Student - 12 december 2013

Light at the end of the tunnel?

Rob Ramaker

After a problem-free university career, many students come unstuck when they have to get to grips with their theses. One of the reasons can be trouble during the internship. Another can be difficulty organizing the project. But the reason at the top of the list is the much feared writer’s block. ‘Not enough attention is paid to it.’

Gerco is a student of biology. In his tenth year, he may well be the closest Wageningen gets to an ‘eternal student’. Why? Because of delays in the writing assignments for his theses and internships. In retrospect he knows what went wrong: ‘I find it difficult to work at a PC on my own. Especially when the deadline is still far off, I am not good at finding the motivation and discipline.’ It did not help that he kept dreaming up big projects. Gerco: ‘You can get very lost that way.’ He has already been working on his Master’s internship for two years now. Study advisors see quite a few students embarking on overambitious and poorly defined projects. ‘And it is very difficult to write a good research proposal,’ says study advisor Nynke Post Uiterweer. To make matters worse, students run up against all sorts of practical problems such as experiments that do not go to plan.

Support groups
But the real bugbear is the writing process. ‘I notice that students just cannot write,’ says study advisor Neeltje van Hulten, who supervises mainly BSc theses. ‘They are not clear about their objectives in the writing, they go for too big a story and they cannot keep to the main point.’ Why students have such difficulty with writing, in particular, Van Hulten does not know. The curriculum certainly pays attention to it, along with other academic skills. She encourages students who fi nd writing diffi cult to take a course in academic writing. She would like to see a writing centre in Wageningen, where students with writer’s block can find help. Because supervisors rarely help with the writing process, but focus exclusively on the scientific content. ‘Little specific attention is paid within Wageningen University to the issue of delayed graduation,’ confirms Nynke Post Uiterweer. ‘At other universities I see that there are supervision groups for people who get stuck with their theses or internships.’

Wageningen does have support groups in which students give each other mutual support to deal with procrastination, with guidance from a student psychologist. On Post Uiterweer’s own programme, International Land and Water Management, study supervisors have recently started addressing procrastination in the Bachelor’s phase. On return from a project abroad, the writing work is tightly organized. ‘Students have to present their work to each other, structure it and read it out in class. I don’t have any figure yet but my impression is that there are now far fewer extensions into the summer vacation.’

Going underground
In extreme cases students sometimes ‘go underground’. They do this because they are ashamed of their lateness and missed deadlines. Then they stop picking up the phone and leave emails unanswered. That is not only counterproductive for the students themselves, but also for their supervisors, explains ex-supervisor Guusje Bonnema. She once supervised an ‘above average’ Chinese student who had written a perfectly good thesis. But after her internship she suddenly disappeared. She did not answer emails, telephone numbers were changed and nobody knew where she was. She only turned up again one and a half years later. In China. Bonnema: ‘During her internship she had had so many disappointments that she got depressed. Even with an extension she did not feel her internship was good enough. She had such a negative self image and did not dare to talk to anyone about it, so she went home.’

According to Bonnema, it is hard to predict who will get into difficulties. It certainly has nothing to do with quality. Post Uiterweer, too, has sometimes tried to predict who would struggle with their thesis, based on the results of the first six months of the programme. In vain: ‘A Master’s thesis really is something else.’ Biology student Gerco, at any rate, hopes he will soon be done. But at the moment he is busy working on his African insect cookbook. ‘I’m sure it will be a beautiful book,’ he says, but it will be a huge relief when it’s finished. And what is his advice for students who haven’t embarked on their thesis yet? ‘If writing is hard for you, choose a clearly defined project.’