Alphas and Betas

For the longest time in high school we’re told the difference between those focused on numbers and those focused on people. We’re classified into one of the two categories and then shipped off to pursue higher education in one of these two domains of thought. In every country there is a label for the former: the US calls it STEM, France calls is S, and the Netherlands calls it Beta.

Most countries, like my own native France, push people as much as possible to go do Beta: there is, after all, always a shortage of engineers.

I had both the fortunate and unfortunate opportunity to have been one of the students pushed in such fashion. Fortunate because of the mindset I learned, and unfortunate because it was not the best fit for me.

What’s the difference?
As a child of both schools of thoughts, having first pursued a bachelor’s in engineering called Sustainable Innovation before joining Utrecht University to do a Masters in New Media and Digital Cultures, I can tell you that the main difference between Alpha and Beta is how quantifiable some things are.

My experience until this point is that Alpha studies are very much about having an understanding of the subject material and how concepts relate to each other, which is in itself a science. Not everything is or should be quantifiable, and answers and assignments are on a spectrum.

For Beta students, that would mean failing courses in a spectacular fashion. There is no spectrum of understanding, there is only the maths. And since maths are exact and the outcomes can be measured, the studies drill you to reach the one outcome that is acceptable.

The result
With one result that can be reached and no room for interpretation, workloads per course are higher in Beta. At least that has been my experience so far. It also means that there is less room for extra-curricular, personal development or fun outside of one’s study.

This also means, on the other hand, that there’s less chance to get lost within the universe of possibilities at university: if you have to fill up your own time, how will you decide to fill it?

A Beta friend of mine recently told me that she didn’t know if she could call her student years ‘the best years of her life’ because of the lack of freedom that a Beta study entails.

So what are they good for?
Ahhh, the age-old question. Having learned in my 2 months at UU to give answers as part of a spectrum, I’ll give the nuanced answer that you should have expected.

It all comes down to the direction you want your studies to take: Beta is a template that you follow, while Alpha is a map that you explore. The standardisation that comes with Beta limits differentiation to a certain extent, while Alpha enables people to have more interesting stories and backgrounds.

It all boils down to what Alpha students do with all that extra time.

Now that I have a foot in both camps, I can tell you that I’m happy with my decision to hop on over to the other side. I no longer feel like I’m being pushed into a mould and I can jungle multiple projects at the same time (including distracting you with blogs). Hopefully, this switch of mine is something you can also enjoy!