University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


Comment: PhDs taking charge

In a featured article for the University Post, three Life Science educators explain how an introduction course and personal development plan can help PhDs

A course for new PhDs at the Faculty of Life Sciences boosts their self confidence and makes PhDs take charge of themselves.

This is one of the conclusions that can be drawn from our report and evaluation of the project, which has been going on since 2007.

The course was set up in response to a growing intake of PhDs at the Faculty, with a greater diversity of backgrounds and experience: something that was considered a challenge to the PhD educational environment.

The course consists of a 5 day residential Introduction Course for Life Science’s new PhDs. Judged by the number of participants, it has been an overwhelming success, growing from two courses in the first year, to six timetabled for 2010, with 20 participants in each cohort and a permanent waiting list.

Taking charge

The aim was to provide new PhDs with the tools to manage their PhD education as so-called ‘self organizing agents’. This means that they should manage their own professional and personal development themselves.

A key goal was building the confidence to work positively, like a manager at the centre of their own PhD education, introducing the tools needed build an effective Personal Development Plan, for use throughout the PhD study. The course provides guidance on managing the supervisor-PhD relationship and develops abilities like writing and presentation techniques, problem solving, learning needs analysis, and network planning.

Lasting benefits

In late 2009 PhD fellows from one of the early courses were asked to look back and review the effects of the Introduction Course. Using qualitative interviews they were asked about the value of tools and perspectives provided by the course and if they had been used subsequently during their project. Did the course actually turn them into capable, self organizing agents?

Twelve participants took part in the evaluation. All were positive, appreciating particularly the Personal Development Plan and becoming aware of new ways to handle the complexities of a PhD education. The study showed how individual PhD fellows felt challenged by different obstacles depending on their personality and cultural background. It is clear from the report that many international PhDs struggle to integrate into the unfamiliar scientific and social environments at the Faculty of Life Sciences.

Coping with diversity

It was also made clear that the Faculty of Life Sciences contains diverse working cultures among its various groups and departments. This means that there is a need for a range of approaches and tools for individual PhDs.

Based on the course leaders’ experience, many PhD fellows start out with low self-confidence. Encouragingly, the interviewees felt that the Introduction Course helped with this problem by demonstrating how they could take charge of their own professional development.

The complete report can be read here.