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The Master's programme in Ecology and Evolution offered by VU Amsterdam and the track in Ecology and Evolution, which is part of the UvA Master's programme in Biological Sciences, had so many similarities that both programmes were combined into a single Master's programme in September 2012. A logical step, according to Gerard Driessen, coordinator of the VU Master's programme in Ecology and Evolution.

Gerard Driessen. Photo: Wouter Halfwerk

'We had already been conducting research together with colleagues from the UvA for some time. It wasn't such a big step to combine the curricula, as there were many similarities between the two programmes. Moreover, considering dwindling student numbers, it was a good move'. Driessen and his UvA colleague Patrick Meirmans soon developed a curriculum for the new Master's programme. 'The range of courses offered was rather homogeneous. In many cases we could maintain one of the two overlapping courses,' Driessen explains. 'Lecturers from both the UvA and VU are involved in all courses.'

Focus on research

The Master's programme in Ecology and Evolution is a two-year research-oriented programme. Research projects form a substantial part of the programme, with students doing a research work placement in both the first and second year. Why does research have such a major focus in the Master's programme? 'It was a conscious choice, we are really good at research,' says Driessen. 'Learning to conduct research provides a solid academic basis even if students are not planning to further their career as researchers. About fifty per cent of the Master's students continue with a PhD programme after they have completed their Master's. The other fifty per cent work in consultancy, policy or education in the field of biology.'

The charm of a small programme

This year, 25 students are pursuing the programme, half of whom are from abroad. 'The number of students may be a record low, but a small programme does have its advantages,' says Driessen. 'The communication lines are short and the lecturers know all the students, who in turn feel free to just drop by to see us. The atmosphere is really good and that's what the students appreciate.' This is also corroborated by the results of the National Students' Survey, which revealed that students rate the quality of the degree programme and the atmosphere as very good. Driessen: 'I'm delighted with these results. We've worked really hard together to achieve this.'

The collaboration between the universities is excellent, according to Driessen, and there are plans to make the programme into a joint degree programme in the future. 'This will enable us to promote the unity of the programme and universities more strongly.'

Outdoors beckons

Driessen will be retiring in two months. What will he miss the most? 'Being in contact with students and supervising them, and giving lectures, which is something I really enjoy. The people I work with are wonderful bunch and totally committed to teaching and research.' Years ago, Driessen chose for biology because he loves the outdoors. 'And at the end of my career I'm surrounded by concrete. The outdoors beckons and that's where I'll frequently be when I retire.'

MSc Biological Sciences: Ecology and Evolution (track)