Academic life in Scandinavia
This is the story of a British academic couple – now a family – and our experiences of working in Scandinavia. It has a happy ending. It is based entirely on personal experience and does not attempt to be a representative overview of the countries concerned. At times, it may seem too good to be true, and I must stress that, even though the tale is quite long, it covers a period of some six years (2007-2013), not all of which were rosy. We are both EU citizens so never had to worry about visas or work permits. In addition, we worked hard, and we have had our fair share of luck – perhaps more than. However, we are both delighted to be working here, and very much hope to continue living in this part of the world. I invite you to read on to find out why.
Part 1: A PhD in Sweden
We are an academic family. It wasn’t meant to be that way. We met as teenage undergraduates in Scotland, and academia did not, then, feature strongly on our to-do list for the future. But by the time we were married I had caught the bug, and after a few years working in science outreach my husband Gregor had caught it too. I begged him not to – ‘can’t you see what I’m going through?’, I pleaded – but to no avail.
My PhD was awarded by the University of Glasgow, where Gregor did his Master’s. A faculty technicality meant that he was ineligible for PhD funding from the UK, but we were living in Paris and weren’t desperate to go back so, rather than fight it, he began to cast his eye elsewhere. In Scandinavia, he discovered, there is a system whereby each PhD student is actually a ‘stipendiat’, that is to say that they are university employees, full-time ones at that, with all the benefits that that entails.
Shall I say that again, in case you didn’t believe me the first time? While studying for a PhD, a student is a fully fledged employee of the university. Sure, the contract has a duration – you are, after all, expected to finish within a certain time frame – but still, a three- or four-year employment contract with a PhD awarded at the end of it (provided you do the work of course) was certainly appealing.
The three Scandinavian countries – Denmark, Norway and Sweden – are obviously all different in their laws and regulations, but they have a lot in common. They run a system of high tax and high benefits. The cost of living is significantly higher than other countries (perhaps with the exception of their Nordic neighbours, Finland and Iceland), but salaries are also higher. Sales taxes are high (typically 25%), and bordering on the extortionate for ‘luxury’ goods such as alcohol and tobacco (and, in Norway, motor vehicles). Income tax runs at around 30%. On the other hand, the health systems are virtually free (adults are liable to nominal charges for doctor’s visits, prescriptions and hospital stays) and well-maintained. Education is free, with maintenance grants and loans available from the government for post-16 study. Preschool, for children aged 1-6, is so heavily state-subsidised that virtually every family chooses to send their kids, and stay-at-home parents are relatively rare. Child benefits are reasonably generous, and paid until the ‘children’ reach the end of their secondary education. Parental benefits are among the most generous in the world: Sweden, for example, offers 16 months of parental leave to be divided between the parents before the child is 8 years old, at 80% of salary (which employers often voluntarily top up to 100%), with additional tax benefits should the father take at least half. Indeed, parental leave is something both parents are encouraged to take: it is recognised that looking after young children is much harder than being at work, teaches skills such as time-management, prioritisation, crisis-handling and working under pressure; not only this, but parental-leave cover offers many young people their first step on the career ladder. In short, the family-focused society and generous parental-leave allowances are seen as advantages by employers and employees alike.
And so the hunt for a PhD in Scandinavia began. It is worth spending some time describing the process, since a similar process is followed at all levels of academia, and it was not at all as we had assumed. At that time, neither of us spoke a Scandinavian language (the three languages are mutually comprehensible), however, for the PhD level, this was not a great disadvantage. National and university job websites were thoroughly scanned (there is a list of some of these at the end of the tale), applications were made, work samples were sent (in multiple copies and by registered post), and the waiting began. It was a great surprise to receive the first acknowledgment some weeks later. It was clearly a standard letter, but its contents caused considerable eyebrow-raising in our small Parisian flat. Not at the appointment of a specialist, independent committee (from multiple institutions) to objectively assess all of the applications, but at the list of names, addresses and dates of birth of all the applicants. All of them. As more of these letters arrived, we realised that this was the norm. And then the committee reports began to appear. These included a detailed description of each candidate’s research and education to date, their proposed research, an evaluation of their work samples, and the committee’s judgment on whether or not they were fit for the stipendiat post. Finally, the committee ranked the candidates in order, signalling which they recommended for interview. As the months passed by, these reports gave a great insight for us outsiders – and presumably to all the candidates – as to what committees were looking for. A careful scanning of the merits of the top-ranked candidates (with the help of google translate if the assessment was not presented in English) meant that Gregor was able to become his own careers advisor. Soon he was moving up the ranks, from the middle to towards the top.
Finally, a telephone interview, and, the day after a test had shown we were expecting a baby that summer, a job offer. To his surprise, when he accepted the job and mentioned the baby, his new boss was delighted for us (this was our first introduction to the family-focused society I described earlier). The time from sending out the first applications to receiving the offer was about one year – somewhat faster than for postdoctoral jobs, as part two of the tale will show.
The start date was as soon as possible, so Gregor immediately set off for Jönköping University in Sweden. And so the PhD began, soon I too moved to Sweden, our daughter arrived, and parental leave was taken. (Remember, PhD students are employees, so they are entitled to parental leave. In fact, Jönköping University is one of those employers who ‘top up’ the state leave payments, so Gregor’s leave was taken on full salary.) In the meantime, managing our hours to take care of our daughter, I followed the state’s Swedish courses (education is free in Sweden, as I said), becoming quite proficient in the language and qualified in it to university level. I was also offered a teaching position back at my Scottish institution – with Gregor taking a full-time ‘sabbatical’ with his parental leave to look after our daughter – giving me valuable postdoctoral teaching experience.
Thanks to the preschool system, once our daughter was one year old she was entitled to a full-time place in the local preschool, allowing us both to work full time, with me doing an international commute. (Remember I said childcare is affordable? The cost was income-based, up to a maximum of c. $250 per month. No, I haven’t forgotten a zero or two. And we didn’t have to pay anywhere near the maximum.) When I became pregnant again I decided to start a business working from home, doing something I’d been doing occasionally for Gregor’s colleagues – helping Swedish academics perfect their research publications in English. On quiet weeks I continued with my own research, for I had hopes of a postdoctoral position when the family was ready for it.
My PhD is, as is typical of an arts and humanities PhD awarded by a British university, a monograph. Gregor’s, however, in the field of health and psychology, is a collection of published, peer-reviewed articles, presented in their journal proof forms, and combined in one volume with a ‘mantle article’ linking these five publications and outlining the methodology for the whole project. This means that, on entering the job market, he had five publications in peer-reviewed journals under his belt, a few more under review or on the go, and he had a whole host of ‘doctoral credits’ from passing the various research-training courses offered by his university. (The University of Glasgow, where I did my PhD, also offered a research training programme which was certainly useful, but it was not such an integral part of the degree as was that at Jönköping University.) In four and a half years he had achieved the PhD degree with multiple peer-reviewed publications, had taken leave with two children, and had been paid for it all. I stress this deliberately, for his salary was enough to support us all. Any money I brought in paid for luxuries, such as travel or the occasional bottle of wine, but the four of us could – and at times did – survive on one PhD salary. Gregor had taken part in successful funding bids to extend his project beyond its original time frame (because of the parental leave). We therefore had plenty of uncertainty about the future as the years went by, but never was he expected to work for nothing, and his teaching commitments were enough to give him experience, but never enough to interfere with his research.
Part 2: Post-PhD Jobs in Norway, to follow.
Kate Maxwell, Postdoctoral researcher, University of Agder
Gregor Maxwell, Førsteamanuensis, Høgskolen i Harstad
General job listings in Norway:
General job listings in Sweden:
General job listings in Denmark
In addition, we regularly scoured individual institutions’ websites for their vacancies pages. Vacancies were not always presented in English, so look for the words ‘lediga jobb’, ‘lediga anställningar’ or ‘platsannonser’ (Swedish), or ‘ledige stillinger’ (Norwegian/Danish). Lists of universities and university colleges (högskolor/høgskoler) are easy enough to find on the internet with a simple google search.