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Debate: The research year – a success for the few or the many?

The research year is a success for both research and students, but it collides with completion bonuses and the education system’s “get them in quick, get them out quick” mentality, writes Lise Wogensen Bach, vice-dean and head of graduate school at Aarhus University, Health.


The research year is a success at the health science faculties in Denmark. The extra academic year, which the students typically take during their Master's degree programme, gives medical and odontology students a unique opportunity for in-depth specialisation, affiliation with research environments and to train their academic and intellectual skills.
But the future of the research year is under debate. How does it fit into an organisational framework that includes the study progress reform, completion bonuses and the “get them in quick, get them through quick, get them out quick” approach that the university is faced with?

31 August, the Danish Medical Journal published a quantitative study from Aarhus University, Health, which sheds light on some the questions at the centre of the debate. The study addresses the directly measurable, academic benefits of the research year, as it is organised here at AU, Health, and contributes to taking the debate further:

Firstly, the study shows that the level of interest in taking a research year is increasing at AU, Health – both in absolute as well as relative terms. The level of interest is so great that up to one-third of the students in a year group enrol for the research year.
Secondly, it shows that around half (52%) of our students become primary author of at least one international scientific article within 3.5 years of starting their research year.
Thirdly, we now know that 3.5 years after the start of the research year, 13% of the students have become PhD students, and that after 6 years, 48% are taking a PhD degree programme. 

I am very pleased to see this interest in in-depth specialisation, which we can now see in black and white, and which contributes to generating new knowledge. This falls into line with the international interest for using pre-graduate research activities as a tool for closer integration of education and research.

We have so far enrolled virtually all students who wished to take a research year here. They just need a qualified principal supervisor, an approved project and funding. The level of interest keeps increasing and we are pleased with this. But the influx also has a bearing on AU's bottom line, because we end up losing the completion bonus, as the research year prolongs the period of study. The question is: can we withstand this and continue with this success?

We must therefore consider whether we should limit the number of enrolments and thus develop a proper recruitment strategy. Do we need to think about more flexible schemes? What do the students themselves say – what drives them?

The last question is one that we will have some answers to in a few weeks when Aarhus University, Health, publishes a qualitative report on the incentives, competences and career perspectives for our research year students. There is much to suggest that what attracts the curious and ambitious students who apply for a research year is the opportunity to carry out research and in-depth specialisation. 

Over the coming months we will therefore discuss how we can develop a version of the research year that takes the different challenges into account, but which also supports the most creative and innovative students. Should we limit enrolment numbers? And if so, who should we let in?

  • The article was published on Altinget.dk 1. September 2015.

Read the study in Danish Medical Journal.

Talent development, Health and disease, All groups, External target group, Health, Department of Clinical Medicine