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PhD intro course a life raft for internationals

For international PhDs on their own in another country, an introductory course has much to offer, report shows

A good introductory PhD course can make international PhDs feel at home in their new faculty and integrate them into a new culture.

This is just one of the conclusions which can be drawn from a study of PhD students at the Faculty of Life Sciences in the University of Copenhagen.

Since 2007, the Graduate School at the Faculty of Life Sciences has offered new PhD students an optional, 5-day residential introduction Course. In a new report, twelve of the original 2007-course participants were interviewed.

Read the featured comment for the University Post by the authors of the report here.

Missed his family

For the non-Danish PhDs, the problem was how to feel at home at the Faculty, and of feeling at home in Denmark in general. For a male PhD student quoted in the study, coming to the Faculty and coming to Denmark was particularly traumatic.

»For one long month I was not sure if I was going to stay here (…) My supervisor came by and said: This is your office and this is the project. (…) I was completely alone sitting at my desk knowing not what to do. (…) I was not really introduced to any of the campus’ forms or any of the scientists working here so I started working and I read some literature. I was immediately lost and I did not know what to do. It was a horrible time,« he said.

»I was missing my family and more than anything else: I was missing people. There were people here but they were in their offices only coming out in coffee breaks talking with their colleagues in Danish. That was hard!« he added.

Course was the way out

The course turned out to be a turning point for him.

While for the Danish PhD students interviewed, the introductory course was seen as a ‘practical toolbox’ introducing them to guidelines and methods, for the international PhDs the course was much more.

The authors of the report speculate that while domestic, Danish, students concentrate immediately on academic issues, a first, and essential task for the international group is to achieve integration.

Network was important

Regardless of scientific abilities, international students found it more difficult to start at the Faculty than their Danish counterparts.

Networking with other students, also Danish PhD students, was considered an essential part of the integration process.

For a female PhD student, apart from the actual content of the course, »the nicest part was to talk with the other PhD students in the breaks and outside and get a feel that there was some
network to build on.«

Felt lost

In the Life Sciences intro course, PhDs are introduced to self-organisation skills, a Personal Development Plan and ways to cope with stress.

Stress was an issue for one female PhD, whose exchange with the interviewer is quoted in the study.

»I felt a bit lost, because I was in a new place, but I thought ’you’ve tried it so many times before, you’ll get through it’. But as I still, after half a year, did not feel as if I was on my own ground, I got stressed,« she said

Interviewer: »What the Introduction course aims for is, that you as PhD students should take charge, [that you] be the one to tell the story that the PhD study is. It sounds like you didn’t quite get there?»

»No,« she answered.

Culture of stress

The report points to the cultural and individual differences in handling the stresses of a PhD education.

One of male PhD student explains that he himself is extremely busy, working 70 hours a week. Yet he believes that he has to be busy. A PhD project without stress would not live up to his ideals of the right approach to work and ambition within his cultural framework. As he, himself explains the phenomenon:

»[It is] those [who] belong to masculine cultures, and people [who] have usually high expectations, and are sometimes quite ambitious. I will not say that I am ambitious but I still have some expectations. I want to have good data. I want to have good publications«.