Political science led

Marianne to Africa

Backed by a PhD degree, Marianne S. Ulriksen went to Africa, where she is doing research on social development and welfare. Her mantra is clear: You can do what you set your mind to, and a PhD opens doors to a wide world of opportunities. 


Marianne S. Ulriksen is living a life far from Denmark’s cold winters and the security of the welfare state. For the last ten years she has lived in several African countries, and most recently she touched ground in Tanzania. Despite the fact that she is currently far removed from the university itself, she is employed as a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Development in Africa at the University of Johannesburg.

However, this 38-year-old Danish woman claims that she would not have made it this far without having spent time as a researcher and students at the Department of Political Science at Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University. She began her PhD project in 2007, researching welfare politics in Botswana, and she earned her degree in 2010.

"I wasn’t really interested in doing research, but I thought it would be good to have a PhD on my CV. It would be a strong card to hold. I had this idea that I might be able to use it to start a career in the UN later in life," explains Marianne S. Ulriksen, who finished her Master’s degree in political science in 2002 and had no plans of ever returning to university life.

She went straight out and got a job and left for Africa, where she worked for various special interest organisations and embassies for a couple of years. But something was missing. When one of her friends asked her if she had ever considered doing a PhD, she started thinking more and more about it. And the idea took hold. Marianne S. Ulriksen made a special agreement with Aarhus University, which meant she was allowed to stay in Africa throughout half of the programme. 

"My time at AU was great. I gained a lot of energy from this dynamic and fun working environment, where I was challenged in a good way," she says. She does not believe it was a disadvantage for her that she spent some time away from the university before she started her PhD.

"Some would say I started too late, because I won’t be able to secure a professorship before I turn 40. But the work I did prior to my PhD was beneficial, and it was the right way to go for me. I gained some extra competences, which affect the way I do research and what I do."

You won’t find happiness if you don’t seek it out

She has found her niche today exactly because she had the guts to leap out into the world – and through her life as a PhD student she became aware of the many options available to her. Marianne S. Ulriksen established contact with the research centre in South Africa when she was planning a stay abroad as part of her PhD programme. She got to spend six months at the centre, and after handing in her dissertation, she was offered a postdoc there as well. In the meantime, the dream of working for a large organisation such as the UN has been replaced by the pleasure of doing research.

"I have grown very fond of the academic work. This is where I want to make a career," explains Marianne S. Ulriksen. Apart from being employed at the research centre, she is also affiliated with the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University as an external co-examiner.

Moreover, she has become part of a network in the southern part of Africa, where she is working with social protection. This gives her the opportunity to attend major conferences and meet exciting people, who have hands-on experience working with the issues that she is researching.

"If you set your mind to it, you can do a lot of things – especially if you think creatively. Of course, there is also some measure of luck involved, but you won’t find happiness if you don’t seek it out," says Marianne S. Ulriksen, who encourages others to go explore the world of research and do a PhD.

"You need to think of it as a learning process. You’re not meant to write your life’s work now, and you shouldn’t stress about what happens next. Think outside the box – and watch what others do. There are many ways of doing a PhD."