Updated: Oct 8, 2020
Ole has a Bachelor's and Master's thesis in physics from the University of Aarhus in Denmark and has moved to Canada to pursue his Ph.D. in fiber optics sensors. He is extremely passionate about research and believes in nurturing the next generation in the STEM fields. I sat down with Ole to unravel his life as a student and to hear more about how he got to this point in his life. I started the interview off by asking Ole to tell us a little bit about himself including his background, academic interests, and hobbies.
“I grew up in the suburbs of a small provincial city called Vejle in Denmark. Both my bachelor's and masters, which I got at the University of Aarhus are in physics. I really enjoy reading classics like Crime and Punishment. Major works like this are like a puzzle that I can dig through to uncover the meaning the author was trying to convey - how did they see the world and what did they want to say about it? And what can I learn from it? It's really interesting. One of my favorites is War and Peace. Some may know it as "That enormous Russian Novel" that is a million pages long, but it is surprisingly well written, accessible and relatable."
Ole mentioned that he completed his bachelor's and master's in physics in Denmark prior to moving to Canada. With that being said, I asked him about what kind of impact studying abroad, Canada, had on his development as a student?
“ So here's some background information before answering your question. I actually went to Canada the first time around in 2017. I applied for international exchange because I felt that I had taken a linear line to the qualification system. From starting in elementary school, going to high school and directly to university, I never really branched out. Going on exchange was my way of doing something a little bit out of the ordinary. Ottawa was one of my top picks for exchange destinations, so this is where I ended up. It so happened that I met my girlfriend, who is Canadian while on exchange. After that, I really wanted to come back to Canada (for obvious reasons). I started asking the professors whose courses I was taking if I could do a PhD with them after finishing my masters back in Denmark. One of them was kind enough to accept my application, so I managed to return to Ottawa in the Summer of 2018.
The most challenging part about starting my PhD was completely switching my field of study. Back in Denmark, I had researched Ultracold Atoms, which is about understanding the fundamental properties of atoms, but here i Ottawa, I am working on applied Fiber Optics, which is more practical. I had no experience with this field and had to learn everything from scratch! In short, studying abroad had a much bigger impact on my life than I would have expected. Even if you aren't as lucky as I was, I highly recommend the experience!
I informed Ole that his transition between fields probably made his move to Canada even challenging, but everyone has to endure some kind of challenge that pushes them out of their comfort zones. I asked Ole to elaborate a bit more about what he believed he gained from studying abroad and changing things throughout his academic journey.
“I guess it's tough to say because physics is physics, no matter where you study it. I think it was nice to take some more personal responsibility for what goes on in my education. In Denmark a lot of things are done for you. For example, you get tax-payer money to study and you don't have to pay for tuition, which sounds nice but has some unintended consequences. It leads to a lot of students starting an education without being truly interested in their subject. Universities have a harder time providing the same level of quality teaching to a larger number of students, and these students have less reason to seek out valuable extracurricular activities or internships to get the most out of their time. Many of these people might be a lot happier having a non-academic job, but all the money funneled into higher education means that there is less around to start businesses. Bring it back to Canada and you actually have to take accountability and take some personal responsibility for making sure you achieve all your goals. For example, it strikes me that more Canadian students join clubs etc. compared to Danish ones and take on part-time work. In a way, I think that's very healthy because if you live in a comfort-bubble, you don't experience those tough decisions about your own time and money, which help you grow as a person.
Get more responsibility, get more courage to face new challenges as well is how I interrupted Ole’s response. Taking a closer look into the field and degree of his study, I asked Ole what advice he would give young students who are considering pursuing graduate school?
“I guess, one piece of advice would be that formal education isn't the only thing that matters. If you take some time to attend networking events or workshops with companies, or other things somehow related to your field, it'd be a really good experience for you. With many more people taking a formal education (in Canada as well as Denmark), doing something that makes you stand out is extremely valuable.”
Ole has been studying for quite some time now and has a more evolved perspective of our educational system being that he's been in it for many years. With that being said, I asked Ole what he thinks the educational system should look like in the future? Or in other words, what change would he make to it today if he could.
“Well, I think that programs such as OSAP, and in general, all public/tax-funded subsidies for education should be removed completely. I know it sounds outrageous, but hear me out. Without such artificial financial support, students and parents will be a lot more picky when picking a school and a degree. They will carefully weigh costs and benefits, as well as their personal skills and interests to find the perfect solution for them. In such a world, they can force universities to provide the right quality at the right price - otherwise, they won't attract any paying students! Since every student has their own unique educational needs, we'd most likely see a broad range of schools offering exactly what students want.
With artificial support programs like OSAP, universities can be much more certain to have an infinite supply of paying customers. If they happen to recruit more administrators than necessary or if they start bloated construction projects, the drop in quality or increase in price won't affect their bottom line the way it would under normal circumstances. These deteriorations may even lead to calls for more public funding, leading to a downward spiral. More tax-money being extracted and allocated to education means fewer "normal" job opportunities are created, leading to even more people deciding that higher-education is the only way to go. In short, the problem isn't that universities are"for profit", but that OSAP etc. allow them to make guaranteed profits no matter how responsive they are to the needs of students. Without such programs, it would be much easier for innovative educational services to flourish.
After Ole explained his position, I asked him what he believes being a student today means to him.
“Well, I thought a bit about it. And maybe that sort of comes back to the discussion about OSAP. If you want to avoid some of the complications I mentioned earlier, you have to think a lot more about education as an investment. A helpful trick is to ask yourself: 'If I had to personally pay the full cost of my tuition, which program would I choose, how long would I study and what would I want to achieve with it?' A carpenter in Home Depot doesn't just pick any tool off the shelves, but carefully selects the one that will give him the most value compared to the price. Even if all your tuition were paid for through OSAP, you are still committing to spending ca. 4 years in school. So it's worth asking: 'Could I spend this time better? Maybe just working for a year or two makes more sense? ' I know this is not the cheerful, 'being-a-university-student-is-wonderful-and-everyone-should-enroll-right-now!' -sort of answer that you've probably heard a million times before. However, I do think it is realistic. The goal is to learn something that is valuable to you, so don't be afraid to take your time and get started when you are mentally ready."
I thank Ole for wrapping up the interview with such a deep and thought-provoking response to what it means to be a student today. His answer leaves us questioning whether going to school in the near future will be more of an optional extracurricular activity type of action, and we have the internet to thank for this due to its ability to teach us anything through a web search and video tutorials. Ole’s perspective is truly interesting and I thank him once again for providing us with an inside scoop into his life and sharing his thoughts with the rest of our Go2Grad community.