Monday, February 16, 2015

A fluid opalescent mosaic –The studying life of an international master student

I see, the intervals between my blogs exponentially increase, like the vertical distance between the points of a heteroskedastic distribution as x grows. Maybe each time I need more effort to summarize experiences from a longer period! But let’s focus on the topic of today. The second period is already over, and we are already deep into the third block, composed by the two optional courses. Therefore I now have an image quite clear of how weeks tend to look like for a master student of the Utrecht School of Economics, since my impressions begin to be statistically significant.

First, let’s talk about the attendance required from a master student at USE. Both for the master in “Economics of Public Policy and Management” and the four tracks for “International Economics and Business”, students have typically two courses per block; each course requires two meeting of two/three hours per week, usually organized as one lecture and one tutorial. The attendance required is therefore not much: students officially have to stay at USE only 8/10 hours per week, and they will have to go to the campus for a maximum of four days per week, which can be even three or two if they are lucky on how the courses are organized. Nevertheless, attendance is only a small part of the effort required: apart from studying, each course typically requires a group paper, and usually there are also weekly assignments to prepare, while more than one course needs tutorials to be prepared by groups of students. As a consequence, in the end the week of a master student becomes a composition of floating meetings and appointments that tend to concentrate and to amass around the four blocks of required presence at USE. I will speak mostly about international students, because Dutch students have already lives and works started in Utrecht and tend to follow different dynamics (just to give an idea: in our master we are about 5 international students over around 20 students –numbers change at each course- the same proportion holding more or less also for the tracks of International Business).

Typically, courses start at 11 am, apart from Econometrics in the first block that begins at 9 to fully exploit the morning. 11 is a time which divides the morning, and it is even too easy to simply use it to sleep longer so that the morning is basically lost. But don’t worry, each lecture or tutorials usually requires some readings (manual chapters, or additional articles), so very rarely everything is done with such advance that we don’t need that couple of hours before the course to finish reading or preparing some material. After the course, you’ll have lunch with your master’s friends in the Adam Smith Hall (this big hall in the main USE’s building, where it is possible to eat, talk and work, and where such a big part of our days is spent), by buying something in the (not so expensive) cantine or bringing something (pasta!) from home. Since we are already there, we then stay in Adam Smith to meet with the project group in order to organize or do the work. After a couple of hours, the groups typically dismiss, but several of us usually remain to work or study in Adam Smith Hall. These are nice hours, because you can remain working with your friends, talking and having breaks together, while all the life of USE goes on around you, because the Hall is the very core of Adam Smith building, and while you work master students of all tracks, professors, staff members, hosts, phd and young researchers are passing by. Every body is more or less busy, more or less accompanied, and groups compose and decompose while you cross all the time people you know and talk with or just say hello.

The afternoon is often interrupted by feed-back meetings with your professors or with the phd students who supervise your group work, or by the events organized by USE –for instance every second Thursday the USE academy organizes interesting two-hours conferences with guests involved in different fields, to which all master students are invited. Once in a while also some special events or career-days take place, while some courses organize field trips or special conferences. 

Before and after these meetings, studying in the Adam Smith Hall remains the base activity for more or less each day. And it is a nice component of our life at USE. Also because around 6-7 in the evening, the hall starts to get empty: the members of the staff has left, Dutch students are gone back to their friends and families, and while only a few professors still pass by, you typically find yourself with other 10-12 international students –probably always the same- who keep working together ad laughing more and more as the fatigue is going on. These last hours at Adam Smith are typically the best, because in the silence of the building you feel free with your friends, and the fatigue intertwines laughs and jokes about the passed day. Sometimes, if you have to stay longer because the exams or some dead-lines are close, you see lights shutting down around you. It means it’s 10 pm and you’re better to hurry up not to be closed into the building. I think that all master students have experienced it at least once.

The following day you probably have another course, and the same is going to happen –only the group project you work with is maybe different. And if we don’t have courses, we typically go in groups of 4-5 people to study to the city centre library (a very big and impressive library indeed, but not always evident to find free seats), where we can again have lunch and breaks together. Again, we tend to stay there until around 8, after what we sometimes have a beer or dinner together, or you can simply stops on the way home to say “hi” or scrounge a dinner to someone of your friends who live on the way home. The library is often the destination of both Saturday and Sunday, even if typically nobody starts before 10, except in the exam periods… when of course everything is more compressed and the nights as well can become interesting adventures!
What we also hope is that with the spring it will be possible to organize some studying groups to the park.

But do we always work that much? How much work is actually required by a master student?
It depends. The work load is relevant, but in general allows a high degree of flexibility. For instance, the greatest part of Dutch students perform paid work besides the studies, or volunteers in several political groups or student associations.  Also if several international students do work or volunteering, typically who comes from abroad to follow a master program tends to be more focused on the master program. This is true also because who has always lived in a place tends to have more commitments and connections: several Dutch students are part of sportive groups, or play in music bands, or have other weekly appointments. We, the “internationals”, tend to study more also because we basically don’t have much else to do: it is dark soon, it is very cold and often rains, and if I think to the winter months which just passed, I remember that being all together working and talking in Adam Smith was often much more attractive, warm and fun than wondering around. Once here, it is simply natural to remain working together until the very end of the day, and the personal relationships which build around that are maybe the best aspect of my year so far. But also several of us perform different activities besides the master: I know that someone found small jobs, some other signed up to the gym or to other sporting groups, some are in the board of student associations. I personally attended a Dutch course organized at an exceptional price by ING (International Neighbourhood Group) -from which I was not in the end learning much because (my fault!) I was not doing enough homework; and I was also bringing some work of translation and research from Italy, that I try to fit whenever I can.
In conclusion, the master requires a considerable effort, which if afforded exclusively allows having on average higher results, but it can also be placed side by side with other activities, by being fairly tranquil about not failing the exams.

This is more or less the kind of life I am conducting here with my friends and “colleagues”, as to the studying. On the whole, I would describe it as dynamic and varied, but especially collective: for one reason or another, we tend to stay more or less all together, and to share a lot. This is maybe the best part of studying here, besides the organization and the contents of courses, and it’s true even without considering the social life and the “night life” in particular, which would deserve a blog on its own, and maybe a more resilient night-liver than me.