Pharma 02/2023 - Theme: International recruitment
Greek Thanos Arvanitidis has lived in Denmark for almost 12 years. Danish friends and study-relevant work were crucial for him settling in Denmark after completing his studies. He now works in Valby at CMC Biologics, Lundbeck. By Charlotte Kiil Poulsen / Foto: Arvaway Photo
When Thanos Arvanitidis had completed his bachelor’s degree in chemistry in Athens, he wanted to work in pharmaceuticals. He looked abroad for a place, where he could study his master’s.
“To start with, I looked primarily in the US, because I have family there, and in Switzerland, because it is so acknowledged. But then I heard about DTU. They had just started the study program ‘Pharmaceutical Design and Engineering’, which was really interesting.”
The Danish master was attractive, because, unlike Switzerland, it was in English, and opposite to America, there was no student fee for EU citizens. When Thanos started looking into Denmark, he was positively surprised by the scale of the Danish pharmaceutical industry.
“I was very surprised by the size of the Danish life science industry, especially when compared to the size of the country. It was essential for my choice of Denmark. After all, it gave me good job prospects, when I finished my education.”
Group work and open books
Thanos began his master’s degree at DTU in 2011, and because the field of study was completely new, he was the only foreign student. He believes it gave him an advantage in terms of getting in touch with the Danish students.
It isn’t always easy to make friends, when you have reached the master’s:
”Most Danes already have friends from their high school and bachelor years. Working in teams helps somewhat, but if it isn’t fixed groups, it’s difficult. The good news is, that if you succeed, then you also make real friendships, that lasts,” says Thanos who made close friends during his master’s degree.
Student life in Denmark is different than in Greece, but suited Thanos well.
"I really liked that you were encouraged to work in groups. Group work makes you aware of what you are good at and what you may need to work on a little more, and you learn a lot about group dynamics and interaction in small groups. It's definitely valuable when you get your first job,” Thanos says and continues:
“There wasn't as much memorization as I had been used to. You are allowed to have your books open in class, because it has a higher priority, that you understand the content rather than learning it by heart. Those were two things I really enjoyed."
A student job is important
According to Thanos another important factor in relation to staying in Denmark after graduation is having a student job while studying. Through one of his Danish friends, he got a student job as a lab assistant, because she recommended him for the job.
“It is a good example of, how valuable it is to have Danish friends, because they can help you a lot, especially in the beginning, where everything is new, and you don’t quite know what to do, and whom to deal with. I really think it is more likely, that you would stay in Denmark after graduation, if you have friends and network here.”
In his current work Thanos represents Lundbeck at student meetings and networking events, and here it often appears, that international students feel it is difficult to compete against Danish students, when it comes to student jobs, because they neither know the language nor have the same network.
Pharmadanmark’s survey among current international students shows the same pattern. Two out of three international students do not think that they have the same possibility as a Danish student to get a student job.
During his own student job, Thanos realized that there is a completely flat hierarchy in the workplace, where it is accepted that the student assistant also participates in the discussions.
"I could talk to my immediate supervisor, but I could also talk directly to the chief executive without it being seen as an attempt to go behind my manager's back. You could also have discussions on different topics. It was really cool, because you felt that you were part of the group. I also like the informal tone and the fact that everyone speaks to each other by first name. I think that leads to good cooperation. This is not the case at all in Greece, where it is very hierarchical."
It wasn’t just the student job that gave Thanos an insight into the Danish way of speaking.
“You already discover it at the university because you talk to your professor in a very informal way. And when you attend the exams, your teachers are very friendly and encouraging; it’s very pleasant and fair.”
According to Thanos, you get a good cultural understanding, when you study in Denmark, and therefore it’s a huge advantage, if you study in the same country, that you end up working in.
“I quickly caught on to the fact that it's okay to be unpretentious even in formal settings. It would have been a bigger shock, if I had entered the Danish labor market directly from Greece, no doubt.”
Danish network helps
When Thanos finished his master’s degree, he continued in a PhD position at DTU. Here he expanded both his circle of friends and his network.
"I did an industrial PhD, so I worked for a company at the same time, and that was a big advantage."
By chance during the PhD Thanos discovered DTU’s student clubs and joined the photo club.
“Being in a club or association within a field you think is fun, is probably the best way to make friends. That’s why it was a shame, that I discovered them so late. I think that the university probably could do more regarding information about these clubs and associations, and how valuable they are in terms of getting to know people.”
After his PhD Thanos considered working as a postdoc in another country. But because of the large pharmaceutical industry in Denmark and Thanos’ good friend he chose to stay.
He has held various positions in Denmark, among others at AGG Biologics and Nordic Bioscience.
The first real job in Denmark was the hardest to get. Thanos took various steps to put himself in position after his PhD.
He participated in the student organization ‘synapse’ and in different events to connect with people in life science. He also participated in a mentoring program and courses in relation to writing applications and resumes.
“I tried to find areas, where I could increase my chances of getting a job. I had a lot of conversations with my mentor about what was expected, when you apply for a job, and my mentor also gave me feedback on my applications. It was very beneficial.”
It is Thanos' belief that every small step helps you on the right path.
"You don't get a job at your first networking event, but everything helps.”
Thanos hasn’t experienced any negative episodes because of his foreign background, but he has experienced a feeling of being left out, because he didn’t know the language. Thanos speaks a little Danish, but expresses himself better in English.
“You are not forced to learn Danish in Denmark, because you can get by in English. But at some point, it will be a barrier, if you don’t speak Danish. For example, during lunch, people sometimes switch to Danish. I totally understand it, because it’s their break, but it can be challenging. I understand Danish well now, but if you are new in Denmark, you can easily feel left out.”
Thanos emphasizes, that he never felt, that people have done it to be unpleasant, but rather because they forgot, that there were people present, who didn’t understood Danish.
The Danish humor and sarcasm can also be difficult to understand and accept for some foreigners. According to Thanos, his humor suits the Danish humor well, but sometimes he has to intervene, if a joke is misunderstood between a Dane and an international colleague.
For Thanos, Denmark has become a second home despite the fact, that his whole family are still living in Greece.
“I have been here for almost 12 years, so now I feel a bit torn between Denmark and Greece. But the good thing about coming from Europe is, that the distance between the countries isn’t that far. After the corona crisis, companies have also become more relaxed in terms of allowing work from the distance. So it's flexible and I can visit my family."
According to Thanos, the biggest advantages of working in Denmark are the work-life balance and the flat hierarchy at the workplace.
"I would definitely recommend internationals to come to the Danish life science industry. There are so many benefits," Thanos says.
He currently works in the CMC Biologics department at Lundbeck in Valby.
Other articles in English from Pharma 2/2023:
Lundbeck: We need more than just Danish talents
Denmark should boast a little more
The best match was Chilean
International students generate big gains
Magazine: Pharma 02/2023 (in Danish)