Academic Education at Graduate school

Interview on the understanding of academic education

Having a chat with

Dr. Anja Soltau, Head of Leuphana Graduate School

Talking about graduate education ©Patrizia Jäger
"We aim to introduce our Master's students to relevant social and ethical issues."

Anja Soltau is a PhD graduate in English and Romance philology and business economics. Since 2003, she has been putting her passion for disciplinary diversity and the internationalisation of universities into practice in her professional activities. She did so initially for a private education provider in Hamburg. In 2008, her path led her to the Leuphana Graduate School, which she has helped to build up and successfully led ever since. One of her abiding questions is that of the optimal form of graduate education for the future. Privately, Anja Soltau still likes to be inspired by the big city; she lives in Hamburg, together with her family.

What do you consider the biggest distinction of a Masters programme at Leuphana in comparison with what other German universities offer?

The distinctions of our Masters programmes can be condensed into three adjectives: interdisciplinary, international, innovative. I myself was still able to study under the old Master’s degree system and, alongside the disadvantages which certainly existed, made intensive use of the advantages at that time. One of these was the opportunity – particularly at large universities – to put together your study programme yourself. I studied three completely different subjects because they interested and excited me – that’s certainly not everyone’s thing, but it delighted me. Occasionally, I also dipped a toe into sign Language Interpreting and Law. Theoretically I would have been able to combine this with my main subject of Romance philology thanks to the study regulations.

I believe that this flexibility is missing from the vast majority of programmes in Germany following the Bologna reform: curricula are streamlined, content is prescribed right down to electives within a discipline. At the Leuphana Graduate School, we have found various possibilities for loosening this rigidity and, at various points, make it possible for students to look into different subjects and offer them in some parts an individual arrangement of their curriculum. Owing to the fact that many programmes have been jointly designed by multiple departments, we also allow them to experience the fascination of collaboration between various disciplines.

In addition to the effect of improving your language skills, internationalisation has a very similar goal: expanding horizons – often quite literally – and intensive interaction with other cultures. I consider the latter to be immensely important for our future social relations. The Graduate School wants to facilitate the participation in international study courses as much as possible for all interested Master’s students. In many programmes, periods at other universities are therefore a core element of the curriculum.

And the last but by no means the least reason: innovative study formats. Here, I don’t have to look back wistfully at my own years at university, which were dominated by rather traditional ideas about teaching and learning; it demanded a lot of self-motivation. At Leuphana, we aim to increasingly transfer responsibility for learning to the students and to start with their motivation and at their individual learning level. We do this by offering analogue and digital seminars that are exciting both in terms of content and didactics. The fact that we, as a medium-sized university, are able to work with a fantastic staff-to-student ratio and small seminar groups certainly helps us here. As a graduate from a “mass” university, this is absolute luxury in my view! And that brings me to a final point that stands out here in Lüneburg: Leuphana is a real campus university where almost all of the lectures, as well as the rest of university life, play out on the main campus. Nothing is more than a 5 minutes’ walk away, whether it’s seminar rooms, the sports facilities, the cafeteria, the library or workspaces for group work. This is something I’m not familiar with at all from Hamburg; there, everything is scattered over an area of 755 km2, meaning that a “student spirit” can only really occur in individual city districts. During my studies, it was the content, above all, that sustained me. Otherwise, it was a rather autonomous time without group contacts beyond one semester. I observe that this is completely different on the Leuphana campus – I hope and believe that the students enjoy and appreciate it!

What do you expect from the interdisciplinary orientation of the individual degree programmes?

Every Masters student will start working life sooner or later, even if they do a PhD after their Masters degree. We would be doing a poor job of preparing our graduates for working life if we only made them experts in their subject area. Clearly, a Masters degree has the task of diving deep into a specialist subject, providing the first concrete experiences of research and also encouraging attention to detail in a Masters dissertation. But it is also important to ensure that graduates are able to work in multidisciplinary project groups and understand how other disciplines think and work in order to do so. Specialist knowledge is important, but these days it becomes outdated increasingly quickly. That means, you need general skills which help you to manage in a wide variety of settings, you need to be open to life-long learning, which in turn means you need good learning strategies which still motivate you to learn new things and alter your portfolio even in your mid-50s. We shouldn’t forget that we will all be working until the end of our 60s at least – after the end of a Masters degree, that’s an estimated 40 years. It’s logical that just the specialist knowledge that I gained in my mid-20s won’t get me very far. I notice it myself every day in my job, and not just in the management positions but at all levels. But people with responsibility for projects are particularly needed to have interdisciplinary skills, of course.

Our interdisciplinary study elements help the students to deal with this issue and to gain a portfolio of skills which are universally applicable, and which can be used for a long time. We also aim to introduce our Master’s students to societal and ethical questions and thus to furnish them with a certain degree of responsibility as the group of people who are best educated – responsibility for future coexistence, whether demographic, educational, intercultural, social or sustainable.

In what teaching formats does the interdisciplinary nature of the Masters degree programme become manifest?

Here, I would like to highlight the Masters Complementary Studies and the Doctoral Track. Let’s start with the Complementary Studies: here, we make possible precisely what I initially criticised in the post-Bologna period. In a total of three modules covering the first three Masters semesters, we offer a varied portfolio of a total of 45 seminars which are designed to be interdisciplinary and aim to bring together students from various programmes. Thematically too, “out of the box” offerings are found here which intrigue and should inspire reflection, contemplation, research and further thought. In such a setting, it is common that Cultural Studies students sit in a seminar with students studying sustainability, discussing  the ethical questions of corporate management. You see, it’s not just about broadening horizons in terms of content, it’s also about acquiring skills when it comes to teamwork, operating in mixed project groups and a “graduate spirit”, i.e. a feeling of community beyond a student’s own degree programme. That’s something you won’t find in any other university in Germany. To consider my own experiences as a student once again: I would have considered such an offering to be a veritable paradise, because I was often hindered by the fact that every subject operated independently and time overlaps often made it impossible to attend seminars. What’s more, of course, no-one took my differing specialist background into account. These problems don’t occur in our Complementary Studies because the sessions are anchored in all curricula and are designed in a way that no extensive prior knowledge is required.

Our Doctoral Track is similarly unique. This is a voluntary offer for Masters students with a particular affinity for research who are already interested in the possibility of a PhD at the start of their studies. Those students are given a ticket to the world of the PhD. Based on a proposal and with the support of a supervisor, they can participate in the four doctoral courses and gain the status of a PhD student early. This has the invaluable advantage that students don’t get to the end of a Masters degree and only then ask whether a PhD makes sense, what the advantages and disadvantages are, what the world of a PhD student is actually like and what the common requirements are. “Is it something for me?” “What do I engage with there?” – these are all legitimate and very important questions with regard to 3 to 5 years of your life that you predominantly dedicate to research one question. I can only encourage all Masters students who are interested in research to consider the Doctoral Track – even if things end up going in a different direction, it certainly helps with the focus and quality of the Masters dissertation, as well as “building networks”.