Maiken Meldgaard’s PhD has ‘dual citizenship’

In a few days’ time, PhD student Maiken Meldgaard will be leaving to spend four months in Melbourne. She is one of the few PhD students at Health who is also enrolled as a PhD student at a university outside Denmark. Dual PhD citizenship has a large but untapped potential, she says.

Photo: Simon Fischel, AU Health

Her bags are almost packed, and the last agreements are being finalised. For the next four months, Maiken Meldgaard, a PhD student at the Department of Public Health, will be researching, teaching and networking among the leading researchers in her field – at Deakin University in Australia. But it is not a traditional study period abroad that awaits Maiken ‘down under’, because she is also enrolled as a PhD student at the Australian university. She is thus dividing her PhD time between two parts of the world and two different employers.

About Maiken Meldgaard

  • PhD student, enrolled in both Aarhus University’s Department of Public Health and Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia.
  • Holds a Professional Bachelor degree in Health and Nutrition from University College Absalon in Slagelse (2018) and an MSc in Health Science from Health (2020).
  • Researcher in the concept of ‘health literacy’, i.e. how people – on the basis of personal skills and the resources in their environment – find, understand and use information to take decisions about health.
  • Using both quantitative and qualitative data, her PhD project addresses, amongst other things, the health literacy of pregnant women.
  • At Aarhus University her principal supervisor is Professor Helle Terkildsen Maindal while Associate Professor Rikke Damkjær Maimburg of Aarhus University Hospital is her co-supervisor. Her supervisors at Deakin University in Melbourne are professors Anna Peeters and Bodil Rasmussen.
  • Maiken is 28 and lives in Silkeborg with her fiancée.

“In my view, I get the best of both worlds. I have skilled supervisors at Public Health who already work closely with Deakin University, and who are at the cutting edge in the concept of ‘health literacy’, which is the area I am researching. Amongst other things, the Australian researchers have developed some of the measurement tools that I am using to assess participants’ health literacy levels in my cohort study. It’s a huge privilege for me, and it boosts the quality of my thesis to be able to work so closely with the pioneers,” says Maiken Meldgaard.

Long-term investment

Cotutelle agreement, joint degree, joint PhD. The beloved, but in this case relatively unknown, child has many names. In practice, the arrangement means amongst other things that Maiken Meldgaard has two separate contracts, two sets of supervisors, has to teach in both places, and must undergo an interim evaluation twice. But after three years of research training and one thesis, Maiken Meldgaard will have a PhD from both Aarhus University and Deakin University. And she sees this as a clear career advantage:

“The joint PhD is already benefiting my research here and now, but I also see it as a long-term investment. I would like to continue my career at the university, and if you want to do that, you must work internationally. My close collaboration with Deakin means that, as a young scientist, I’ve already created a strong network out in the world, and I think that gives me more space and leeway to pursue an academic career,” explains Maiken Meldgaard, adding:

“I hope I’ll be able to create something in Australia that I can continue to build on – I can for example already enter into agreements that could form the basis for a postdoc position.”

Helene Nørrelund, head of the Graduate School, who is also part of the faculty’s management, agrees that a degree collaboration can be a good idea, as it also supports the faculty’s internationalisation strategy: “It is a formalised way of working with internationalisation. For most research groups and for the faculty in general, it makes good sense to work closely with your peers around the world. Fixed frameworks and agreements can make international collaboration more binding, so why not also practise it in the PhD area?” she asks.

World-class supervision from start to finish

Maiken Meldgaard has especially high expectations towards the close academic relations and the large international network: a network and a collaboration which she feels it is easier for both parties to commit to and invest in when you formally have the same workplace, and one party is not just visiting. This is also the reason why she doesn’t just ‘settle’ for a more traditional study trip abroad.

“The Australian supervisors automatically take more ownership of the project when you are enrolled down there, as I am. They’ve been involved right from the start, they’re familiar with the material, and they’re also following me and my PhD all the way. It will be very valuable to me to physically sit with them and to be able to draw on those good contacts when I’m back in Denmark,” says Maiken Meldgaard, who is in the first year of her PhD programme.

While she is in Melbourne, Maiken Meldgaard will spend her time teaching, presenting results at conferences, cleaning up a large dataset and conducting a qualitative study. In her own words, she’ll be busy.

The gains are (probably) greater than the difficulties

Since 2013, when the joint PhD scheme was made possible at Health, 19 of Health’s PhD students have made an agreement with the faculty on a joint degree – most of them with ‘home university’ abroad. Thus, only few PhD students have chosen to take advantage of the offer. She wonders whether the relatively small number may be due to the faculty’s PhD students not knowing that the scheme exists. Or perhaps a double enrolment may seem like a major mouthful to take on at the beginning of a PhD study.

Helene Nørrelund says that a joint degree is not a routine task for the PhD administration. The framework agreements for the collaboration are extensive. The foreign university must support AU’s strategies and at the same time comply with its PhD requirements and conditions.

“There must be an academic match, meaning that a supervisor and a PhD student at AU are able to see an advantage in establishing a closer collaboration with a research group abroad – also with the hope of exchanging more PhD student in the future. It’s also a major administrative task to reconcile rules and practices across universities and national borders, and it takes time to get an agreement in place, so we have to be sure that it is worth the effort,” says Helene Nørrelund, but emphasises: “We would really like to hear from supervisors and PhD students who are thinking about taking a double degree. Then we will examine whether and how this is possible.”

Maiken Meldgaard believes it is worth the effort. She is the first PhD student from Health to sign an agreement with Deakin University in Melbourne, and she acknowledges that a joint degree requires some extra effort, and that it is a matter of ‘learning by doing’. She has for example been required to take a new English examination, as Australian universities require that an English exam must not be more than five years old. She has applied to several foundations for funding to be able to live in an apartment rather than a dorm, and the staggered time rhythms of the northern and southern hemispheres have been a challenge to, amongst other things, e-mail correspondence and online meetings.

But Maiken Meldgaard looks upon these things as banal practicalities, and says that the benefits she has already experienced from a joint PhD far outweigh the duplication of effort that occurs along the way. According to Maiken Meldgaard, a joint PhD requires planning and time.

Do it, but plan well in advance

“As PhD student you’re busy, and three years isn’t really much time to manage courses, teaching, data collection and processing. I only discovered the possibility of taking a joint PhD after I had begun my PhD course, and then time became even tighter,” says Maiken Meldgaard, who was introduced to the programme and to Melbourne by her principal supervisor.

Maiken says that while she was a research assistant at the Department of Public Health, she could start planning her own PhD project at an early stage. This was a clear advantage when the cotutelle agreement came into the picture as an option. Consequently, she also has a clear message for current or future PhD students who are considering a double PhD:

“If it looks doable and you want to do it, then you should start as early as possible – explore the possibilities and talk to your principal supervisor. Things take time, but it’s been worth it so far,” says Maiken, adding:

“I can already recommend a joint PhD, and I’m really looking forward to going – I just need to finish packing.”

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PhD student Maiken Meldgaard
Department of Public Health, Aarhus University