For many years not many Asian students like me considered Denmark as a place for their Ph.D. study.
10 years ago when I was looking for a Ph.D. position in Europe, Denmark was not on my map. What I knew about the country was only about one or two famous fairy tales of H. C. Andersen, the Laudrups brothers and Peter Schmeichel in football.
Being a small country, Denmark was underrated when Asian people think about science and technology. A Vietnamese student like me 10 years ago would prefer the biggest countries like the USA, England, Germany or France for her advanced study.
But when I was accepted for a Ph.D. position at DTU (the Technical University of Denmark), I knew it was one of the best fellowships in the world.
Here is why.
A Ph.D. Program Takes Only 3 Years
It is one of the shortest Ph.D. programs in the world. If you have a Master's degree, it takes you only 3 years to complete.
You have to conduct all the following duties within this duration.
Absolutely. Publications are the most important outcomes when you complete your Ph.D. You have to focus on your research, on the planned project right after you start the program.
You have to do experiments and find solutions. Failed. Repeat. Failed. Try again. Succeed. Finally, you have something to publish papers, to present at conferences.
3 years is not long enough to produce many publications. Most professors would understand that and accept you might have only a few papers when finishing your study.
You have to do some coursework to fulfill 30 ECTS (European Credit Transfer System) points.
In Europe, you don't have to take courses at only the university you belong to. Even summer schools over the world can also be counted.
My 30 ECTS points consisted of different types of coursework. 20 of them were the three Ph.D.-level courses at DTU. 7.5 points were counted for my three summer schools in Belgium, Turkey and Brazil. And 2.5 was about the Presentation and Writing skills course.
All of my courses were of the simple type “pass or not”.
You might have to assist your professor in tutoring some of his courses.
It was about helping you to have some experience working with students. Especially for those who want to apply for positions having teaching duty after Ph.D. Your CV must have some teaching experience.
Such an experience was not my problem, where I had 7 years with thousands of students in Vietnam. The thing was the students here were studying in the Danish language. Luckily, all of them could discuss with me in English and I could understand their Danish assignments on math.
Denmark supports Ph.D. students to go to any university around the world for a few months to do research.
Most (Danish students) would choose the USA for 3 to 6 months. But it depends on the research topic and on your professor’s network.
Alp Bassa was one of the best coauthors of Peter. So we agreed on doing my external stay at Sabancı University in Istanbul (Turkey) for around 2 months.
A thesis is the most important outcome of a Ph.D. You have to finish it and hand it in at the end of the program. A Ph.D. committee consisted of 3–5 professors from different countries will read your thesis and accept it before your Ph.D. defense.
Writing a Ph.D. thesis is a difficult task. Especially when you choose to write the full monograph, in which you have to write everything. From the background to the methods and results. Depending on the fields, an average monograph could end up with 150 pages. Such a lengthy thesis could take at least 3 months to complete.
But within only 3 years, I would spend more time on writing publications and attending conferences rather than writing my thesis.
So I chose another type for my Ph.D. dissertation. The article compilation.
There were only 5 parts in my 52-page Ph.D. thesis in mathematics.1. Introduction, where I wrote an overview of my project and told a story to connect three of my publications.
2. The first article.
3. The second article.
4. The third article.
5. Conclusion, where I summarized the results I had achieved from my research.
You Are Paid A Salary
A Ph.D. student in Denmark is not actually a student. You are an employee. The university pays you a salary working for them.
In Denmark, you can also apply for an industrial Ph.D. program, where a company will pay the salary as you work for them.
It is a good type of collaboration between academy and industry. You solve a real problem (that can make a lot of money) using the advanced techniques you are researching on.
Your Ph.D. salary is not high when you compare it with other titles in the job market. But for a student, it is very high compared with the Ph.D. scholarships you get from other countries.
In 2021, a last-year Ph.D. student might have a monthly salary of 32.000 Danish kroner (about 5.100 in US dollars). Quite a lot.
If you are single, you can save a lot of money.
If you are married and have children like me, it is still manageable for your family with a single income. (That was why my wife could leave her good job in Vietnam and decided to go with me and Mai-Khanh to Denmark for my study.)
Being considered as an employee, you don’t have a deduction on transportation like the students in other countries. But you have a lot of benefits.
Something like the 401(k) plan in the US, a Danish university contributes around 11% of your gross salary to your pension plan. You contribute about 5%.
If you continue to work and contribute to your pension plan, you won’t worry about money when you retire at 68. The only thing to worry about is your health.
If you are a mother and gives birth to a new baby during your study, you can be at home for one year taking care of your baby. No study. Your full salary is unchanged.
When the baby is one year old, you can put her in daycare and come back to your study.
If you are the father, you get 3 months of parental leave. That was my case when Khanh-Chi was born in 2014.
That parental leave scheme is applied to everyone who is working in Denmark.
As an employee, you are paid for the travel related to your job.
Conference fee. Hotel. Flight. Transportation. Everything.
You are also given some money to spend on private breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Very nice.
I love attending and presenting at conferences and summer schools. During my 3 years of the Ph.D., I went to more than 6 conferences and 3 summer schools. Most in Europe. One in China. One in Brazil. That gave me a lot of friends around the world.
5 weeks of holidays each year
Oh yes. A lot.
The employment gives you at least 5 weeks of paid holidays. That provides you many vacations during the year.
For many Vietnamese people, we save a lot of holidays to have long visits to Vietnam during the summer or winter break.
How To Apply
Like a job, a Ph.D. position in Denmark can be opened throughout the year. Whenever the money for the project is ready, the professor will start to find students.
If you have a Master's degree and your English is good, you can apply for a Ph.D. study in Denmark.
You can find Ph.D. positions from the job vacancy on the university’s website, like this. The professor might also post the job somewhere else to find the candidates.
I found my Ph.D. position in the Open Positions in Cryptology, a job portal for the area of cryptology (my research topic 10 years ago).
The application process acts as the job procedure too. Apart from the documents, you might need to discuss with the professor about your understanding or your ideas about the proposed project. It proves your background is best matched for the job.
If you are on the shortlist, you will be called for an interview or two.
The head of the Ph.D. school and a Ph.D. committee will decide whether you are accepted or not.
There are a lot of institutions in Denmark. But only the 8 biggest universities have Ph.D. programs. Here is the list.
Founded in 1478. With over 38.000 students and more than 9.000 employees, KU is one of the largest institutions of research and education in the Nordic countries. Today nine Nobel Prizes have been awarded here.
(My university) Founded in 1829, DTU is the leading technical university of the Nordic countries. It is also one of the best technical universities in Europe and the world.
Established in 1917. CBS is one of the largest business schools in Europe. Its recognized graduate programs attract many best international students and leaders around the world.
Aarhus University (AU)
Founded in 1928. AU attracts a lot of international students for its rich courses in English.
Aalborg University (AAU)
Established in 1974. Despite the fact that AAU is a fairly young university, it is already ranking amongst the best and most acknowledged international universities in the world.
Established in 1966. SDU is one of the top fifty young universities in the world.
Roskilde University (RUC)
Founded in 1972. Ranked 101–150 in the Times Higher Education Young Universities Rankings.
IT University of Copenhagen (ITU)
The IT University of Copenhagen is an independent educational and research institution focusing on information technology. It has various graduate programs and research at the highest academic level.
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