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How to get a PhD in Denmark

Career — What is a PhD school, and what should you include in your PhD application? Our guide for you, a potential PhD student in Denmark, that does not know where to begin.

(Updated August 2020)

Are you tempted by the idea of becoming a researcher? If so, you are already an old hand in the university world. Once your Master’s degree is in the bag, the next step towards a career in research is to apply for a PhD.

It is not always easy to navigate the jungle of information, so we have made a simple guide for those who are interested in a research career or are curious about what PhD student life in Denmark is like.

What is a PhD?

A PhD is usually a 3-year (180 ECTS) academic research degree. Teaching or research communication is required as part of the degree. The research degree culminates with a PhD thesis – a written product of some kind. It can be a 200-page article or a collection of  shorter research articles. The thesis is defended orally.

The abbreviation comes from the New Latin: philosophiae doctor

In some countries, a PhD gives you the title of doctor. This is the case in most Anglophone countries, where PhD is short for ‘Doctor of Philosophy

In Denmark, you do not become a doctor because you have a PhD, but you may well meet someone from England with a PhD who calls him/herself doctor. Here, the doctorate – which is achieved by writing a doctoral thesis – ranks higher than a PhD.

What is a PhD school?

At university, we are told that we are no longer pupils at a school, but rather students at a university. Therefore, it may seem strange that a PhD student is linked to a so-called PhD school. At the University of Copenhagen, for example, there are six PhD schools – one for each faculty.

Each school has its own set of rules, which in this case are a supplement to the general regulations for PhD studies at the University of Copenhagen. The schools provide guidance to students, organise PhD courses with Danish and international teachers, and give students the opportunity study abroad and collaborate with international research communities.

Every PhD school has a PhD school head, a PhD committee, and a PhD coordinator. The PhD committee includes academic staff members and PhD students, and its job is to ensure the quality of the PhD education.

The commitee checks that yearly performance and development reviews are held with the students. The coordinators act as a point of contact for the students at the departmental level, and every department has a PhD coordinator.

Who can apply?

Anyone with a master’s degree or an extended master’s degree can apply for a PhD. The subject  of the degree must be relevant to the applicant’s proposed research project.

Applicants should also have good command of the English language.

In some faculties, you can start your research degree directly after your bachelor’s

But for the more ambitious students who know that they want to do a PhD early on, some faculties have the option of starting a research degree directly after a bachelor’s. If you take this route, you would start a so-called 3+5 programme, which means starting your PhD and masters at the same time (which makes ordinary master’s degrees seem a bit tame). Some faculties have a 4+4 programme where you can start your PhD after a year of master’s studies. The Faculty of Science at the University of Copenhagen offers these two programmes, for example.

What should I include in my application?

If you want to start a PhD, you have to apply in writing. The application should include a description of your proposed research project. You must also include a transcript of your grades (higher grades increase your chances of being accepted) for your bachelor’s and master’s degrees with documentation of your grades. A CV is also required (peer-reviewed publications also give bonus points).

The criteria for applying and the application process vary from faculty to faculty. If you wish to study for a PhD at the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Copenhagen, for example, your project description should be a maximum of 12,000 characters long, while the Faculty of Law only accepts applications that are a maximum of six A4 pages (excluding the bibliography, written in Times New Roman, font size 12, with 1.5 cm line spacing.)

How can I finance my PhD?

Did you think that all education in Denmark was free? Then think again. PhD degrees are subject to tuition fees, and they are not cheap (and neither is renting an apartment in Copenhagen). Therefore, you have to be able to finance both your degree and your living costs. You can do this in several different ways:

Internal funding

Faculties offer PhD fellowships, which means that the student is enrolled in the research degree, given research funds and a monthly salary to live on for the three years the programme lasts. This means there is a difference between being PhD student and a PhD fellow. It is possible to be a PhD student and have your expenses paid by someone else.

External or private funding

External funding can be granted in the form of a so-called industrial PhD, where you are employed by a public or private company that wants you to conduct research at the university. You can also apply to a number of foundations. Or you can pay your own way, if you can afford it.

It costs around DKK  216,000 to enroll as a PhD student at the University of Copenhagen

It costs around DKK  216,000 to enroll as a PhD student (at the University of Copenhagen) – so you should start saving up! The university requires you to document that you have a grant or the money to pay for the cost of studying and wages for the three year period of the programme.

And how much can you expect to be paid as a PhD student? The average monthly salary of employees at the university as a whole is DKK 32,567. But, you should expect salary levels and expenses to vary depending on how far into the programme you are and which faculty you are employed by.

Who gets accepted?

The head of the relevant PhD school decides which applicants will be accepted and enrolled into the programme – but of course it is not entirely at his/her own discretion. The applicants are selected based on a recommendation from the academic staff members on the faculty’s PhD committee.

Each PhD school may look for different qualities in its applicants, but in general, the emphasis is on documented academic qualifications. Whether the research project’s is suitable as a PhD project (is it achievable within the existing framework?) and matches the faculty’s academic profile is also an important consideration when assessing the application.

When can I apply?

Job banks at universities are full of postings. The University of Copenhagen one has a lot, especially from the health and science departments, so keep an eye out for relevant positions.

Once you have earned your PhD degree, you have reached the highest international level within your research field

If you can’t get enough of criminal or property law, for example, and are not afraid to venture outside of Copenhagen, the Department of Law at the University of Southern Denmark might be looking for PhD fellows. If you just want to enroll yourself in a PhD programme, you can apply throughout the year to the PhD school at your faculty.

What do PhD students research?

The subjects studied vary, of course, depending on the PhD student’s faculty and department. For example, Linda Didia Boye, a PhD student at the Faculty of Humanities, defended her PhD thesis about the typology of longhouses in eastern Zealand dating from the Pre-Roman Iron Age to the Late Germanic Iron Age last year. Three days prior, Hjalte Bonde Meilvang defended his social science PhD about numbers in the political context.


KU’s fælles ph.d.-regler og retningslinjer (2014)

It is a good idea to stay up to date with the newest research in your subject area, so keep an eye on PhD defence calendars, the University of Copenhagen one is here.

What can I do afterwards?

Once you have your PhD, you are at the highest international level in your research area.

A natural step is to stay within the research community and pursue a career in research. But you don’t have to stay at the university for the rest of your days. Many PhD graduate have high-level jobs in the health sector, for example, and the private sector also employs PhDs in a variety of research positions.

However, the majority of PhD graduates in the period 2008-2014 still worked in universities.