What to remember when taking a PhD

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By Ann Britt Donovan

What’s important to know when starting a PhD – as a young PhD student or as a more mature PhD student?
– Lessons learned from Dorthe Varning Poulsen, PhD

Dorthe Varning Poulsen’s 5 tips for aspiring PhD students

  1. Know your passion and find your research niche.
  2. Enjoy it. This may be the only time in your career where you can let everything else be and just focus on your research.
  3. Be disciplined. Make a plan for every day and time box every task.
  4. Accept your imperfections and get the help you need to tackle them.
  5. Be good to yourself. Find a tranquil reading spot, make your workspace comfortable and give yourself a break when you need one.

Meet Dorthe Varning Poulsen, physiotherapist, Master of Sport, Physical Activity and Welfare, PhD in nature-based therapy for soldiers with PTSD, and the mother of two grown sons.

Here, Dorthe shares her PhD story and the key elements that helped her to be successful.

What to remember when taking a PhD
The University of Copenhagen’s therapy garden Nacadia

Putting a good career on hold and starting a PhD

What’s it like to pursue an academic career at a fairly mature age? When your children have fled the nest and are well on the way with their own academic careers? When you in fact already have a successful teaching career and have published several textbooks? When you’re settled in life and really have everything you need?

For Dorthe Varning Poulsen, who originally trained and worked as a physiotherapist and then as a researcher and associate professor at University College Absalon in Næstved before she decided it was time to take her academic career to the next level, it was heaven to clock out of her established career and to dive into her research area for three years.

Getting started on the PhD

While she was teaching at University College Absalon, a political decision was made to promote PhD programmes that were to be funded by the university colleges. Dorthe had worked on a project with outdoor rehabilitation in a therapy garden in Sweden. She had also worked with soldiers with PTSD and had been moved by their stories. She wanted to see if she could do more to help this vulnerable group. So when Nacadia, the University of Copenhagen’s therapy garden, was established, she could see an opportunity in Denmark; in her own words, she was in the right place at the right time.

She began by approaching the University of Southern Denmark with a project proposal, but was rejected. Then she decided to fine-tune her proposal to the area of Professor Ulrika K. Stigsdotter from the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management at Copenhagen University, whose work she knew and admired. She saw an opening: the professor’s research group was well-established in its area of landscape design and nature-based therapy, but it was weak in the health area. And this was where Dorthe could come in.

Well, to be perfectly honest, actually getting the research institute to accept her project took a little work, but she knew she had a good project and she had the funding for it too, so Dorthe didn’t give up. She bombarded Professor Stigsdotter, and after a string of emails and phone calls, they finally had an agreement. Dorthe was on her way to her PhD.

Benefits of being more mature when starting a PhD

Dorthe describes the first two years of her PhD as of a time of euphoria. For the first time in many years, she felt she had the freedom to fully engross herself in her research. She enjoyed being part of the research environment at the university and felt at ease with her supervisor.

Even though Dorthe started her PhD later in life than many of her fellow PhD students, she felt this actually gave her a head start. She was more mature and more established in life, and she already had a solid professional network to draw on. One of the greatest advantages to this was that Dorthe never felt bulldozed by her supervisor; she asked her own questions and came up with her own answers.

Dorthe’s empirical work was based on qualitative interviews with Danish soldiers with PTSD. In addition to her academic training, she drew on her experience as a physiotherapist and teacher – not to mention her life experience – when working with this vulnerable group. Once again, her maturity was an asset to her research.

Accepting one’s imperfections – English as the language of science

One of Dorthe’s greatest challenges was the language issue. Her empirical base was in Danish, but she had to write her thesis and her manuscripts in English, which was not something that came easily to her, despite having given many presentations in English at international conferences.

Because she is a woman of action, Dorthe decided to take a writing and a presentation course. This helped her became a more confident writer of scientific texts in English, but she admits that it’s still not her most favourite thing in world. She also took a course offered by the University of Copenhagen on how to prepare for your PhD defence, which she found highly useful.

The PhD defence

When the big day arrived, Dorthe was as prepared as she could be. The last few days leading up to her defence were slightly hectic, and she recalls working on her presentation until the very last minute.

Once she was “on”, she loved every minute of it: even though she was a little tense, she knew she was an experienced public speaker and teacher, and she knew she was prepared. She paid heed to the tips she had been given about how to prepare for the defence, and she had read up on her opponents’ work, so she could refer to this during the defence session. When Dorthe thinks back, she remembers it as a joyous occasion.

And on top of that, she had the luxury of knowing that on the following Monday, she would return to a full-time position at her university department and that she could now write “PhD” in her email signature.

What next?

Today, Dorthe is still at the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management where she is an associate professor and head of the study programme for Landscape Architecture and Planning. Even though she has supervised several students doing their master’s thesis, she has yet to supervise a PhD project. But should an interesting project come along, she would be open to the idea of taking on the role of supervisor and sharing her knowledge and experience.

Dorthe’s 5 tips for aspiring PhD students

  1. Know your passion and find your research niche!
    It may take time to get started with a PhD or to find the right PhD programme. But when you plan to immerse yourself in a narrow topic for several years, it’s important that you are passionate about the topic of your PhD.
  2. Enjoy it!
    This may be one of the only times in your professional career where it’s actually okay to hole up in your study for a week and ignore incoming emails and just focus on your research.
  3. Be disciplined!
    Make a plan every day for what you want to achieve that day. Time box every task, for example, allot two hours for reading up on a new area and no more than that – it’s so easy to fall down a rabbit hole in the reading phase.
  4. Accept your imperfections!
    It’s almost impossible to be equally good at all parts of your work. For example, if you‘re interested in natural science, you may find writing articles or giving presentations in English challenging. Remember to seek help for the things you are less good at.
  5. Be good to yourself!
    Find a tranquil reading spot. Make your workspace comfortable – with a beautiful view if possible. Take time out for a walk in nature and remember to take care of yourself.

Dorthe attended two of GlobalDenmark’s courses on scientific communication: “Academic Writing” and and “Academic Presentations”.

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Ann Britt Donovan