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Mie Østergaard challenges clinical tradition – with a principal PhD supervisor from BSS

Mie Østergaard from the Department of Clinical Medicine will depart from usual practice and write her PhD with a principal supervisor from BSS. The project is an example of the interdisciplinarity which the faculty wishes to promote, but the collaboration also complicated an approval, because two different research approaches collided.

Mie Østergaard was during the process encouraged to transfer her PhD to BSS, but she refused to do so. Today she has only been confirmed in her view that the project naturally belongs at Health. Photo: Agata Lenczewska-Madsen, Regional Hospital Central Jutland.

Can an employee at Health write a PhD with a principal supervisor from the Department of Management at Aarhus BSS?

Most people would probably say no: your principal supervisor must be one of your own. This is also the general rule, but exemptions can be granted, and Mie Østergaard from the Department of Clinical Medicine is a current example of this.

She has now begun work on an interdisciplinary PhD project for which the official principal supervisor is Helle Alsted Søndergaard, who conducts research into, among other things. innovation and management at BSS. According to Mie Østergaard, there were no other genuine options if her project was to be realised:

"I haven’t been able to find a principal supervisor at Health who can help me," says physiotherapist and MSc in Health Science Mie Østergaard, who will use her PhD to identify how medical doctors gain innovative competences. Including how the medical degree programme can support the ability to develop and realise new ideas.

"The healthcare sector is asking for these skills as can be seen in the current political agenda, but in reality, we don’t know what is needed, or how to strengthen any need for new skills because it’s not something that the healthcare sector has had a tradition of researching in. So my principal supervisor is from the social sciences, which has a longer research tradition in the area," says Mie Østergaard.

This seems natural for the head of the Department of Clinical Medicine, Jørgen Frøkiær, where Mie Østergaard is employed:

"When the research question demands an amalgamation of different disciplines, it makes good sense to develop interdisciplinary supervisor teams. I am therefore delighted that we can also find a satisfactory solution to the problem by finding a principal supervisor in a field where we don’t ourselves do much research," says Department Head Jørgen Frøkiær.

Vice-dean: More of this!

Lise Wogensen Bach, who is vice-dean for talent development and thus has overall responsibility for the strategic work with the faculty's PhD students, is also pleased with the increase in interdisciplinary PhD projects in the area:

"Fortunately, Health has quite a few examples of interdisciplinary PhDs. It’s something we see at the Interacting Minds Center, for example, where Professor Andreas Roepstorff has shared a position at Arts and Health in order to promote interdisciplinarity," says Lise Wogensen Bach.

"Having said that, of course a principal supervisor from BSS is not typical, but on the other hand, neither is it unique. We have had a long-standing agreement that supervisors from the Center for Integrated Registerbased Research (CIRRAU) at Aarhus University can act as principal supervisors on PhD projects from Health, if there is a written cooperation agreement that lays down the principal supervisor’s powers of direction," she says.

A couple of years ago, the wish for more projects across disciplines was unfolded in the Health publication 2 + 2 = 5, with Lise Wogensen Bach as its initiative-taker. In the publication’s foreword, she writes that "Interdisciplinarity is still a catch phrase in research, and this is also the case at the PhD degree programme at Health, where we today clearly support the idea that 2 + 2 can give 5".

Four years in the making

The overall strategic intentions are, however, not in themselves a guarantee that interdisciplinary PhD projects will get off the ground, as Mie Østergaard discovered. Her PhD applications were rejected in both 2014 and 2015, before she submitted application number three – after a break – which was approved with start just before the summer holidays.

"I'm obviously pleased that I finally got approval, even though I have both an atypical wish for my principal supervisor and a research approach which is more exploratory, some would say more inductive, than is usual practice in clinical research," says Mie Østergaard. She points out that her research approach thus differs from the classical natural scientific (deductive) tradition, where the starting point is the theory and the general assumptions about reality, which are then tested in a set-up where everything from test method to the survey population is predefined.

"I want to identify what wishes the healthcare sector has for medical doctors' innovative competences and then subsequently evaluate a newly-developed teaching initiative which aims to improve doctors' ability to create something new. But which, how and how many cannot be predefined, because this depends on the answers I get in my initial interviews and observation studies,” explains Mie Østergaard.

Principal supervisor must follow Health's rules

Head of the Graduate School Helene Nørrelund cannot comment on the specific case, but says that the graduate school is generally used to assessing projects with different approaches to research.

"Our evaluation of projects incorporates experts with research experience within the relevant method. If the project gets off the ground and the set-up requires an external supervisor, then we make sure that will work. In the vast majority of cases you can easily work in an interdisciplinary manner with the principal supervisor from your own discipline and co-supervisors from various other disciplines – that happens every day," says Helene Nørrelund.

She points out that the graduate school's special attention about the choice of principal supervisor is due to the principal supervisor having obligations that go beyond the project-specific supervision.

"The principal supervisor has responsibility for ensuring that the PhD programme progresses in accordance with the applicable rules in the PhD Order and the graduate school's guidelines. An external principal supervisor must thus also be willing to become acquainted with – and follow—the rules at Health," says Helene Nørrelund.

Why not just transfer?

Helle Alsted Søndergaard from BSS naturally enough understands the latter point, although in connection with the first rejection, she did encourage Mie Østergaard to transfer her PhD to BSS:

"It would probably have been easier, because both the subject and the approach are on our home turf, but Mie has always wanted to work with the subject ‘from inside" at Health. And that’s something you can only have respect for,” says Helle Alsted Søndergaard.

Since the start of the project three months ago, Mie Østergaard has only been confirmed in her view that the project naturally belongs at Health.

"Getting through to the relevant people in senior positions at the hospitals has gone unbelievably quickly. Fifteen hospital directors and HR managers have already said yes to me coming and interviewing them. I’m certain this is linked to me being primarily based at Health, which represents a world they know and are familiar with, and that I’m not from BSS," says Mie Østergaard.

The different PhD project is based at the research unit at Silkeborg Regional Hospital’s Center for Planned Surgery, where Mie Østergaard has been employed as project manager in the area of innovation, as well as at INNO-X, which works with innovation and development of demand-driven solutions in a centre construction under the Department of Clinical Medicine.

As principal supervisor, Helle Alsted Søndergaard will be joined by two co-supervisors; Research Coordinator Anthropologist, Associate Professor, PhD, Mette Terp Høybye from Silkeborg Regional Hospital (Center for Planned Surgery) and the Interacting Minds Centre, AU; and Medical Doctor and PhD Martin Vesterby from INNO-X.

Martin Vesterby is certain that the openness towards a different PhD will ultimately benefit Health – not least in relation to applying to foundations:

"The external funders such as the Novo Nordisk Foundation, Villum Foundation and the Carlsberg Foundation increasingly subscribe to the ‘high risk, high gain’ principle and do not hide the fact that they will support more risky and interdisciplinary projects, where no one knows beforehand what the research will lead to. And the foundations aren’t doing this for philanthropic reasons, but because these wilder projects are often those that deliver the really big breakthrough," says Martin Vesterby.


Physiotherapist, MSc and PhD student Mie Østergaard
Department of Clinical Medicine and
Center for Planned Surgery, Silkeborg Regional Hospital.
Email: moes@clin.au.dk
Mobile: (+45) 6131 6843