Christina Neofytou

How COVID-19 influenced my studies in Sweden

By: Christina Neofytou

I will start this blog by recognizing that there are far more difficult situations people are dealing with due to COVID-19 globally, and also more uncertain circumstances faced by students in Sweden and other countries than what I am facing. I can only express my sentiment as a European PhD student already studying in Stockholm when the COVID-19 pandemic started.

Whether or not I personally agree with Sweden’s more “relaxed” approach to this pandemic, it has affected my studies in a big way.

University lectures and classes for bachelor’s and master’s students were moved completely online as of March and all conferences and campus activities were either cancelled or moved online or on a different date in the future. While this left the campus noticeably emptier, research did not stop and the laboratories did not close, in contrast to many countries across the world.

This left PhD students in Sweden mid-air, struggling to understand which rules apply to us – are we students or lab staff?

Then, came the clarification from Karolinska Institutet:

”Doctoral students are to be considered

  1. staff when working on their research project
  2. students when they participate in courses

This means that:

  • doctoral students continue with their research under the same conditions as other researchers
  • doctoral courses are held as distance learning or are cancelled
  • half-time seminars and thesis defences are conducted online/with possibility to attend online”

Did that completely solve the confusion? Well…no! Because along with this came the recommendation to work from home as much as possible for all Stockholmers, to stay at home if you feel even slightly unwell and to avoid the public transportation.

Similarly, recommendations in the research buildings started being implemented and signs appeared in all quarters: keep a 2 meter-distance, only work in the quarter if there are less than 50 people, new rules on how to use shared instruments and more.

The “relaxed” Swedish approach took some getting used to: what can be done from home and what needs to be done in the lab? Which experiments are to be prioritized? It took some time and things were moving slowly for March and April – but they were still moving.

Now that a few months have passed, we have found a new “normal”, we can do pretty much everything, just in a different way.

I purchased a new bicycle to safely go to the lab, I discussed with my supervisor, made a new plan and adjusted my expectations. I currently feel much less stressed and uncertain about what the future holds and I can go as far as to say I feel lucky to be able to work on my experiments and to still be able to go to the lab. I compare my experience with the ones of fellow PhD students in countries hit pretty hard by COVID-19 and I cannot help but feel like I should not complain about anything.

I am lucky to have a stable PhD contract, to see the deadlines in our grants extended and to be able to still (slowly) progress in the lab even during this global pandemic.

All in all, while COVID-19 certainly changed my every-day life and my PhD plans, it definitely has not affected my decisions about the future as dramatically as in other countries.

I will stay in Stockholm for as much as necessary for this pandemic crisis to be over, I will work “smart” on my PhD and I will see this through. This end-goal mentality has helped me stay “sane” through this crisis.

Christina working from home

Remember: You are NOT supposed to be productive in this pandemic, you are TRYING to be productive in spite of this pandemic!

But, of course, things would have been different if I wasn’t already in Stockholm working on my PhD, but I was just planning to come here before the pandemic. From travel restrictions to social distancing, isolation measures, quarantines, and campus and border closures, students across the globe have been impacted by the spread of COVID-19 in a variety of ways.

According to the QS EU International Student Survey 2020 , 62% of (mainly prospective) students globally were claiming that their plans to study abroad had changed, with some saying that they will be studying in a different country than initially planned and others saying they will defer their studies until a later date (for example next year). When the prospective students were asked what they thought universities should be doing to help, 65% responded that classes should be held online, and that they should feel safe in the campus – online or not – in order to start their studies.

So, what is my insight as a student in Sweden? Should you still study in Sweden in the upcoming academic year if you were planning on it?

Although it is still very early to tell, Swedish officials have started planning for the upcoming semester, looking into the possibilities for online learning.

The past couple of months have shown that this is completely possible in Sweden. I already attended a doctoral course fully online, with minimal technical problems and really good planning, for the short amount of time given. Although not ideal, my opinion is that the quality and content of the course did not decrease by the fact that it had to be moved online.

I also feel quite pleased by the response of my university to the pandemic, regarding the availability of information. Karolinska Institutet has been fairly good at updating the information for international students as the situation was changing rapidly in March, in accordance to the governmental recommendations – we were updated via email, the webpage of the university and even from social media about the newest recommendations. This contributed to an overall decreased feeling of unease, at least in my case.

Of course, the decision to study abroad or not is strictly personal and is also influenced by the existence of tuition fees, scholarship availabilities, possible VISA complications, all of which may also be affected by COVID-19, and I cannot even begin to dive into. Not much is known yet, but the Migration Agency has said on the 29th of May that it will try to interpret the rules “generously” based on the current situation and that, as long as most of the teaching is done on campus, it will be able to grant a permit extension for international students, but more information will come later on that.

I hope this blog has been helpful in describing the conditions for some of us students in Sweden, and that it has hopefully helped you make a more informed decision about your future!