University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


PhDs in Denmark have got better - despite admissions explosion

Forskeruddannelse — Things are moving in the right direction for the quality of PhDs in Denmark. This is according to supervisors and a group of international reviewers who took part in a large study of the PhD programmes’ quality and relevance. The study also puts a monetary value on a PhD.

The explosive increase in admissions to the Danish PhD degree programmes since 2006 has had no negative effect on the standards of PhD students in Denmark and the quality of their dissertations.

At least if the results coming out of a large study of PhD education programme’s quality and relevance are to be believed. They have just been published by the Ministry for Education and Research.

About the survey

The study ‘PhD programmes’ quality and relevance’ was carried out by the Ministry for Education and Research in 2016. It is based on a questionnaire sent to 8,433 current PhD students, 5,988 supervisors and 4,106 international reviewers.

24 per cent of the respondents’ PhD supervisors say that the PhD students’ academic level is higher now than 10 years ago. 48 per cent believe the level is the same, while 16 per cent think it is lower. The group of international reviewers give a similar response, giving the Danish dissertations a higher quality assessment than in a similar survey in 1999. 29 per cent assess the quality of the dissertation as being ‘very good’ and 47 per cent as ‘good’ compared to 23 and 45 per cent respectively in the previous study.

Eske Willerslev concedes

The increase in PhD admissions has been repeatedly criticized. Søren Bregenholt – the head of external innovation and stakeholder relations in Novo Nordisk’s research and development department – said last year to the Danish news site Berlingske that too many PhDs are being trained in Denmark, and that they are not “scientifically competitive with countries we compare ourselves with,” such as the UK and Sweden.

15 per cent will be delayed

15 per cent of respondents in the survey have been delayed in their PhD completion schedule.

The primary causes for the delays are ‘modified project focus’ (according to 35 per cent of the delayed) ‘personal circumstances’ (28 per cent) and ‘lack of time to research’ (27 per cent).

Scientists at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) have expressed concern about the PhD students’ standards.

“They are admitting so many PhDs, so we see people today getting a PhD, who in reality are not suited for it. In this way, the quality of PhDs is dragged down on average,” Professor Eske Willerslev said in 2012 in an article on the Danish newspaper Information, and was backed up by the astrophysicist Anja C. Andersen.

The University Post presented the new figures for PhD education programmes’ quality to Willerslev.

“I have to concede and admit I was wrong. If the investigation was done properly – and it does sound like it was,” he says.

“It is clear that my opinions were not based on a statistical evaluation, but on my own experience within the community. During this period (around 2012, ed.), there were some years when I got many more PhDs than before – I was at one time supervisor for 14 at one time – and here I thought the quality was varied,” he says.

Have the supervisors got worse?

Eske Willerslev points out, however, that the trends in PhD quality can vary greatly from area to area – and that the increase in admissions can have affected standards in a way that the survey has not been able to measure.

“A problem related to this is that it is not just a question of how good or bad the students are, but also how good and bad the supervisors are. And the more PhD students you have, the harder it is to give them proper guidance. If you have too many PhDs as a supervisor, the quality is affected all the way through,” says Willerslev.

According to the survey report, students assess the ‘quality of research counselling’ at 0.8 on a scale from 0 to 1 – but the report does not specify figures from previous studies.

More international PhDs

So while the study shows that the quality of PhDs in Denmark has gone up – or has held its own – despite the increase in admissions, it is harder to find the causes behind the improvement in the survey report.

11 per cent drop their PhD

89 per cent of PhD students complete their PhD programme.

The completion rate is highest in the health science programmes, where more than 95 per cent graduate, and appear to be lowest in the humanities programmes (where 75 per cent graduate). However, according to the Graduate School at UCPH the low number is caused by a UCPH practice of exmatriculating delayed PhDs and letting them deliver their delayed paper after being ex-matriculated. Therefore the actual completion rate in the humanities programmes is much higher than the 75 per cent.

The PhD students indicate that the professional quality and relevance of their courses are high, but yet again there is no indication of comparable data in previous years.

The report does say, however, that the proportion of international students taking their PhD in Denmark, has more than doubled over the last 13 years. So a possible hypothesis could be that the increase in the number of foreign PhDs may have helped to raise the average quality of Danish PhD programs.

“This could have something to do with it,” says Willerslev. “My experience is that international PhDs are really good. They are extremely motivated. Some come from countries where conditions for doing research are worse than in Denmark, and so they see coming to Denmark to write a PhD as a huge opportunity. ”

My experience is that international PhDs are really good. They are extremely motivated

Eske Willerslev, professor and director of Centre of Excellence in GeoGenetics

The survey also reveals that an increasing proportion of international PhDs stay in Denmark after their PhD programme. Five years after graduation in 2009 and 41 per cent of international PhDs were still here – back in 2000 only 21 per cent did.

PhD programmes are worth the money

In total, 89 per cent of PhD students in Denmark complete their programme.

As a nicety, the study concludes that the many PhDs provide ‘positive socio-economic returns’.

And if you are wondering yourself whether a PhD will make yourself better off financially, the answer is yes, according to the study. You will over a – hopefully long and happy – life as a PhD graduate get a personal financial return that is 3 – 4 per cent higher than if you ‘made do’ with a master’s.

The financial gain is highest in taking a social science or humanities PhD. Here you will end up earning DKK 1.7 million and DKK 1.2 million more than your master’s degree companions respectively.

Read the full study here (in Danish with a summary in English)