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Ekatherina Zhukova came to Denmark as a PhD student from Belarus, where the professors still have a patent on all the right answers, and where nobody is rewarded for thinking independently.
Ekatherina Zhukova navigates confidently down the South Campus corridors towards the hall in building 8. She is halfway through her two year position as a postdoc at the Department of Communication, where she is doing research and teaching on how film and digital media help change our knowledge of the past.
Ekatherina Zhukova had first imagined doing her PhD In England. But chance had her turning towards Denmark, and she has not regretted it:
Here you are seen as an adult of equal status. This was one of the first things I noticed at my job interview when I applied for a PhD position seven years ago in Denmark. In fact, I’d planned to do my PhD in England, but one of my friends suggested Denmark, and I thought that it was worth giving it a shot. I knew nothing about Denmark at the time. But after the job interview I had no further doubts. I would like to stay here.
/34 years old.
/Lives in Copenhagen
/Born and grew up in Belarus
/Has studied in Belarus, England, Hungary and the US
/PhD in Political Science, Aarhus University
/Postdoc at the Department of Communication, University of Copenhagen
In Denmark, you learn to think independently. No one tells you which theories and methods you should use. It is very different from England and the USA, where I have also studied. Here, PhD supervisors interfere more with what their students are writing about. In Denmark, you are rewarded for being able to argue and come up with your own ideas – not to copy what your instructor tells you.
I was born in Belarus, where there is a completely different academic tradition. There is no dialogue or interaction between the instructor and the students. It is pure one-way communication. As a student, you listen and receive knowledge, and you do not ask any critical questions. You don’t challenge the teaching staff. This is a relic from the Soviet era.
When I came to Denmark, I found out that my thoughts and ideas were being taken just as seriously as the ideas of the older professors. Before that, I had studied both in England and in Hungary. It was here that I learned to think critically and here, that I found out that there is not just one answer or one way of thinking.
I like the flat hierarchy at Danish universities. In many other countries, professors are to be found in large offices behind closed doors. It is not like that in Denmark. When you go inside a Danish department, the doors are open, and you cannot see the difference between the offices of the professors and the PhDs.
I believe this is the positive side of [what the Nordics call, ed.] the Law of Jante. Everyone is equal. This also means that there is a different kind of competitive mentality. There is competition among Danish academics of course. But as a PhD If you don’t have to ingratiate yourself with the professors in the hope of going higher up in the hierarchy. Here you don’t just network to get something, but because you are really interested in each other and would like to share experiences and ideas. I like that.
The coffee machine at Danish workplaces is fantastic. For Danes, it is not just about drinking coffee. It is just as much about being social. It is around the coffee machine that you meet your colleagues and catch up with the latest. In Denmark, they give a lot of thought to how you can create social spaces where you can do things together. I think this is to compensate for the high degree of individualism that is a part of the Danish welfare society.
At the University of Copenhagen, more than one third of all researchers and teaching staff are from abroad. In this series, you can meet some of them and read about what they think of working at the University of Copenhagen. What is the working culture like relative to their home countries? What has surprised them the most? And how do they describe their Danish colleagues?
I fully understand why they call Denmark the Latin America of Scandinavia. Compared with the Swedes, the Danes are extremely social. This might have something to do with the Danes being more relaxed about alcohol. This helps them to be more social.
A lot of people say that it is difficult to get Danish friends, but I have experienced the exact opposite. I had only been in Denmark for two days when two colleagues came over and invited me out. Since then, I have had many friends, both Danish and from abroad. But friendships are mostly made through work. Talking to strangers on the street is not the Danish way.
A colleague said to me that if someone talks to you at a bus stop, they are either drunk, insane or a foreigner. In Belarus, it is normal to talk to strangers. That is why it also surprised me that I was so startled when a man recently asked me if I could exchange a euro. It it not like me to react like this. The Danish mentality has got under my skin.