This article is available to Members of The Local. Read more about membership here.
January 2016. I was in a Master's degree seminar at Edgecliffe, the home of the Philosophy Department at the University of St Andrews, which looks out onto the rocky Scottish coast. Our tutor came to us with news: there were PhD opportunities in eight different European countries which come with very generous funding. 'That's nice,' I thought to myself, but I had already made up my mind. If I didn't get into St Andrews, Edinburgh or Cambridge, then I would go to live in Glasgow and try again next year.
Then I looked at the project based in Stockholm, and realized that it basically described the PhD topic I had already chosen. It seemed too good to be true, too coincidental. All I knew about Sweden was that their star footballer was Zlatan Ibrahimović and something about bread buns instead of scones for afternoon tea. I applied anyway and, to my surprise, a month later I was accepted on the PhD programme at the University of Stockholm.
Undertaking a PhD in Sweden is a completely different experience to in the UK. Most of the differences revolve around the simple fact that in Sweden, a PhD is a job. This means that while you can keep your student status (important for discounts on the metro!), you are also an employee, and that comes with a wide range of benefits. You will have holiday days, sick pay and a pension. Your funding is a taxable monthly salary, around twice as much as you can normally get at UK universities. It gives you room to breathe, to live well.
All of these would be features of a regular job in the UK, but there is even more that you are entitled to as an employee in Sweden. Friskvård is your 'preventative healthcare' allowance, meaning that the university budgets for you to join a gym, yoga or swimming classes; whichever way you prefer to keep fit. It is also common in Sweden to be a member of a trade union. Fackförbundet ST, for example, is a union especially for state employees (including academics) which has a low membership fee for PhD students. Your union can provide a lot of help, advice and support and even offer partnered discounts on insurance and loan rates.
There are further advantages to doing a PhD in Sweden in terms of your job prospects afterwards, which might not be obvious from the outside. Sweden has far fewer universities and smaller departments than in the UK, USA or Germany. However, the intimate academic scene here is one filled with close connections. Swedish universities often join forces for workshops and conferences, creating networking opportunities which can lead to future positions.
Working among just a handful of other PhD students in your subject can also make for a less competitive environment, as each student normally has their own speciality. Smaller numbers also means that the university can be more focused when it comes to their post-doctoral placements. Wherever you end up, you are welcome to stay in Sweden: if you come from a non-EU country, you may be eligible for a permanent residence permit after your four years of doctoral studies.
To twist Voltaire's (not Spiderman's!) phrase: with great privilege comes great responsibility. This may be an exaggeration in this case, but there is a certain sense of duty that can come with treating a PhD as a job. It can go several ways. On the one hand, it can generate a healthy work ethic and structured time-management: you go to the office during regular, weekday hours only and take lunch with everyone else at noon each day. You are like any other colleague. On the other hand, this same sense of duty can generate feelings of guilt if you don't show up to the office every day, or if you feel that you are not contributing enough to the Department as a whole.
The reality is that a PhD is not a 9-to-5 job. It is an extensive to-do list that you have four years to complete; often with vague, self-set deadlines. It is a roller-coaster of successes and failures. You won't always be producing anything tangible, or doing anything that clearly adds to the Department in general. Teaching is one way in which you can feel more involved, as if you are really earning your crust – but without fluency in Swedish, the teaching opportunities at the university can be limited.
As a PhD student anywhere, but especially in Sweden, you have a wealth of opportunities in front of you. You also have a mountain of potential work to unearth. You need a strategy for getting through it; for prioritizing and planning tasks and executing them with a view to producing research which, at the end of the day, is what a PhD is for. Doing a PhD in Sweden creates a safe, financially secure and pleasant space in which you can foster your research. Plus, it doesn't hurt that when you are agonizing over a sentence of your thesis, you can often take a moment out to stare at the snowflakes falling outside your office window.