Aarhus Universitets segl

Mentors for international PhD scholars

The Faculty of Health Sciences is now offering a professional reception service for new PhD scholars from abroad to make sure they enjoy their stay in Denmark as much as possible.

By Gitte Bindzus Knudsen

PhD scholars from abroad studying at the Faculty of Health Sciences are not a new phenomenon. They’ve been coming to Aarhus for many years now. But they often find it hard to settle down, and some of them have experienced loneliness during their stay in Denmark.
As a result, the faculty has now set up a secretariat to help PhD scholars from abroad when they arrive in Aarhus.
“We want to receive our international students in a more professional manner. Until now each supervisor has been responsible for providing all the necessary assistance with regard to the current rules, accommodation and so on. They have to start from scratch every single time, and the process involved is often long and difficult,” explains Lise Wogensen Bach, an associate professor and project manager of the international working group at the faculty.

You need a social network as well
She herself spent three years at The Scripps Research Institute in California in the 1990s, and even back in those days the American university employed a member of staff to deal with students and staff from other countries.
“I’d only been there for a couple of days when a woman came knocking on my door. I was given a welcome pack, and she helped me to find accommodation, to open a bank account and much else besides. It was a huge help – and it’s the kind of thing we lack here in Aarhus.”
The idea of starting the secretariat originated right back in 2005; but in August 2008 the International Help Desk (IHD) was set up – the university’s service office for new, international PhD and post-doc scholars. The IHD provides practical and administrative help to solve any problems that people from abroad might have in connection with their research at Aarhus University and as residents of Denmark. But Lise Wogensen Bach still thinks that the university could be doing more.
“Apart from the help offered by the IHD, the Faculty of Health Sciences also provides a special welcome pack. We want to make sure that people feel welcome, and that they have access to a social network – with help from the Danish PhD scholars,” explains the project manager.

Needed a mentor herself
The faculty has now set up a mentor scheme – PhD scholars from outside Denmark can have a mentor if they would like one.
So far three mentors have been appointed, all of them PhD scholars at the faculty; but Lise Wogensen Bach hopes that five will be appointed in all. One of the current mentors is Lene Mølgård Hansen, who is a researcher at the Paediatric Department at Skejby Hospital. She has spent some time at a university in the UK, which is one of the reasons she signed up to be a mentor in Denmark.
“When I was in the UK I had to work everything out for myself. It would have been a huge help if one of the other students had shown me round town, told me about the cultural activities on offer, and helped me to find a social network,” she says.
This is why Lene Mølgård Hansen wants to help scholars from abroad when they come to Denmark, providing them with the kind of help she herself needed in the UK. But she believes there is even more she can do to improve the quality of their stay in Denmark.
“I’ve learned a lot during my own PhD programme which I’d be happy to share with scholars from other countries. For instance which courses are the best ones, and practical issues such as how the computer system works. Your supervisor tends not to know much about this kind of thing – but it’s important that someone tells you.”
Both Lene Mølgård Hansen and Lise Wogensen Bach agree that this kind of mentor scheme should really be organised centrally by the university. But for now the faculty is filling the gap.
“Our main aim is that PhD scholars joining us from abroad enjoy their stay as much as possible. This will make them want to stay – and they might even recommend Aarhus and Aarhus University to others,” explains Lise Wogensen Bach.

For more information about the mentor scheme, contact secretary Karla Højgaard Lyngbye at khl@sun.au.dk