For astronomy master student Casper Farret Jentink (23), the pandemic turned out to be a blessing in disguise. With all educational activities taking place online, he had the opportunity to find a thesis supervisor outside the UG. He decided on Frans Snik, an astronomer at the Leiden observatory. Casper got the opportunity of a lifetime: to build a solar telescope.
‘We got along really well from the get-go’, Casper says about his online meeting with Snik. He started his project in September and so far, he and Snik have not met in real life. Nevertheless, he’s happy with the way the communication has been going. ‘I also chat to other people who are working on the project, and I’ve even worked on location occasionally.’
He does most of his research at home. ‘That was always the plan’, he says. He hasn’t had any practical problems. ‘It’s just a shame that there aren’t any other students I can talk to occasionally.’
Not everyone is as lucky as Casper. Lieke Garritsen (21) started on her psychology bachelor thesis this academic year. She and six other students studied the impact of eye movement on trauma processing. In September of last year, she met the others in her group and their supervisor in the faculty garden. They were able to meet outside because it was a warm day. But since then, she’s only seen them on her computer screen.
It’s a shame I can’t talk to other students
‘My supervisor had some experiences with pandemic theses. He knew what to do and helped us set up a corona-proof experiment’, says Lieke. This allowed her to perform her experiments remotely. She had enough participants, but she also ran into issues. ‘Because we couldn’t do our experiment in a lab, we were unable to control the participants’ environment. That means almost no one got any significant results.’
History lecturer Karl Heidecker, who supervises students writing their master and bachelor theses, has seen a lot of these practical issues. ‘Our students often need access to archives. If they don’t get it, they’re at a dead end.’
The history department has therefore focused on material that’s digitally available as much as possible in the past months. ‘But the students who’d already started their research ran into problems. We had to make arrangements for them. Most of them suffered delays.’
Irene Boven (21) was busy writing her bachelor thesis for her liberal arts and sciences degree in March of last year when everything was suddenly moved online. She was lucky: she was only doing a literature review, which meant her work wasn’t affected. But some of her fellow students had a harder time. ‘Anyone who was doing lab research or interviews had to retool their entire thesis.’
Figure it out
The severity of the problems caused by the lockdown varies per programme. Job de Grefte, philosophical skills lecturer and thesis coordinator, says his students were barely affected in their research. ‘There were no substantial drawbacks for them, since our theses are mainly dependent on literature reviews. But it’s a whole different story for biology students, for example.’
Without archive access, you reach a dead end
However, the students don’t just run into practical issues. The lack of social contact can be difficult to deal with, as well. ‘I’d normally spend time on campus and I’d be able to talk to other students about any issues I had. Now I have to figure everything out myself’, says Casper.
‘It’s easier to have a discussion in real life’, says Lieke. ‘You learn a lot more by just talking to each other. But now it’s all so formal and less dynamic.’
Too much distraction
Having to stay inside is also detrimental to the students’ motivation. ‘Some weeks, it’s really difficult to get started’, says Casper. ‘There’s no outlet for my energy.’ Lieke is quicker to do other things when she needs to focus on writing. ‘There’s no distraction at the UB.’
‘You have to be able to plan things and set yourself goals’, says Irene. ‘If that wasn’t your strong suit to begin with, you’re having a hard time right now.’
Lecturers are struggling with the same things. ‘It just isn’t as much fun. I don’t enjoy what I do as much’, says De Grefte. ‘Normally, I’d have long discussions with my students. But now all my comments are in written form. It’s just so boring.’
Writing a thesis during a pandemic isn’t all doom and gloom, though. ‘It looks like it’s given some students something to focus on’, De Grefte says. ‘I’m pleasantly surprised to see them really giving it their all. It doesn’t look like we’ll have a massive drop-out on our hands.’ Rasmus Wiese, lecturer and thesis supervisor at the Faculty of Economics and Business (FEB), has noticed the same. ‘A lot of students are actually doing better, because they have more time on their hands and less of a social life.’
Students are doing better because they have more time
In the end, Irene says working online was a positive experience. ‘I went to my mother’s house in March and worked on my thesis for two months. I had a lot of space and very few distractions. It was ideal.’
Lieke even deliberately decided to write her thesis now. ‘It’s not like I had anything better to do. I hoped I’d have some more time to do other stuff when I finished my thesis.’
Working in groups
At the history department, lecturers try to maintain the social aspect of studying as much as possible, says Heidecker. ‘Some students hate sitting home alone and it negatively affects their motivation. We try to do something about that by having them talk to each other and work on their thesis in groups.’
For many students, writing their thesis is the last thing they do before graduating. ‘Students tend to have very little contact with the programme in that last phase of their bachelor or master’, says Heidecker. ‘We try to keep those students involved. We want them to be a part of the community for as long as possible.’
De Greft says it’s also important to keep an eye on students’ mental health. ‘We try to come up with individual solutions for those students who are struggling. We might be a little less strict here and there.’
At FEB, they even decided the rules applied to the entire faculty. ‘The board asked us to go a little easier when setting deadlines’, says Wiese. ‘Students who are having a hard time or who want to talk can always schedule an appointment.’
At the history department, ‘there are study advisers to help out struggling students’, says Heidecker. Hopefully, that will help students deal with the enormous task of writing their thesis.