Science Education at UvA-VU: Master's in Physics & Astronomy

10 May 2016

A single MSc programme for all physics and astronomy students in Amsterdam – it will soon become reality at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and VU Amsterdam. In September 2016, the UvA's Master's degrees in Physics and Astronomy will merge, joined ‘a split-second later’ by VU Amsterdam's Master's degree in Physics. The result: the new joint degree programme in Physics & Astronomy.


Physics capital

‘Amsterdam is the physics capital of the Netherlands, though it may not be evident to outsiders because Amsterdam is also the capital of so many other things,’ says UvA physicist Ben Linden van den Heuvell. ‘Physicists and astronomers at the UvA are already based here at Science Park, and as of 2018 we will be joined by a contingent of physicists from VU Amsterdam. And the city is home to all the major research institutes too – AMOLF, NIKHEF, ARCNL and, soon, SRON.’

Van den Heuvell is also the programme director of the MSc in Physics at the UvA, a title he shares with his VU Amsterdam counterpart Wim Vassen. They say it is only natural that the two universities have successfully offered their Master's programmes in physics together all the way back since 2003. ‘We are both in Amsterdam, after all,’ Vassen points out.


As he explains, one benefit of a joint programme for students doing their Master's in Amsterdam is that when the time comes to do a work placement, they can choose from the full gamut of research institutes. In fact, SRON and ARCNL came to Amsterdam for this very reason. ‘We have also been working to make research at the UvA and VU Amsterdam increasingly complementary since 2000,’ says Van Linden van den Heuvell. Whereas research at VU Amsterdam centres largely on the physics of life and energy, the UvA is more focused on string theory, theoretical physics and astronomy.

Within astronomy, the UvA specialises in compact objects such as black holes and neutron stars, planet formation, exoplanets and massive stars, says Carsten Dominik, current programme director of the Master's degree in Astronomy & Astrophysics. UvA astronomers also work alongside physicists within GRAPPA, and there are myriad interconnections in the degree programme as well, Dominik explains. ‘We are collaborating with physicists at VU Amsterdam to investigate if physical constants really do have the same values throughout the universe and at all times. And we are working with the department of Earth Science at VU Amsterdam and with SRON to offer courses on the composition of planets and exoplanets, and on planetary atmospheres.’

Showcasing tracks

Clearly then, the merger has not come out the blue. Nonetheless, there were also concerns initially, Dominik admits. For instance, will astronomy continue to be visible after it goes from a full-fledged degree programme to a track? ‘Our programme is well-known at the moment. To retain that visibility, we will be doing more to showcase the tracks in our recruitment activities for the degree programme. That is something my physics colleagues have also wanted for a long time.’


However, the programme directors all expect the merger will mainly yield synergy benefits, for example in terms of administration. ‘The difference will hinge on the small qualities, that is my hope,’ Van Linden van den Heuvell says. ‘That good service will help everyone involved to feel more driven.’ Dominik adds: ‘Some students have trouble deciding between physics and astronomy, because they are fascinated by both. It will now become easier for them to choose a focus within the degree programme. Physics and astronomy each have their own distinct methods, but share common goals. More discussion with physics and letting students attend lectures across the whole spectrum of the field will have a positive effect.’

Text: Jeroen Scharroo

Published by  Faculty of Science