Christian Kanstrup Holm: “Foundations like the beaten path. But I have prioritised a different one.”

The road from PhD to professor is not smooth – in fact, it is full of career holes and family bumps. Every month, a researcher talks about how they navigate life as an academic staff member at Health. Meet Professor Christian Kanstrup Holm of the Department of Biomedicine.

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Christian Kanstrup Holm at work and at home. Photo: Simon Fischel, AU Health and Christian Kanstrup Holm


  • Name: Christian Kanstrup Holm
  • Age: 44
  • Title and affiliation: Professor at the Department of Biomedicine
  • Research area: Infection immunology
  • Residence: Lystrup, north of Aarhus
  • Family: Wife is a primary school teacher. Together they have two children, aged 14 and 16.

As a junior researcher, I have had bosses who consistently worked 9:00 am - 3:00 pm every single day. They probably also worked in the evenings when the house was quiet and the children were in bed, but they laid down the framework for us younger researchers. Working many hours is not the decisive factor. You can easily spend an awful lot of time on something that does not make a difference. Meetings without a clear purpose, for example, get on my nerves. I prioritise sensible and efficient working hours, and back when I was a PhD student, I made the very conscious choice that I also wanted to spend time with my children. So I’ve been a scout leader, a handball coach and a member of the PTA. But I became a professor anyway.

Should I have pushed more to go abroad as a postdoc? I haven’t been abroad. We had small children, my wife had a full-time job, and a stay abroad did not fit well into the life of a young researcher with a young family. I didn’t get the money I was looking for to go abroad, anyway. It’s pure speculation, but perhaps I might have had easier access to several large grants later on if I had followed the straight path that involves an international research stay abroad early on in your career. Foundations like the beaten path, which certainly also has value. But I have prioritised a different one.

I became a researcher because I’m curious. Not to get prestige and grants. I’m still driven by trying to understand how biology is linked to health and disease. The world of research is a creative industry, and the university is a place where you need to come up with new ideas and think out of the box, but when it comes to recruitment and appointments, we often think 100 % in the box. We must make sure that we do not narrow the recruitment pool and reject talented researchers in advance if we look only at the mapped-out credits. I would probably not have got this far if it had not been for Department Head Thomas G. Jensen and Professor Søren Paludan, who believed in me from the start, even though I did not meet the formal requirements.

As professor, I make an effort to put together the right team and appoint researchers who have different skills to my own. I once attended a management course where they used the analogy that if you want to go to the moon, it’s no good immediately appointing 100 visionaries. You also need people who think about whether we have enough fuel in the tank for the whole trip there and back, and so on. I agree. There’s no one personality type that automatically makes a good researcher. We must complement each other if we are going to go a long way and create good research results, and in my research group we need some people who are detail-oriented, because I’m not.

I trained as a military officer, so I had managerial experience before I became a researcher. That has been an advantage to me in my research life, and has given me the confidence to make my own choices and trust them. And I’m stubborn by nature. This was emphasised in all the speeches at my inaugural lecture. I prefer the word ‘persistent’, myself.

When I get home, I rarely feel I’ve had enough of a social life. You are often alone as a researcher. It is a self-driven enterprise where you are colleagues, but also competitors. Competition is a healthy thing, but it can also be lonely. So when the working day is over, I’m ready to talk to people and do something. My wife’s not like that. She’s a primary school teacher.

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