Leiden University: Honours Class reconciles students with the unpredictability of life

The course Designing Your Life helps students navigate their career pathways. As it turns out, these pathways are full of twists and turns and – as with many journeys – you only make progress once you gather the courage to take the first step.

There is one question that has plagued us all our lives. It once started with the confession albums of our friends, then haunted us during our studies and it will continue to be asked by the aunties on birthdays until eternity: what do you want to be when you grow up? Of course, there are always children who say “Doctor!” as early as kindergarten and who later, by studying medicine, do indeed end up with the title MD, but for many of us it’s a different story. Planning your future – is that even possible?

In the Bachelor Honours Class Designing Your Life, the life and career of bachelor’s students is compared to a product that has to be designed, and the students are introduced to a new way of thinking about their future. The confession albums and career test are exchanged for the trial-and-error process of inventing something new.

Making mistakes is part of the game
At the last meeting of the course, the tables in the room are strewn with plastic sheets and whiteboard markers, and the students are asked to draw their Odyssey Plan 2.0; their plan for the next five years, both professionally and personally. The years are written out. Graduation caps, charts, skylines and houses appear underneath.

“We have drawn three plans like this before,” says Milou Mensinga (20) as she works on her Odyssey Plan. “That’s kind of what this class is about. I always had the idea that it had to be good in one go, my plan. But that’s actually not the case at all.” The coordinator of the course, Bram Hoonhout, recognises this story: “Students are under a lot of pressure. It sometimes seems as if you’re not allowed to make wrong decisions – but in reality, these are just part of the deal. Most people have not followed a linear career path at all. They encountered things along the way and then started doing something else.”

Non-smooth networking
When they have finished drawing, some of the students pin their posters to the board. The rest of the class walks past them and asks them questions. Something that is often discussed, are the conversations the students have had with people in the field of their interest. Networking in a non-smooth way, is what it’s called in the prospectus.


“There is a bit of a stigma attached to the word networking,” says Hoonhout. “Everyone immediately thinks of a get-together where you have to walk up to people and say something that boils down to: ‘Hey, you’re an interesting person. Do you have a job for me?’ But that is scary, and in the end not the most useful way of networking.”

“That’s why we are now trying to teach students that it can also be done differently. Gee, are you interested in starting a restaurant, or becoming a policy officer or lawyer? There are people already doing that, and they would be delighted if you gave them a call. Not for a job right away, but just to be able to ask them things. What is it like in such an office? How did you get there? That is networking, too.”

Bias to action
“It is important to start doing things,” adds Hoonhout. “That is perhaps the most important lesson of this class.” He refers to the bias to action – a need to prefer action to idleness.

“You can’t map out your career in your head, in your college room,” he continues. “You have to go out into the real world and talk to real people. If you do that, even if you have no idea what you want, you will gradually find out what you like and what you don’t like. You can’t get reliable data on what your future will look like, no matter how long you think about it. You have to experience it.”

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