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I use my degree in my own way

Renée Toft Simonsen, Master of Science in Psychology, didn’t take the usual path through her studies. Life took her to Aarhus University, where she balanced her psychology studies with her responsibilities as a young mother. After saying no to a PhD, the former super model discovered how she really wanted to live her life.

"Much in life happens by chance. Some people think that they can organise and plan their lives. In my experience life gets in the way."

The quote is by Renée Toft Simonsen, psychologist and prize-winning author of more than 20 books for children, young people and adults. The road of her own life has taken many turns, and yet she has ended up spending most of her time doing what is most important for her: Writing about relationships and family life in all its complexity.

Renée Toft Simonsen has filled a lot of space in the media and the tabloid press since she started her modelling career in the early 1980s. She’d had enough after eight years in the turbulent and hectic New York fashion scene.

"I wanted something else. I wanted to be either a journalist or a psychologist. I decided to take the entrance exam at the Danish School of Journalism because I didn't have to take a school leaving examination first," she says.

But after many years abroad, Renée Toft Simonsen did not know that the name of the then Minister for the Environment was Lone Dybkjær, and thus the general knowledge test for the School of Journalism put an end to her dream of becoming a journalist. There was no way around it, she had to take an upper secondary school leaving examination and get a grade average high enough to qualify for the psychology programme. And she did. But why psychology?

"My time as a model gave me an anxiety disorder. I experienced mental illness myself, and that made me want to study what mental illness actually is. What’s happening in the brain? It’s the classic story of a psychology student who’s grappling with something or other herself. Like they say, if you want a complicated girlfriend, go to a party at the department of psychology," laughs Renée Toft Simonsen.

Difficult start to the programme
At that time, Renée Toft Simonsen lived with her former partner and their two small children in Copenhagen. So she started her psychology studies at the University of Copenhagen. In the middle of the Bachelor's course, her life took another turn: The couple split up, and Renée Toft Simonsen decided to move with the children back to Aarhus and continue her studies at Aarhus University.

In 1995, the little family moved in at Skrænten in Risskov with a view over Aarhus Bay. After leaving her children at daycare in the morning, she picked up her books and walked the 300 metres to the Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences, which at that time was in a house-like building on Asylvej in Risskov.

"It was a bit lonely at first. The others knew each other and had already organised their study groups. Being a mother, I didn’t have the same opportunities to take part in social life and to go out in the city like the others. But I gradually got to know some of the others and joined a study group," she says.

Academically, she was particularly interested in the connection between theory and practice.


"One of the things I remember most from that time is my internship at a children’s home. I loved being in contact with the children and trying out the theories and tools I’d learned during my studies. Generally, I’m a great advocate for even more cohesion between theory and practice in the psychology programme. There's no point in having just the theory," she says. 

Renée Toft Simonsen

  •  Born in Randers, 12 May 1965
  •  In 1982 won the Supermodel of the World competition
  •  Started studying psychology at AU in 1995
  •  Master of Science in Psychology in 2002
  •  Has published more than twenty books, for children and young people in particular, including the Karla books and the Tiberius Tudeface series, Børnene fra Sølvgade and her novel for adults Tuesday Mornings.
  •  Qualified as a screenwriter at the Danish Film School in 2013 and wrote the Iqbal Farooq films based on Manu Sareen’s children's books
  •  Letters editor for the weekly magazine Femina
  • ·Has taken many continuing education courses, including in meditation

Psychology in authorship
Renée Toft Simonsen did not have a fixed career plan, except that she wanted to work with children.

"But it didn’t go as planned. I was never authorised. While I was writing my Master's thesis, I became interested in writing. I loved the writing process. Sewing together different elements into a whole. At the same time, I was asked whether I would write a contribution to an anthology about love, and I got an idea for a children's book. So after my MSc in Psychology, I started writing books," says René Toft Simonsen.

This has since become more than 20 books, including the award-winning children's book Karla’s World about a girl called Karla whose parents are divorced and whose father drinks. Several Karla books have been made into films. 

René Toft Simonsen uses what she learnt during her studies at Aarhus University in her writing and in other activities, including as the letters editor for Femina magazine.

"Psychology is basically about relationships, and relationships are the basic theme in my books. I use my education a lot, but perhaps not exactly in the way that most people do. I use it in my own way,” she says.

No to a PhD
Part of the story is that, after finishing her Master's thesis, Renée Toft Simonsen applied for and was granted a PhD fellow at the University of Southern Denmark, where she was to study how smoking and alcohol affect the fetus. However, she ended up saying no to the project, which entailed her conducting psychological tests on mothers and children in Copenhagen, Aarhus, Odense and Aalborg.

"I suddenly felt that I really wasn’t very interested. I didn't want my children to have to spend eight hours a day in daycare. And in the end why did I want a PhD? Because it sounds good? Because I wanted to counter the prejudices that models are stupid? I discovered that in reality I had other priorities. So I thought "To hell with it", I’ll write books instead," she says.

Renée Toft Simonsen is aware that she is reinforcing a gender equality issue at universities, where too few women take the research road.

"All we can do is see that the various initiatives are not working well enough. What’s more, perhaps many women can’t be bothered to tackle the very competitive environment at universities, where sometimes it’s mostly about getting your name on the front of a research article," she says.