Global PhD recruiting hindered by Danish traditions and rules

Skrevet af Marie-Elisabeth Lei Holm - Foto: Jørn Albertus - 6. marts 2014 - 15:311 kommentar
Department head Peter Kjær with piles containing 135 applications for PhD stipend

The Department of Organization (DOO) received no less than 135 applications when a single PhD stipend was posted in November. It led to a workload of approx. 300 hours – and still it’s questionable whether the process is geared for finding the best candidates.

“We used to just post it in the DJØF magazine”
A whopping 90 percent of the applications DOO received regarding a posted PhD stipend come from international candidates, especially from Asia.

Since all applications must be meticulously evaluated and answered, this is a very big workload for the department.

Head of DOO, Associate Professor Peter Kjær, thinks back to when he himself was a job-seeking academic:

- I saw the posting for what would later become my job in the DJØF magazine. That’s what they did back then. Today, it’s very different, he says.

In other words, the technology and the international job market for academics have overtaken the rules for assessment.

Positions and stipends go globally viral
The widespread use of the internet has resulted in job postings and stipends being shared on hundreds, if not thousands of job portals across the globe, through a simple process of copying and pasting. So it’s not surprising that the interest in DOO’s PhD stipend has been overwhelming.

There are, to put it mildly, a lot of people who’ve seen the posting – and the PhD project itself is worded in the broadest possible way:

- We chose to post the stipend as broad and open as possible to see what happens. That way, we get a large amount of variation in the projects submitted, Peter Kjær explains and continues:

- But for some of them, we have to face that they’re outside the field we work in. Nonetheless, it does give us a feeling for the debate currently going on in our field.

A mammoth task to get through
The 135 applications lead to more than just an added understanding of the field. It also brought a lot of work. According to the rules, every application is entitled to an assessment from 2 associate professors of the PhD assessment committee, consisting of 5 associate professors.

And this is where it gets hairy. Every assessment is supposed to take 2 hours. Which means that the process will take a total of 270 work hours for the whole committee – in other words, approx. 7.5 work weeks.

Additionally, the 5 associate professors who will participate in interviews with a select few applicants must read all applications that the committee deems to be particularly interesting. This means that the total workload reaches a total of around 300 hours.

- It’s quite the task, Peter Kjær admits.

The committee is working on streamlining the whole process a bit, so they don’t have to start completely from scratch every time a written response has to be drawn up. The committee uses standardized phrases and rejects some applications from the beginning.

- But that’s only very few applications – and only those that do not fulfill the formal criteria and e.g. lack a description of the project, Peter Kjær points out.

Recruitment procedures take away from teaching
The many hours the VIPs use on reading applications count as hours of teaching, so research efforts won’t suffer under the pressure of work. In other words, the students, who over the past years have been fighting for more classes, will not benefit from the hours.

- I recognize the fact that a lot of resources go to the assessment work, especially when this many applications come in, Peter Kjær answers. When asked if he thinks the current situation is fair, he replies:

- At the same time, applicants can have spent weeks or months developing a potential project. They deserve a proper assessment, since we don’t just recruit based on GPA or anything like that.

He won’t dismiss the notion that resources can be spent more effectively by simplifying the process, however – not just for the students’ but for everyone’s good.

Hard for internationals to meet demands
While reading the many applications, the department head has been contemplating whether the application process is geared towards finding the best in a world where application criteria vary greatly between the different countries and institutions.

- A thought has been the fact that we have many international applicants might lead to us losing certain opportunities of recruitment. When we ask for a full project description, it can best be described as us asking the applicants to be able to hit the ground running.

- Being an outsider and trying to write a project description that ‘fits in’ can be difficult. In other countries, hiring somebody is based on them being a talent in terms of GPA etc.

In other words, the odds are tough for overseas students, when they have to formulate an application for a Danish university environment that has its own norms and – in many ways – its own language.

Should we think more globally… And rationally?
The challenge of the global market for applications along with the more locally anchored application criteria makes a man like Peter Kjær stop and think if CBS is even able to spot talents on a global scale.

If the applicants either can’t figure out what the formal criteria for applying for a Danish PhD stipend are, or perhaps isn’t used to the Danish tradition of demanding a detailed description of the project, up front, then being a great research talent doesn’t do much good.

- Maybe you could change the process to a two-stage process, with an initial application consisting of a description of interests and a subsequent guidance process in which the project description is created, Peter Kjær explains and finishes:

- That would take a lot more resources though! But we probably won’t find the best candidates on a global scale, as long as we don’t have a multi-stage application process.

DOO is currently finishing up the application process, and the department expects to offer stipends for two PhD fellows.


The current process does cause us to miss out on superb talent. A few years ago, I encouraged an applicant who was a Harvard Loeb Fellow to apply for a PhD at CBS. Loeb Fellowships are awarded to only a few people in the world every year; it is a global distinction for young designers making an impact on the world. It is unlikely that there were many people in the applicant pool for a PhD that year (or in any year) who had anything like this credential, or this level of talent. But I was informed later that her proposal was evaluated as not even being in the top 20. To be frank, this reflects more on CBS than it does on this person with internationally recognised talent.

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