Christina from Greece: “PhD life in Stockholm can be however YOU like it to be”
By: Christina Neofytou
The arrival of 2020 marks a year since my enrollment as a PhD student in the department of Neuroscience in Karolinska Institutet.
During this year, I have been able to experience life as a PhD student at its fullest and to come to realizations that were pretty surprising, even to myself! I performed my Master’s studies in Stockholm as well, so I thought it wouldn’t be that different – but let me tell you, life as a PhD student here is on a whole realm of its own.
Let’s start with some facts that really set the tone for your PhD experience in Stockholm:
PhDs are mainly research-based
Part of my PhD in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York (Chromatin, Epigenetics and Gene Expression course, class of 2019)
This means that most of your time, you will be spending in the lab or office if your research is computational, or in the library if it is bibliographical etc… It definitely feels like a more “mature” position, where you get a lot of freedom – and the responsibilities that come with this freedom – handed to you from day 1. It may be frustrating at first, but it is really liberating!
Swedish universities don’t offer structured PhD programmes, with a set starting date and a pre-defined PhD plan
What does this mean practically though? For example, when you start a structured Master’s programme, you have classmates who are on the same stage of the journey as you. Also in other typical PhD programmes in other countries you start with a bunch of other PhD candidates and have courses at first and then do individual lab rotations. Well, let’s just say that a Swedish PhD is a journey that is unique to yourself. I started as the ONLY newly recruited PhD student in the whole department of Neuroscience, and stayed that way for plenty of months, actually. Instead, I joined the Neuroscience department and was immediately welcomed and surrounded by coworkers rather than classmates, who are more senior than me and can be a great source of advice and help!
While theoretical studies, seminars and teaching are requirements for obtaining your degree, you and your supervisor are responsible for making a detailed PhD plan tailored exactly to yourself and to your project. So, you have to set your goals and your learning outcomes, to reflect upon yourself and realize what you are good at and what you need to work on to see this through. This obviously has positive and negative aspects, mainly that it can be scary, but it is so rewarding in the end!
PhD positions are usually paid in Sweden
You have a monthly salary, no tuition fees and work within a team managing your own project and working towards common team goals. A PhD here feels more like a job rather than studying. I finally felt free having my own salary to live by and being treated in the lab as a fellow rather than a student. This is obviously very good for your self-esteem and sense of self-worth!
And after we got the facts straight, here comes the biggest realization after a year as a PhD student and my two cents on the whole thing: Your outlook on life as a PhD student in Stockholm largely depends on your attitude!
Members of the Biomedicum – Bioclinicum Young Researchers Symposium (BYRS) committee for Karolinska Institutet Clinicum Connection (KICC), after organising a successful event. Left to right: Carmen Fourier (PhD student), Donald Cameron (Postdoctoral researcher), Christina Neofytou (PhD student), Elena Di Martino (PhD student), Ana Osório Oliveira (Postdoctoral researcher), Marion Baniol (Postdoctoral researcher).
Your daily life as a PhD student can be totally different from the life of another PhD student, even in the same University or department. What has really been beneficial for me was to make an effort to actually have fun and make friends during the PhD, sounds silly, but it is vital! Yes, you focus on your project, but you shouldn’t stop prioritizing yourself! Join all the interesting seminars, volunteer or enroll in your local Doctoral Students’ association, plan and attend mingling afterwork events! These will set the mood you are in and trust me – they will make you an even better scientist!
I am helping organize conferences like the annual Biomedicum-BioClinicum Young Researchers Symposium, organizing career events with the PhD Careers Beyond Academia Club, managing the social media and communications of the KICC organization (a committee that aims at bringing researchers together), representing the doctoral students’ safety of my department in the Doctoral Students’ Association at KI…I am even writing this blog right now for Study In Stockholm! These all have spiced up and enriched my PhD experience, because they are fun and fulfilling!