29 March 2007

Was it good for you too?

I did my PhD in Denmark and promptly moved abroad for a postdoc. I then immediately realized how extraordinarily well PhD students are treated in Denmark. I recently commented on a piece by iknownotwhattodo and more or less promised to try and compare PhD and post doc experiences in various countries. So, this post describes my 3.5 years as a PhD student at a Danish university from 1998-2001 – if you like you can then compare with wherever YOU are doing/did your PhD. It would be interesting to get some comments on this simply to compare PhD experiences from all over the world. Here we go:

In Denmark the PhD tuition fee – called taximeter in Danish - is DKK 87,200 (£7,953; US$ 15,622) annually. If you are being employed as a PhD student on a research project or are in receipt of a scholarship or fellowship to carry out your own research project this amount is included in your grant. You can use a part of the taximeter for your research project, more on that later. What is also included in your grant (regardless of whether it is from a research project or a personal fellowship) is your salary, which is extraordinarily good. The annual salary (including a 17.1% pension contribution) is at least DKK 268,329 + DKK 30,850 in annual vacation pay as of October 2006. This translates into £24,474 + 2,813 or US$ 48,072 + 5527 annually. Not bad. Oh yeah, the annual vacation period in Denmark is 5.5 weeks.

In the department where I was every PhD student had their own private office and their own phone, paid for by the department (via your tuition fee). When you start you need a computer – the bigger the better, and quickly! You get the local system administrator to get a quote for a nice machine and ask the departmental board for money for the computer (from your tuition fee). That is always granted, provided you don’t apply for a super computer system. The computer arrives and you can start your research.

After a few months you may want to go to a conference to present your research so you send another application to the departmental board, asking for airfare, hotel and per diem. Provided you are actually presenting something of relevance to your research and that the conference is also relevant to your area of research you get to go. I went to conferences and workshops in Seoul, Seattle, Plymouth (UK), Seattle, San Antonio, San Francisco, and San Francisco. Roughly half of my travel was paid for via my taximeter (tuition fee); the other half was paid for by the travel account on the research project that employed me.

You need to discuss your research with your supervisor. S/he is obliged to meet with you on a regular basis and read through your work, discuss your results etc. You as a PhD student have an obligation to write a report every 6 months detailing your work in the last 6 months, and what you anticipate to accomplish in the next 6 months. These reports are submitted to the local PhD board of study. Their job is to keep an eye on all the PhD students and make sure that their research is progressing according to the overall plan and that the project can be finished in due time and is of sufficiently high quality.

Teaching is an integral part of being a PhD student in Denmark and you are obliged to work 840 hours for the department during your 3 years as a PhD student. Teaching undergraduate courses or taking students along on fieldwork and the like most typically does the trick. I truly enjoyed teaching and had lots of fun doing it.

You need to publish some research. It is becoming increasingly common in Denmark to let your PhD thesis consist of a handful – or more - of papers in various stages from published over accepted to submitted. It is then all tied together by an introduction, 30 pages in my case. Get it all bound together and there you go – one PhD thesis ready to be submitted. In Denmark we are pretty informal about layout, binding etc. That’s more or less up to the individual student, so PhD theses come in a variety of sizes and colours!

With respect to the papers – the core of your thesis – it is hard to find any hard rules about how many you need, where they should be published/submitted to etc. In my case my supervisor stated right from the beginning that I should 1) only include papers of which I was a first author, 2) make sure I had at least one single-authored paper in my thesis and 3) publish only in high-quality peer-reviewed journals.

Condition 1 was to make sure that it was blatantly obvious that when the thesis was handed in it would be clear that it was MY work and not somebody else’s where I had just been along for the ride. Condition 2 was for future planning – if you want money from the research councils in Denmark to continue as a postdoc you are ahead of the game if you have some single-authored papers as this is weighted particularly high by the research councils. I ended up with two single-authored papers; one in press and one submitted by the time I handed in my thesis. I generally do believe that in Denmark there are larger generosities towards letting PhD students publish on their own, without their supervisors name on the paper. It’s not my feeling that this is true for the UK, where the Research Assessment Exercise forces every supervisor to be on every paper produced in his or her lab. Condition 3 meant essentially any journal in Science Citation Index.

Eventually you hand in your thesis to the department and the departmental board suggests a PhD evaluation committee. It usually consists of one member from the department, one from another department/university in Denmark and one member from abroad (though this varies somewhat between departments and universities). In my case one member was from the UK and one from Canada. You are then asked to approve of the evaluation committee and the external members are contacted and asked if they are available for reading your thesis and coming to your defence. If the evaluation committee approves of your thesis upon reading it a defence date is then decided upon. If not, you’ll have to retract your thesis, correct it and re-submit it.

Then the defence date arises. In Denmark PhD defences are public and I have experienced PhD defences with anything from 10 to 150+ people sitting in the auditorium, in my case I think there was ~60. You give a talk of not less than 45 and not more than 60 minutes. Then each member of the evaluation committee has 15 minutes to ask you questions. As they have, in principle, already approved of your thesis prior to the defence, this is more an opportunity to get some discussion going between you and the committee. The questioning does serve one last crucial thing: by questioning you back and forth the committee makes sure that YOU are the author of the thesis and that it’s not lifted from somewhere else – or written entirely by a friend of yours etc. Finally, the audience in the auditorium is allowed to ask questions for 15 minutes! I had one or two questions from the audience, as far as I recall. Pretty cool. Immediately afterwards the committee then notifies you if you will be awarded the PhD degree or not. Again, since you are not really being asked to defence until the committee is satisfied with your work this is in 99.99% of all cases a given and you can go party!

I guess I could write a lot more, but this covers the meat of it, I think. I should finish by saying that I had a kick-ass supervisor who knew how to handle red tape and other bs on my behalf, so my PhD went VERY smoothly. Money was also never a problem if I wanted to go somewhere on fieldwork, conferences, workshops etc. I know of others who were less fortunate, but I do not think that my experience is uncommon amongst PhD students in Denmark. Was it good for you too?

PS. Here you can read a lot more about being a PhD student in Denmark.

28 March 2007

Job application experiences...

Iknownotwhattodo had a nice little post about being an academic in the UK. I'd like to follow up with a few comments regarding the postdoc salary level in the UK and the overall experience you get of UK universities when you apply for jobs here.

The academic salaries in the UK may have risen lately, but are (still) ridiculously low when compared to the cost of living, IMHO. When moving from Canada to the UK my postdoc salary essentially remained the same (when doing the currency conversion), but because my cost of living in (urban-ish) Canada was ~70% of living in (rural-ish) UK I had a rather large decrease in my net disposable income. Had I stayed in Denmark my salary as a postdoc there would have been in the 33-40k£ range, compared to the 23k£ I currently make in the UK. Compare that to a Danish PhD student making ~28k£/year... Granted, the Danish income tax is outrageously high, but so is the level of service you get from the government, the streets are clean, the crime-rate is low and the girls are pretty (OK, the latter may not have anything to do with the level of taxation).

Between late 2003 and mid-2005 I applied for ~30 postdoc/faculty jobs at universities in Denmark, Canada, USA, France, UK, and the Netherlands. In my experience all universities mail you a letter acknowledging the receipt of your application and – sooner or later – an invitation for an interview or a polite “Thanks, but no thanks”. That is, all universities except universities in the UK, whom I have come to consider as the most arrogant prospective academic employers you will ever encounter. Not only do UK universities not mail or email you an acknowledgment of receipt of your application. They also do not let you know of the outcome of your application; simply, if you haven't heard from them typically within 3-5 weeks after the deadline you are to assume you didn't get the job (this is typically stated in the job posting). It's unreal, it’s arrogant and it’s extremely impolite. Contrast this with the experience I had when applying for a job at a Danish university:

Late April: Submitted my application, including 3 reprints each of my 10 most important papers, CV, and a list of 3-5 personal referees.

19 May: Received a letter from the faculty (office of the dean) that my application had been received. I was also notified that the members of the search committee would be decided upon within 2-3 weeks and that I would then be notified about their identities.

28 May: Received a letter from the faculty that the hiring department had suggested a search committee consisting of three members. I was notified about their identities and affiliations (1 member from the hiring department, 2 members from abroad) and was informed of my right to file a complaint about the composition of the search committee, if I thought that any of the members would be disqualified. I was also told that I was not allowed to contact any of the search committee members directly regarding the application. Finally, the letter ended with the statement that it was anticipated that the search committee would submit their recommendation to the faculty no later than 17 September. See, the thing is that in Denmark you are generally not being invited for an interview at the hiring department; the decision is made based on your application, publications, CV, and letters of recommendation. (Though the hiring department can call you in for a formal interview and lecture should they wish to do so).

23 September: Received a letter from the faculty that the search committee had filed their recommendation to the faculty. For each applicant the search committee had written a one-page report, which made up the recommendation. Each applicant received their own, signed report but not the reports concerning the other applicants. The report assessed my academic/research qualifications and my teaching qualifications. I was pleased to see that the search committee had used the words 'excellent' generously and denoted my publication record as 'outstanding at the present stage of his career'. They then stated whether or not they considered me suitable for the position, which they didn’t, due to 1) limited teaching experience and 2) no research experience in geomorphology (this was partly a geomorphology job and I did admittedly have no research experience in this area). The letter did not state if I would be offered the job or not (but I decided not to hold my breath…), as it is up to the dean to plough through all the reports and then offer the job to the candidate whose report best fits the job posting according to the search committee. So the search committee more or less writes a report for each candidate and then it's up to the dean. Oh, I was also told that I had until 6 October to complain about my report and the assessment of the search committee if I thought that they had misunderstood something in my application.

Mid-october: Received a final letter from the faculty that I would not be offered the job and that it had been offered to another applicant. ‘We wish you luck in your future career, sincerely yours etc.’ – you’ve probably all received loads of these.

Anyway, I wasn’t too disappointed to get the job, as it was somewhat marginal to my research experience. However, I was very pleased with the overall experience and in particular the outstanding communication between the faculty and the applicants: Four friendly letters outlining the application procedure, where and how to complain about the outcome, AND a written report! Take that you arrogant, self-satisfied UK universities! The great advantage of the written report is that the entire search committee signs it, so if they are high ringers (as in my case) you can use a good report as an external evaluation of your research for future applications.

BTW, got headhunted a while ago by a private company, so I'm on my way out of academia now - and not unhappy about it.