Published on: 21 April 2021
Written by: Eloy Wijlhuizen

'Where will I end up?', 'Where can I end up?' and 'What do I want?' - these questions might haunt you as a student. And you are not alone. We decided to reach out for advice to those who have been able to deal with my struggle in the past, our alumni. These kind people took their time to review their career for us: the choices they made, the problems they had to deal with, and what in the end made it all worth it. 

The format is very simple: they all answer the same 10 questions in their own way. No guidelines, no restrictions: their story.

This blog series has become a returning hit and we are already on our 6th edition of the Asking Alumni blogpost. A big thank you to Saskia, Hein, Geraldine and Myra for taking the time to help out.

If you are/know an alumnus/alumna (preferably 5+ years since graduating) that would like to participate in these blogs, please email us at cogblog@svcognac.nl.

Enjoy the lustrum!

- Jorrit Geels and Eloy Wijlhuizen

Contents:

  1. Saskia Robben: researcher and teacher at the Amsterdam University of Applied sciences
  2. Hein Ragas: product manager for business software
  3. Geraldine Voost: Global Learning & Development manager
  4. Myra van Esch-Bussemakers: director cybersecurity & security risk management

 

Saskia Robben

Saskia is a 36 year old guinea pig cuddling researcher. By enjoying the feeling of being lost she might have walked every street, alley and park there is in Nijmegen. Though this strategy is not Dijkstra-proof, it surely is a fun way to explore the already familiar environment. Currently she is doing her PhD besides her job at the Amsterdam University of Applied Science.

University and CognAC

1.      Were you involved within CognAC? If so, how? What did you learn from that experience?

One year I chaired the activity committee and for a few years I was "mother" of the batavierenrace. Besides organizing things, I guess what I learned most was how to motivate people. The first year we joined 'the bata', we really were clueless about what to expect: I lured many (not too athletic) fellow students into the team with the promise they could run the shortest 3km etappe. After this, it was quite necessary to also organize training sessions, and it resulted in a fantastic team and some friendships for life.

2.      What is your most ‘typical CognAC’ memory?

There are so many memories to choose from! Many are mentioned here before. So I add how cheesy we put the letters "KI" (Dutch for AI) in almost any activity-name (zwemski, etc).

3.      What is/are the most valuable thing(s) you learned in university, outside from course material?

I learned being flexible, as the courses were distributed among multiple faculties. I remember we sometimes complained that every teacher imposed another method and another programming language on us, and ECTS were sometimes earned harder or easier. Guess what, grown-up life is no different.

And this one is for free: I also learned that many symposia/conferences come with free snacks and a welcoming attitude towards student attendance.

About your career

4.      What is it exactly that you do now on a daily basis?

I chose working as researcher and teacher at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences ("Hogeschool van Amsterdam" in Dutch). What I like about this job is the hands-on approach to almost anything, and the relation to the professional practice (SME, care organizations, municipalities, etc.) in both research and teaching.

Since quite recent, I am leading a learning community on Applied Artificial Intelligence. My job encompasses different roles: being a teacher, coach, researcher, project manager and connecting people; in addition I pursue a PhD.

This means that on a daily basis my tasks are ranging from talking to people (colleagues, students, companies, end-users, care professionals), teaching (machine learning, coaching), presenting, organizing focus groups, doing some writing (articles, reports, project proposals) and some occasional python.

5.      What skills are most valuable in order to perform well in your workfield?

First of all: being able to work in an interdisciplinary environment. I think it differs a little bit depending on whether you want to do research, teaching or both. But at an HBO, it always involves a strong link with professional practice and different stakeholders. Other useful traits include: Curiosity, perseverance, social skills, balancing different tasks, and most of all: enjoying what you do!

What would you advise students to acquire these skills?

Doing your internship outside the university to gain some interdisciplinary experience. Furthermore, teaching and social skills can also be acquired in your favourite hobby, for example I was a horse riding teacher for many years. And I have more (former) sports-coaches as colleagues.

6.      Are there any things you wish you’d have done in your time as a student?
Maybe applying to interesting student-assistant jobs. Prior to studying I already had working experience, so I thought: "I am going to fully enjoy this student-life!". (Allowing myself a loan and not working besides studying.) However, later I saw that being a student-assistant actually can be really fun and interesting, and therefore shouldn’t be seen as a "job", but as an interesting activity.

Dealing with problems

7.      What is the hardest thing about your current job? How are you dealing with that?

Balancing between all the different roles. I sometimes try to allocate time for certain tasks that demand focus (e.g. writing or preparing classes) and make myself unavailable for other requests in these hours. But truth is, there is still room for improvement here.

8.      How did you come to your current job? Did you take steps in between? Could you consider any of these steps as ‘failures’, and if so, in what sense?


Often, I feel like I do things in the wrong order. In my career as well. I turned down a good PhD position, because the position at the HvA appealed much more to me (The position I started was a applied research & project management position that involved tackling real-world problems from the healthcare domain.)

On the one hand I was "correct" because after a decade I am still enjoying my work at the HvA very much and had many opportunities to grow and reinvent myself. On the other hand, I decided to pursue a PhD anyway and that is not so easy beside doing regular work.

Advice, to close off

9.      What is the best advice you ever got? Why did it turn out to be so useful?

Career wise, someone told me when I started at the HvA (being a large organisation): "This organisation is a tough one, no-one will take you by the hand, but on the other hand, everything you want is possible!" The remark triggered me to take control of my own path and craft my position to my taste. This includes trying things and notice that it is not my cup of tea. Of course you cannot always get what you want, but in all careers you can choose what flavours you prefer. (Becoming expert in the field, management, financial, commercial, organizing, etc)

10.    Do you have any good advice for ambitious students that would like to go into your workfield? And what kind of advice should they ignore?

If you want a taste of what it is to be a researcher or teacher you can look for small openings, for example by giving a guest lecture (e.g. present your thesis work). A position as student-assistant or an internship can also be a good way to experience the work. But don't let lack of skills or insecurity stop you: it is always possible to learn on the job (also acquiring the necessary qualifications is done on the job). Currently programs on AI are emerging everywhere, not only in the technical faculties, but also other professions feel the urge to learn more about AI. So enough opportunities.

One of the things I like about research and higher education: It feels like you get paid to extend your studies, to continually learn about all the things we like!

 

Hein Ragas

Hein Ragas, 47 years old, graduated 25 years ago: congratulations on his lustrum as well. Besides his job, Hein is a bookbinder and operates a 'private press' (you should google this- it is awesome). He also writes tabletop RPG scenario's that he would like to play himself. Even though the characters do not necessarily match his own character, there is always tea present at serious conversations - which is something that won't surprise you when you know him ;). After many different jobs he landed a job as a product manager for, as he describes it, 'boring' business software.

University and CognAC

1.      Were you involved within CognAC? If so, how? What did you learn from that experience?

At the time, I was a member of the events committee. I had the same position at Thalia, the computer science student association, so I could act as some kind of liason between the two. But I don't recall any communal activities, so that might have been more of a pretense to hang out. ;)

2.      What is your most ‘typical CognAC’ memory?

Drinking tea from a big, cheap mug with the rest of the events committee in our little 'nook'. Sitting in the 'Terminalkamer' (TK) and wondering about the differences between the same kind of spaces in the computer science department (Mac vs Unix/PC) and the similarities (students completely engrossed in the networked game that was popular that week).

3.      What is/are the most valuable thing(s) you learned in university, outside from course material?

I came to the university to become a scientist, but four years in I had to admit to myself I was much more suitable for engineering. While that was a bitter pill to swallow, it allowed me to focus on the things I'm good at. I think the university is an excellent place to explore your limits.

About your career

4.      What is it exactly that you do now on a daily basis?

After doing things like software engineering, consultancy, project management and a brief stint as people manager, I have now been working as a product manager for boring business software for almost six years -- currently at Planon, in Nijmegen. It's certainly not flashy but it has a very interesting dynamic, as lots of people spend their whole working day doing with 'your' software. Finding out what they need and how best to apply the available development capacity to optimize the outcome.

5.      What skills are most valuable in order to perform well in your workfield? What would you advise students to acquire these skills?

The skills I picked up for knowledge elicitations have been incredibly valuable to me in my career. Being able to find the truth about something you are not personally an expert in has allowed me to really understand certain use cases and to design the best solution to support those processes. And while it's attractive to project yourself as being very smart, being able to admit you don't understand something (even after two explanations) is some kind of superpower: it really helps a group working on a problem to forge deep mutual understanding.

6.      Are there any things you wish you’d have done in your time as a student?

I'm pretty pleased with how it all worked out. I might have gotten more out of my time at university if I had diversified a bit in the elective courses. But on the other hand, getting all stressed out because you have to get the most out of your time is counter-productive. And it's not like your time at university is your only and final chance to pick up new skills. Choose what you want to do, and do it with all of your attention be present where you are, and don't worry about what you could have done instead or what you are going to do next.

Dealing with problems

7.      What is the hardest thing about your current job? How are you dealing with that?

Sometimes you have to make hard choices, because you simply can't please everyone. One time I had to make a decision which resulted us in losing a large customer in the short run to have a better fit for the whole market in the long run. I was the least popular person known to/at the sales department for quite a while, but I could eventually make them see the reason behind the decision. But rather than force through my decisions, I much prefer to build a consensus from all of the stakeholders. Even if they end up unhappy with the outcome, at least everyone will have an understanding of the underlying reasons. And a good compromise leaves everyone unsatisfied!

8.      How did you come to your current job? Did you take steps in between? Could you consider any of these steps as ‘failures’, and if so, in what sense?

The one regret I have is that I spent a little over a year working for a start-up that imploded spectacularly. Mentally, that set me back several years because of all the stress and negativity that brought along.

I got the opportunity to move into product development six years ago, when the company I worked for at the time was acquired by an American software company. Their development process required a product manager, of which we didn't have any at the time. I was invited to apply for the role, and was able to make that move. I don't regret it!

Advice to close off

9.      What is the best advice you ever got? Why did it turn out to be so useful?

"Stay curious." By staying inquisitive and wanting to know how things really work, I have been able to get to the bottom of issues and bring clarity that others may not have been able to. Learning a new skill every once in a while is good too, because it keeps your mind sharp and flexible bonus points if it's not related to your job!

10.    Do you have any good advice for ambitious students that would like to go into your workfield? And what kind of advice should they ignore?

The late US Navy rear admiral Grace Hopper, one of the greats in computer science, said: "The most damaging phrase in the language is: 'It's always been done that way.'". So don't be afraid to keep asking questions why things are like they are. Why is it important that things happen the way they do? Maybe you can find a better way.

Don't be afraid to say that you don't understand something. As I learned in the course on Intelligent Tutoring Systems, a Socratic dialogue can often get to the heart of the matter quite quickly!

 

Geraldine Voost

Geraldine Voost was involved with CognAC from the start and was even chair for a while. Not only an early bird for our association, but also to this day she gets up before you have even had your fourth REM-sleep (between 4 and 5 am(!!)). She works as a Global Learning & Development Manager to teach how to learn and develop. Besides this, she likes to surround herself with cats and has a pet-sitter practice.

University and CognAC

1.      Were you involved within CognAC? If so, how? What did you learn from that experience?

I was involved with CognAC from the moment it started and was chair(wo)man for a while.

2.      What is your most ‘typical CognAC’ memory?

Meetups in “De Fiets” and an introduction weekend (?) on Terschelling (or one of the other islands, can’t remember exactly).

3.      What is/are the most valuable thing(s) you learned in university, outside from course material?

It was without a doubt one of the best parts of my life. I thoroughly enjoyed student life, meeting new people and getting my first real work experience as a student-assistant at the Max Planck Institute.

About your career

4.      What is it exactly that you do now on a daily basis?

Right now I am working as Global Learning & Development Manager for Bronkhorst High-Tech in Ruurlo. In this position I am leading a team of 7 and together we are responsible for training worldwide. Not just for our 600 employees, but also for our distributors and customers.

5.      What skills are most valuable in order to perform well in your workfield? What would you advise students to acquire these skills?

Being open-minded and ready to accept that the only constant is change. And also that with change, there will always be resistance. The combined background in Psychology and Computing Science (as was the case when it was called Cognitive Science instead of AI) is a real added benefit in the world of Learning & Development. There too, technology is playing an important role. Think about AI, Chatbots, Virtual/Augmented Reality, gamification of learning etc. Last but not least, networking and keeping up to date with the trends/technologies in the L&D field.

6.      Are there any things you wish you’d have done in your time as a student?

Not really. I made the most out of my time as a student and don’t think I would have made different choices if I had to do it all over again.

Dealing with problems

7.      What is the hardest thing about your current job? How are you dealing with that?

Traditional L&D is focusing too much on formal training (instructor led or e-learning). Getting people to realize that we are learning all the time (informal learning) and that there are other ways to learn and increase performance is a challenge. Best way to deal with that is to demonstrate that it works. The proof is in the pudding! ;-)

8.      How did you come to your current job? Did you take steps in between? Could you consider any of these steps as ‘failures’, and if so, in what sense?

After graduating I lived and worked in the UK for 5 years. To get international experience and to figure out what I really wanted to do in my career. I started as Research Officer in the department of Computing Science at the University of Guildford. I was responsible to evaluate the user-friendliness of software that integrated simulations and e-learning. After that I worked in various IT roles for various UK companies. After moving back to The Netherlands, I focused more on Training and my career rapidly moved in that direction. I’ve worked for various international companies and have traveled around the world for work. A great experience, which I can really recommend! As for failure… one of my favorite expressions is: There is no failure, only feedback.

Advice to close off

9.      What is the best advice you ever got? Why did it turn out to be so useful?

“Pick your battles”. You simply cannot right all wrongs, so focus on the ones that are important to you and/or the ones that will really make a difference.

10.    Do you have any good advice for ambitious students that would like to go into your workfield? And what kind of advice should they ignore?

Don’t wait for an opportunity to offer itself to you. Instead always look for opportunities to advance or broaden your interests. Be curious. Building a network around your skills/expertise is also very helpful. I’ve spoken at conferences a few times, which really helps to expand your network. For any advice you get my recommendation would be to listen carefully, analyze and evaluate it, and then decide whether you’re going to follow or ignore it.

 

Myra van Esch-Bussemakers

Myra van Esch-Bussemakers is celebrating a double lustrum this year, as it was 25 years since she graduated and 20 years since she received her PhD. She used to be the proud secretary of CognAC, but now she is also a proud mother of two. In June she will be starting a new job as the director of operations at the Rotterdam School of Management.

University and CognAC

1.      Were you involved within CognAC? If so, how? What did you learn from that experience? 

Yes I was involved as secretary of the board. Together with Josine van de Ven en Theo Hendriksen we had a lot of fun heading up CognAC for a year.

2.      What is your most ‘typical CognAC’ memory? 

I remember CognAC as a fun group of science enthusiasts, always ready to help, with a great diversity in backgrounds and interests. As I remember it, there were about 40 students a year starting with Cognitive Science, and we all got together in the ‘terminalkamer’, the pub or on our yearly introduction-trip to Schiermonnikoog.

3.      What is/are the most valuable thing(s) you learned in University, outside from course material? 

I think what I learned the most is to find a mix of subjects that I was truly interested in: human cognition, technology and how to make this combination work. Most valuable of course, is that I met my husband there (he is also an alumni of Cognitive Science!).

About your career

4.      What is it exactly that you do now on a daily basis? 

I am about to start a new job, the 1st of June, as director of operations at the Rotterdam School of Management (Erasmus University), but currently I am director cybersecurity & security risk management at Hoffmann. My team assists organisation on an organisational, technical or human level to prevent cybercrime.

5.      What skills are most valuable in order to perform well in your workfield? What would you advise students to acquire these skills?  

I guess my work does involve a lot of skills I acquired during my time in Nijmegen. For instance, managing projects, using analytic skills to tackle problems, social interaction with coworkers or clients. I guess my advice would be: broaden your horizon!

6.      Are there any things you wish you’d have done in your time as a student?

I think I would have like to study abroad, looking back. I made that up by doing my PhD in a 3rd money stream construction with NCR Corporation at the NICI and traveling quite a bit during that period.

Dealing with problems

7.      What is the hardest thing about your current job? How are you dealing with that? 

The hardest thing about my job at Hoffmann is juggling between long-term goals and short-term goals. In our management team, this is a continuous point of discussion. It takes a lot of effort to evaluate and re-evaluate plans.

8.      How did you come to your current job? Did you take steps in between? Could you consider any of these steps as ‘failures’, and if so, in what sense? 

After my PhD at the NICI, I worked at TNO for 17,5 years. Daniëlle Verstegen suggested to me to visit TNO’s location in Soesterberg and at the end of my visit I had a job offer to go home with. TNO enabled me to take on various roles, as project manager and director. I don’t think in terms of failures when it comes to my career: all of my steps were great learning experiences. What is interesting though, is that every step was suggested to me by someone else. It is good to pay attention to your network. They can really help you to your next position.

Advice to close off

9.      What is the best advice you ever got? Why did it turn out to be so useful? 

The best advice I ever got was to take a meeting with two Americans who came to the NICI looking to fund a PhD project. I was pulled from the terminal room because Ab de Haan forgot about the job interviews and didn’t have any candidates lined up. I did him a favour and had a really interesting discussion with the Americans. I ended up getting the position and that was my first job.

10.    Do you have any good advice for ambitious students that would like to go into your workfield? And what kind of advice should they ignore? 

Cybersecurity it a great field, really booming and with interesting challenges. I would highly recommend to check out this field!