Koenraad succeeded logistics specialist Jan Fransoo, who had been the dean of the Graduate School since early 2014.
The work is more enjoyable than he had expected, tells Koenraad. “In this position the organization really places its trust in you to get things done.” But don't imagine that as dean he has the power to make commands. “You have to consult with everyone, from the Executive Board, and the University Council, to the departments and TU/e services like DPO and ESA. They sold me this position as being doable in two days a week, although even once you've found your feet, it really takes a lot more time. But I am learning about many aspects of the organization that are new to me, and that is fascinating.”
The dean, who in his daily life is still a professor at the Photonics and Semiconductor Nanophysics group, already had plenty of experience of extensive education projects. For example, like Fransoo he helped get the minors up and running, and he was the driving force behind the Honors Academy. “Even when I had only just started working at Applied Physics as an assistant professor, I was already heavily involved with the transformation of the practical courses there. So this suits me, although for the Graduate School the liaison work is on a much larger scale.”
During the early months of his deanship, thinks Koenraad, he might have had a little too much on his plate. “I had to take over the position from Jan Fransoo fairly quickly, while I was still vice dean of Applied Physics, a department in the middle of a reorganization, as well as the dean of the Honors Academy. In addition, I am supervising five PhD candidates and two postdocs.”
Since then he has stepped down from the Applied Physics Board and leadership of the Honors Academy has passed to professor Ines Lopez Arteaga of Mechanical Engineering. “So fortunately my work is more manageable again. I believe that initially five secretaries were managing my diary; I had no say at all. Once again I have more time for my PhD candidates, although unfortunately they cannot walk into my office as easily as in the past.”
An important priority within the Graduate School is the integration of soft skills - such as presenting, writing and cooperating - in the master's study program. At the start of this program an assessment is made that indicates, among other things, which soft skills the student possesses. “This is the cause of much dissatisfaction among students, so we are going to change our approach,” explains Koenraad. “This coming academic year it won't be completely different yet, but as of the academic year 2019/2020 the new approach must be in place.” He's an advocate of this not only in the master's, but also for PhD candidates. “We should be starting in the bachelor's and have the learning pathway for soft skills run through continuously to the end of the Graduate School.”
Because soft skills are important, the physicist believes. Not only for students, but also for lecturers, partly because they have an important task to fulfill as a mentor to students. Although every student already has a mentor, the role the mentor plays varies greatly from program to program, and the approach taken by individual lecturers also differs widely.
Academic quality is the basis, but if someone excels as a lecturer and mentor, then I'd be inclined to let that be the deciding factor where a promotion is concerned
Personal development plan
“Some are coaching perfectly, others have difficulty with it. But it isn't a simple task, you really have to stand in the student's shoes. I saw that in the Honors Academy, where students have to write a personal development plan at the outset. Whenever a project is evaluated, that plan is added yet again to the evaluation. We should really extend this scheme to the regular students, certainly if you look ahead to 2030. Students will have more choice then, but that means they will need more support in reflecting on their study path and career prospects.”
In Koenraad's opinion soft skills like these should count for more when academic staff are being hired and promoted. “I see this as part of the education we provide, and as being important for a university. Academic quality is the basis, but if someone excels as a lecturer and mentor, then I'd be inclined to let that be the deciding factor where a promotion is concerned.”
In a similar vein, it is evident from the National Students Survey (NSE) that students are fairly critical of the extent to which the university prepares them for the employment market. “If you probe, one of the things you find is that they don't regard the activities of study associations as part of the offering of ‘the university’. For this reason we have brought all career preparation at TU/e under a single banner: My Future.”
Incidentally, this NSE proves to be an important benchmark for the new dean. When during our interview he hears that the results of the NSE 2018 have been announced and can be found on the Cursor website, he picks up his laptop to view them. TU/e comes out looking good, but compared with the national average the university scores relatively low on group size: students feel the groups are too large.
“That is obviously a point of concern,” admits Koenraad. “And it is a prime reason for setting a ceiling on student intake for certain bachelor's programs. It is our duty to maintain the quality of our education. Ultimately that is more important than quantity.” The master's education needs to score at least an eight on all the points in the NSE, he emphasizes. “We refer to that as Action 8.”
Another priority for the Graduate School also relates to the considerable growth in student numbers: final year undergraduates - who require a great deal of supervision – must be distributed evenly across the research groups. At Mechanical Engineering, for example, the popular groups were being overwhelmed with graduating students. A pilot has now been carried out there involving a ‘placement committee’, whereby students had to apply for a place in a research group, tells Koenraad.
“There was also some herd behavior going on; students choosing a popular professor or the same group as their friends. This choice is now being given more thought, and it turned out that everyone could simply be placed in the group of his or her choice. In another pilot, at Industrial Engineering, students are helped as early as their second year to develop their awareness of which master's they might choose.”
Professional Doctorate in Engineering
The least well-known part of the Graduate School is formed by the two-year Professional Doctorate in Engineering programs for the title PDEng. These are offered within the 4TU context and are currently undergoing considerable restructuring. “Each program had its own way of running the shop, and was doing things as they pleased. A considerable degree of harmony is being introduced, in line with the uniform approach we now have in the Bachelor College and the master's programs. This streamlining has rather become our standout strength, I think. It makes it easy to make horizontal connections, as we have done for the honors program. That is certainly viewed by other universities with some jealousy.”
Harmonizing PDEng programs
This academic year the ‘new style’ PDEng programs have been launched. The 11 programs have been radically harmonized, and the PDEng trainee has more freedom of choice and more contact with trainees on other PDEng programs, tells Paul Koenraad. “The new features include a joint element for all PDEngs, namely two mandatory modules on system thinking that are taken by all trainees whatever their program.”
In addition, various electives have been developed that will interest very many of the PDEng trainees, he says. “Courses on other programs can also be taken, and we have facilitated this option by dividing the year up into four blocks each lasting ten weeks. Two weeks have been reserved for the modules on system thinking, and other shared modules, and the remaining electives can be chosen in consultation with the mentor.” In total, the electives account for 15 credits (ECTS).
Also new is the introduction of a central examination committee for the PDEng programs, headed up by professors Bart Smolders (EE) and Aarnout Brombacher (ID). “This committee has a role in all design projects and in the selection of electives. In addition, the examination committee will safeguard the quality of the programs. We are now busy establishing what form this quality assurance will take.”
Tracking PhD students
And for the statutory periods of doctoral study, too, the Graduate School is providing an additional structure. In the foreseeable future, a tracking and registration system will be introduced in which the progress of all PhD candidates will be recorded and maintained. “I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but we are one of the last universities in the Netherlands to introduce this kind of system.” On the other hand, the need to do so was perhaps less great at TU/e than at many other universities: “With an average of 4.5 years for each doctoral study, we are doing very well, and we even have the lowest dropout rate. However, this stands at 20 percent, while internationally the level for this is around 10 percent. So there is ground to be gained.”
In addition to this, dropouts leave only after an average of 24 months. A more formal system could ensure that any problems are recognized earlier, with the consequence that the PhD candidate could either go to on complete his or her degree or, conversely, could drop out sooner. “A plan must be in place after three months, after nine months a ‘go / no go’ decision, and a year later a progress report. In addition, an exit interview will be held with every PhD candidate and the reports written by the reading committee will be archived.” Furthermore, a PhD-PDEng Office will be created where PhD candidates and PDEng trainees can go if they have any questions or wish to talk to a counselor or psychologist. “This is necessary because we know that PhD candidates and PDEng trainees are under a lot of pressure.”
And after that? Then we still aren't done, if it's up to the dean; after Action 8 will come Action 9. “I am never satisfied. You have to keep on pulling and pushing. I would rather be too ambitious as dean than not ambitious enough.”
Somewhere where you can go as a PhD candidate or PDEng trainee to discuss all your questions and problems - early next year a PhD-PDEng Office fitting this description should be open. PhD candidate Gilles Timmermans, representative of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry on the PhD-PDEng Council, is pleased with the idea. He says that in principle all the information PhD candidates need is available, but it is often difficult to find. “Especially in the final phase of a doctoral study a lot of administrative hassle is involved. We are keen to have somewhere we can ask what exactly the rules are on reimbursements for having a thesis printed, or whether we can apply for benefits once our contract has expired.”
In addition, Timmermans thinks it valuable that a psychologist is attached to the PhD-PDEng Office. “Someone whose office you can drop by, preferably without an appointment, to talk about your problems. Not every department has such a person, or in any event many PhD candidates do not know of their existence. Everyone isn't equally assertive, and internationals in particular won't be quick to seek psychological help. So it is important that we keep this service as easily accessible as possible. To my mind, we should invite every PhD candidate to a welcome interview, for example as part of the introduction.”
The PDEng trainees too are very pleased to be getting a PhD-PDEng Office, tells Christina Papachristou. Last she started as a PDEng trainee of Smart Buildings & Cities. Since January of this year she has been representing the PDEng trainees on the PhD-PDEng Council, on which also a PhD candidate from every department has a seat.
“We PDEng trainees are eager to get the PhD-PDEng Office started, and we are keen to help ensure it is soon up and running efficiently,” says the Greek national. This is because more so than the PhD candidates, who are often happily ensconced in a group and department, the PDEng trainees tend to be rootless, drifting between TU/e and the company for which they are producing their design. “Some of them work full time at their host company for a whole year; speaking for myself, I spend every Friday at the construction company BAM; I am designing a guideline for them for regulating heating comfort in office buildings.”
It is not always clear to what extent a trainee is free to design his or her assignment, and according to Papachristou, nor does the client always realize that formally the trainee is employed by TU/e and thus, for example, has vacation between Christmas and New Years. “Such conflicts are usually the result of poor communication, but often the trainee does not know who he or she can turn to. The supervisor at TU/e is not always available, or does not know how to deal with the matter. We would really welcome having a single place we can go to when we are facing problems of this kind.”