Motivation from contributing to the knowledge within your field

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Facts on Rasmus Jensen

Rasmus Jensen is a PhD fellow at The University of Southern Denmark, currently in his second year. He graduated from SDU with a Master of Science in Sports Science and Health in 2014. After finishing his Masters, he was drawn to the idea of doing original research and to be the first in the world to answer a specific question. This led to the dream of a career in the academic world and motivated him to enroll in a PhD-program in 2017. His research focuses on how we store energy in our muscles and how fast we work and fatigue during exercise.

In the following he will tell us about his experience with life as a PhD student.

What is your PhD project about and how far along are you?

I am currently a little less than two years into my PhD, thus I have roughly one year to finish up my dissertation. In general, it is about energy stores in our muscles and how this relates to how well our muscles work and how fast we fatigue during exercise. In more detail, my PhD consists of two projects. My first project, which I recently submitted, is essentially a continuation and expansion of my Master’s project. I investigated the importance of the muscular carbohydrate stores for muscle fatigue and force production. It turns out that muscle carbohydrate is more important for force generation and fatigue resistance than we previously thought. In the second project, I quantified how much carbohydrate and fat is stored within the muscles, and where in the muscles it is stored. Now, I am trying to figure out, if this makes a difference for our endurance.

I have a profound interest in how our bodies work, and especially our muscles. The primary function of our muscles is to generate force. So for me, it is very important to understand what influences this. Expanding our knowledge in this field can benefit elite athletes as well as regularly active people, but it’s also relevant for patients with muscular diseases that cause them to have reduced ability to generate force or sustain force for a longer time meaning that they fatigue faster.

What is a typical working day like for you?

My working day varies quite a bit, depending on what part of my project I am working on.

Currently, I’m crunching numbers and trying to get an overview of the vast amount of data I’ve collected. I usually arrive at my office at 8 AM and leave around 3-4 PM. Right now I work on statistical analyses which require a lot of time on my own but my solo work is often interrupted by meetings, and discussions with my colleagues and supervisors about my recent findings. This may sound boring, but I find a lot a joy and excitement in “exploring” my data and finding patterns. I love knowing that no one in the world have previously investigated what I am investigating in such detail. Having my own data allows me to contribute to a very competent research unit in an independent way. I am never lonely as I speak to the two young researchers I share my office with, and my supervisors daily. It is a great mix of scientific and more personal talks. We usually also eat lunch together with other colleagues.

Would you recommend being a PhD to others and why?

It depends. I like it a lot, despite feeling like the work get repetitive at times. Most of my work days are quite flexible, which is a great thing when you have a family. On the other hand, with family it is difficult to go abroad for longer stretches of time, and even participating in PhD courses or conferences in other parts of Denmark can be a challenge.

The worst part of being a PhD-student is the buildup of a high work load, which happens occasionally. Another thing is the lack of career security and the fact that it can be hard to figure out exactly how to secure myself an academic career. However, I knew beforehand that I would face these issues. If you know from the beginning that you can’t deal with lots of, sometimes repetitive, work and a bit of uncertainty then I wouldn’t recommend becoming a PhD student. But if you can maintain a steady focus on the overall goal - that you will contribute to increase the knowledge within your field and find satisfaction and motivation in that, then I recommend it.

What is your best advice to students on how to get into a PhD program?

Talk to people. Talk to potential supervisors about future possibilities, and if possible do it well in advance. If you are a student, think about the direction you expect to go with your master project well before you have to make your final decision on a topic, and contact a possible supervisor. In our group, the best way to enter the PhD pipeline is to do lab work related to your Master’s project. You get a different kind of relationship with your supervisor when you collect your own data and spend time in the lab with them. But doing lab work takes a lot of time and I recommend that you start well in advance before the semester where you have to write the Master’s project. Once you get in the lab, make sure that you put your best effort, be consistent and stable, but also don’t hesitate to ask questions if you are in doubt or have suggestions. Lastly, spread your effort among several groups or people. It is difficult to get a PhD funded, so just because your supervisor likes you doesn’t mean that he or she will be able to get funding for you. So be patient, but also keep your options open and talk to other potential PhD supervisors – just remember to be honest about it. They will understand.