Life of a PhD fellow at the ITU

Rasmus Eskild Jensen turned in his PhD thesis this August, exactly three years after starting the project. His PhD is about globally based software development teams and the challenges of working across geographical distance. He has shared his insights on what it means being at PhD fellow in the Technologies in Practice department at ITU.

What is your educational background?

I have a bachelor degree in political science from the University of Copenhagen. After I finished my bachelor degree I was in need of a change of air and so I started my Master at ITU in Digital Design and Communication. At that time it was possible to specialise in Global IT, which focused on global collaboration and how to support this with IT systems. I ended up writing my thesis about this subject and following this opened up the possibility in the NexGSD project ( of starting a PhD project, with Associate Professor Pernille Bjørn as my supervisor, in continuation of my Masters thesis.

What is your PhD project about?

I have focused my research on the challenges and opportunities of globally distributed software development. The PhD project is part of a larger interdisciplinary research project called NexGSD, which is in cooperation between ITU, CBS, and Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. This project study global software development companies and the fundamental idea is to study cultural differences as a driver for innovation rather than as a barrier, and then to use the insights from the studies to design new collaborative technologies.

My role in the project was to make an empirical study of a specific software development project in a Danish company, where I investigated how the collaboration actually takes place. The company has software developers in Denmark and in the Philippines who depend on collaboration to solve the task. My research spans both traditional CSCW literature and Global Software Development studies. I started my PhD in August 2011 and I handed in the PhD thesis in August 2014.

How big has the workload been throughout the project?

It has, of course, varied a bit due to fixed deadlines. However I still think the workload has felt constant, because as a PhD you constantly have the feeling that you don’t know exactly what the goal is. This makes you feel like there is always something additional that you need to attend to, even though this might not be something specific. There is always something you can investigate further, a workshop you can participate in, a paper to write or a course you can attend. So there are always many things to do or at least that you feel you have to do. Accordingly the workload feels constantly high. But if you were to count the exact hours of work it would most likely vary a lot.

How much time did you spend in the field?

I started collecting data in the Danish office for 4 months 3-4 days a week. Later, I went to the office in the Philippines for 5 weeks following the project fulltime. Afterwards there have been follow up observations and interviews with practitioners over the course of three years.

Has the project shifted direction along the way?

Yes, I definitely think so. I started out with a pretty open scope, where I didn’t want to be too set on the aim of the project. Of course I had a theoretical understanding from the get go of the challenges of working across distances. I wanted the employees who worked in this manner on a daily basis to express how they experience it and to observe how it manifested itself in the collaboration.

I focused on the part of their work where the Danish employees and the Philippines employees worked together. From the beginning the software development project was only meant to last one year, which was a very manageable period of time for collecting data. It turned out to be a very complicated project, which resulted it in it being prolonged for another two years. During this time, work practices changed a lot and this also meant my focus shifted along the way. The transition of work practices in the project actually ended up being the focus of my PhD.

What has been a big challenge?

I definitely think the biggest challenge as a PhD is the fact that you are aiming for a goal without a clear understanding of what it looks like or at least your goal keeps changing. So you constantly have to live with some degree of uncertainty about the final result. Getting an academic paper accepted is very rewarding and will definitely help you to feel more confident about your work.  You also feel a certain pressure about finishing in time, because it can be difficult telling how far you are when you don’t know the end goal.

What has kept you motivated?

Getting my articles accepted has been a big motivational factor. Furthermore, I have had a really good collegial collaboration with the other PhD students and a really good relationship with my supervisor, who has been there to guide me all the way. Over all there has been a really good organizational structures at ITU and my network has supported me, which has helped me a lot. Besides that, I have had the support from friends and family.

What has the collaboration with the company been like?

I have worked closely with the managers, developers, testers and IT-architects in the software development project. I think this collaboration has been very successful. There has been a close contact and I was quickly accepted as the “researcher” in the company. That helped to a large extent in terms of getting access to data. I think it can be challenging at times to match the expectations of the researchers with the expectations of the company, but in my case it went fairly smooth. I was able to get the necessary access and people were open towards giving interviews and very interested in discussing my preliminary results. In fact, when my PhD thesis is defended I have been invited to present the major conclusions for the practitioners in the company. Overall, I think the collaboration ran smoothly.

What are the advantages of working together with a company in a PhD project?

I think there are numerous advantages. You get a great insight into the practice of a company and an understanding of what is really going on unlike a situation where you solely rely on using student experiments. Working with a company provides valuable knowledge about all the complexity and normal natural trouble of the everyday work. Working with a company in a PhD project is rewarding also if you either plan on continuing in academia or if you choose to pursue a completely different career afterwards.

Did you have a stay abroad?

Besides from my stay in the Philippines, which was part of my fieldwork, I went to California in 2013 for seven months on a research stay abroad. I worked with Professor Bonnie Nardi at UC Irvine in California. Firstly, we collaborated on writing an article based on data material I had collected and an idea I had for the article. Secondly, I joined her group of PhD students, which meant both giving presentations and discussing my research with the group. This stay was a very rewarding and an exciting experience.

What are your plans for the future?

First of all, I have to defend my PhD, which is the next big step.  I have enjoyed the life of a researcher and I am looking forward to exploring new frontiers within academia, but I have really been surprised with all the  different interesting opportunities that have followed after finishing my PhD. In that sense, I feel that writing a PhD really provides an advantage on the job market.

What advice would you give to someone considering applying for a PhD?

First of all you have to have an interest in the field you are going to research. You have to be able to see a purpose with doing the research. Furthermore you have to be prepared on the fact that there will be a lot of frustration and that this is just a part of being a PhD. In the end it will all work out – you just can’t see it until you are there. Expect that you may at times get really stressed, so try to seek help early on from your network or professionals, instead of waiting until it’s too late. Most PhD students know the feeling, so talk to your peers and share your experiences. That can be a great help.

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