One year less research for a PhD than in UK and Sweden

A new study comparing Danish doctoral students with those at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden has found that Danish candidates spend considerably less time on research. The findings have sparked a national debate on how doctoral training should be structured.

Over the past decade the number of new Danish PhD students admitted each year has more than doubled, to 2,600, and increasingly the quality of the candidates is being questioned.

The findings of the new study were released at a national conference arranged by the Ministry of Higher Education and Science on 30 April in Copenhagen on “The future of the PhD education”.

The investigation Analytical model for mapping the quality of the Danish PhD education was mandated by Novo Nordisk – a Danish multinational pharmaceutical company which is the largest employer of PhD candidates in Denmark – and was undertaken by DAMVAD, the Nordic Socioeconomic and Policy Consultancy. The report has not yet been published, but the findings were presented via power point at the conference.

The DAMVAD study included interviews with 70 PhD candidates, supervisors and heads of departments in Denmark, Cambridge University in the UK, and the Karolinska Institute, or KI, in Sweden, and matched these interviews with scientific articles produced by the PhD candidates.

“Do we in Denmark have the research talents needed to start up 2,600 PhD research projects?” asks Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, a research head at Novo Nordisk.

One of the key findings of the study is that recent PhD recruitment in Denmark is not drawing the top candidates, and that competitive PhD placings in some fields have disappeared in Denmark.

One year less on research

Another key finding is that Danish doctoral students spend at least one year less time on research for their thesis than their peers in the UK and Sweden.

Danish students also spend half a year on course requirements, and in this regard Krogsgaard Thomsen says: "We should find out if the course requirements have a real value and impact for the PhD degree.”

DAMVAD also looked into the recruitment of international PhD students at Danish universities.

Some of the respondents said that there are international candidates who do not show very strong competence, but they are recruited anyway since “the position has to be filled when it has been announced”, indicating that recruiting international candidates is no guarantee of high quality.

The study included a bibliographic comparison of the research output of 921 PhDs who graduated between 2010 and 2012 from the Technical University of Denmark, Aarhus University and the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, compared to 318 PhDs who graduated from the University of Cambridge, UK.

It found that the Danish production of articles on average was higher but that the impact of the articles for Cambridge graduates was higher.

Krogsgaard Thomsen, who is a professor of biochemistry, a former board member of the Technical University of Denmark and a present board member of Copenhagen University, argued in an op ed article in the major Danish newspaper Politiken that “one precondition for Novo Nordisk research to prosper in Denmark is that the quality of the Danish PhD is at the level of our competitors and preferably better”.

“That is not necessarily the case today,” he stated referring to the study’s findings.

He said it was strange that the investment in raising the number of PhDs from 1,100 in 2002 to 2,600 in 2014 had not been followed up by investigations on the impact this expansion has had.

"Are we sure that this expansion has produced better doctoral candidates?” he asked. “Very few countries can demonstrate such a strong growth. In Finland, Sweden and the UK there has been a much more stable development,” he said.

An intense debate

The presentation on the study has led to an intense debate on the major expansion of doctoral education in Denmark that began in 2006.

At the conference the Minister for Higher Education and Science Sofie Carsten Nielsen said she agreed with Krogsgaard Thomsen that the investment in PhDs is “an important part of the Danish innovation generator”.

“We have to develop the doctorate training continuously, so that there is a match with what is in demand in the workforce,” she said.

Thomas Bjørnholm, pro-rector at Copenhagen University wrote in Politiken that 81% of PhDs graduating from that university were employed four weeks after graduation and 50% after two weeks. “PhDs are in demand and of use for society,” Bjørnholm stated.