Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark

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Ayo Wahlberg is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Copenhagen in the Department of Anthropology. The University of Copenhagen is the largest university in Denmark, with 37,000 students and 7,000 staff. Prior to moving to Denmark Ayo worked for six years at the London School of Economics and Political Science and University College London. He combined various teaching roles with his PhD, which was a comparative study of herbal medicine in Vietnam and Britain. The University of Copenhagen has an excellent reputation for research and teaching, and is also one of the oldest universities in Northern Europe. Ayo recently talked to Sarah Marten about his work.

Why did you choose to work overseas?

I had already studied in Denmark, completing both my BSc and MSc at Roskilde University, so I was already quite familiar both with the country and the language. My partner is also Danish, and she was happy to live there again.

Copenhagen is a very humane city, where the lifestyle is attractive with good possibilities for a healthy work-life balance. Having lived in London for the previous six years, I was keen to continue working somewhere with a strong international dimension, which is certainly the case in Copenhagen, despite its relatively small size. The University of Copenhagen itself has a prominent internationalisation agenda, and is keen to develop existing links with foreign universities, including those in the UK and US.

Although I did not have any particular links with the University of Copenhagen I had met some of their research staff at conferences and the University has an excellent reputation. The idea of working there really appealed to me, and although I could already speak Danish, I’ve found that teaching in English is encouraged in order to cater for international students.

How did you prepare for the move?

I had been renting a flat with my partner and two small children in London, and we employed a relocation company to transport all our belongings to Copenhagen. This all went very smoothly, although saying goodbye to friends and colleagues after six years in London was much harder.

Having relied on public transport in the UK we had no car to sell, although there is a lot to organise in terms of closing down bank accounts and opening new ones in Denmark. Being EU nationals we did not need any visas or work permits, although you do need an address in Denmark with which to register with the authorities.

What was the application process like?

Applying for a job at the University of Copenhagen was quite a lengthy process. I first saw the job advertised in April 2009, and heard that I had been short-listed in June. The interview took place in Copenhagen during August and I started my new job at the beginning of October. The application process to work abroad took a few months and it is important not to become disheartened by this.

What was it like in the first few days/weeks?

Copenhagen, with around one million residents, is a pleasant and happy place in which to work. Most people have a maximum commute of around 30 minutes, unlike London where I found that tube journeys of an hour each way were not uncommon. I can easily cycle to work, and the network of cycle lanes means that this is very safe and convenient. Public transport here is excellent, and so far I have managed without buying a car. This is not unusual in Copenhagen, where buying and running a vehicle is very expensive due to high taxes.

Moving to live in a different country with two small children is quite a challenge. They had both attended English nurseries in London, but once we moved to Copenhagen Danish was the language used at school and nursery. Even though my partner is Danish, we continue to keep English as one of the main languages at home. As the children were quite young at the time they did not understand fully what was happening, and we found they adapted to their new home quite well. I would say it takes at least six months to settle in and to build new social networks. The settling-in process was also helped by the fact that my partner’s family are based in Copenhagen. Denmark is very family-friendly, and we love living here.

Getting to know new colleagues was easy and greatly helped by the fact that as a department we all have lunch together each day. Sometimes the conversations are about work, but these times are also an opportunity to socialise in an informal atmosphere. Everyone was so welcoming and I soon felt very much at home. There were even flowers waiting for me in my new office on the first day!

The University of Copenhagen offers a good induction programme for new staff. This includes insight into the history of the University, which was established in 1479, and its structure, with eight faculties over four campuses.

What about your accommodation?

The University of Copenhagen does offer assistance to employees moving from abroad, although we did not need this as we already had a flat in Copenhagen. If we had chosen to rent in Denmark we could have taken advantage of the solid rental market here. We are very pleased with our apartment here in Copenhagen – building standards in Denmark are excellent. The heating is particularly efficient, which is vital as the winters here are long and cold! Our apartment is an easy 20-minute cycle ride from the University.

Are there any language issues?

My father worked for the United Nations and as a child I lived in several different countries. I attended a number of international schools, and although I am a Finnish national, English is my first language. This is the language that I speak, write, think and dream in! However, having previously studied in Denmark for several years I am competent in spoken Danish. As I would like to disseminate my research in Danish, I need to further develop my written skills in the language.  The University offer suitable courses which I hope to follow later on. English is very widely used in the university, both for teaching and research. Inside and outside the University almost everyone speaks English, which can actually be a disadvantage if you are trying to improve your Danish!

How do you find the cost of living?

When we moved to Denmark from the UK, the exchange rate between the two currencies was not favourable, and this was difficult at first. However, we soon found that the heavily subsidised childcare in Denmark easily compensated for this. Salaries are also higher, but then so are taxes.

What hours do you work?

Families are accommodated in Denmark, and no-one frowns if you leave work at 3.30 or 4.00 pm to collect your children from nursery or school. I don’t work any fewer hours in total than I did in London, and probably work between 40-50 hours most weeks. I really try not to take work home, although clearly if I have a pressing deadline evening or weekend work may be needed. I find there is less night-time checking of emails than there was in the UK because of better childcare arrangements.

Work in Copenhagen, though very important, is not quite as all-consuming as it tended to be in London. The work-life balance is good, which means I can spend quality time with my family. As both my partner and I work, in London it could be difficult to leave work in time for a 6pm nursery pick-up, by which time the children were often tired or disgruntled.

What is the social life like?  

One of the key differences between London and Copenhagen for me has been the social life. Although members of staff did socialise back in London, this seems to happen much more often in Copenhagen. This is probably partly due to the fact that journey times home after an evening out are usually shorter, and things just seem that bit more relaxed over here.

How does the HE sector in Denmark differ from the UK?

In Denmark the higher education system works on a three plus two model, which equates to three years for the undergraduate degree and two years for the master’s. This may change in the future though, as universities across Europe try to establish parity and move towards a three plus one model. Another difference here is that most people progress onto a master’s course, in the same discipline as their first degree. Higher education is funded by the government in Denmark, although I have heard the first rumblings about possible top-up fees.

What about your research?

Denmark is a relatively small country, and the research community may be perceived as not quite as vibrant as London, where it was possible to go to lectures by leading academics on a regular basis. However, we have a small and lively group of researchers in my field at the University of Copenhagen as well as other institutions, some of whom I had already met at international conferences, and the research is really interesting. Because I had worked in London before, I keep in regular touch with my research colleagues there by email and maintaining these international links is important.

As elsewhere, there is a growing pressure at the University of Copenhagen to increase your output of academic papers, something I had been accustomed to in London. External grants and funding are also becoming increasingly important here, which I can hopefully help with having have had experience of this in the UK. 

My previous research looked at the differences between East and West with respect to herbal medicine, in particular different ways in which the concepts of superstition, quackery and efficacy have informed and organised efforts to validate and regulate traditional herbal medicine in Vietnam and the United Kingdom. Following my PhD, I worked for a European Commission financed China-Europe project on the ethical governance of biomedical research where we examined contemporary ethical review practices in the fields of stem cell science, genomic research and clinical trials.

In Denmark I work as part of the ‘Asian Dynamics Initiative’, an interdisciplinary team with a remit to promote Asia research in seven broad areas including local responses to global challenges, citizenship and identities. My new area of research is looking at social and ethical challenges related to reproductive science in Asia.

Attending conferences, both in Denmark and further afield to countries including Japan and Singapore are also part of this job. We are currently organising a conference in Copenhagen on the theme of ‘Asian Diversity in a Global Context’, which will take place in November 2010.

Do you have any teaching responsibilities?

As a research fellow, most of my job is focussed on research although I will be using 20% and 30% of my time (over the three-year fellowship) for teaching. This includes time for preparation and marking, and roughly equates to about four hours’ teaching time most weeks.

I have just finished teaching a seven-week course (2 x 2 hours per week) for final year BA students and first-year MA students entitled ‘Anthropologies of Biomedical Research’.

How do you think working in Denmark will benefit your career?

The international research environment here will definitely benefit my career. The University of Copenhagen has an excellent reputation for research, and the emphasis here on developing international links and collaborations is very important. Maintaining my international focus is vital.

What are you enjoying most about your job at the University of Copenhagen?

I am enjoying working in an environment with exciting research, especially in the medical anthropology/sociology field. Also, the camaraderie amongst the staff here is great, as is the social life which surrounds academic life.

Is there anything that has been more difficult?

Deciding to move in the middle of the global financial crisis was daunting for both me and my partner! However, we were both able to find interesting jobs.

Have you got any advice for other academics planning to work overseas?

Make the decision to work overseas and then go for it. If you have an idea about working abroad then develop a plan as to how you will achieve this. It is easy to slip into working routines and let plans to move abroad slip by.


Ayo Wahlberg is originally from Finland, but has lived in eight different countries. He completed his secondary education at a various international schools. He then went to Roskilde University in Denmark where his first degree was a BSc in Development Studies (including Social Science), which was followed by an MSc also in Social Science. Whilst studying for his MSc, Ayo worked as a Project Assistant for the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS), working at the Institute of Chemistry, National Center for Natural Sciences and Technology, Hanoi, Vietnam.

After completing his MSc Ayo worked as a Project Manager at The Copenhagen Centre, Ministry of Employment in Denmark. After this he moved to London for his PhD, where he also held various teaching jobs at University College London and the London School of Economics and Political Science. Ayo’s PhD thesis was entitled “Modernisation and its side effects – an inquiry into the revival and renaissance of herbal medicine in Vietnam and Britain”. After finishing his PhD he worked as a Research Fellow at the BIOS Centre, Sociology, London School of Economics and Political Science, with research focussing on Europe-China cooperation on the ethical governance of biomedical research. Ayo is the author of many peer-reviewed journal articles, edited collections, and book chapters.

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