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 2: Post-PhD Jobs in Norway
And so, after four years in Sweden, we were a family of two children and two parents who were all proficient in Swedish, English and French. Both parents had – or were about to obtain – PhDs, and the hunt was on again, this time for postdoctoral positions, and this time we were both looking. We had loved our time in Sweden, and had no desire to leave Scandinavia. The Swedish language opened many doors for us, of course. Indeed, at the postdoctoral level, proficiency in a Scandinavian language was much more necessary. While a PhD can be written and supervised entirely in English, teaching undergraduates requires knowledge of the local language. However, native English-speaking academics do have the advantage that all of their colleagues understand English, and that it is perfectly acceptable to write an application in English, even if all other correspondence will take place in a Scandinavian language. After all, as I found out first hand from my business, most Scandinavian academics publish extensively – if not exclusively – in English, for they want their work to be read by the international community.
We went back to the job websites (listed at the end), back to the printing of multiple copies of multiple work samples (typically they require 6-10 samples of internationally recognised research to accompany an application, sent in 3-5 copies: this makes for a lot of heavy packages to post), and now with the writing of teaching statements and postdoctoral projects to boot. I applied for postdocs and for lectureships over a period of almost two years (though I was in no particular hurry, as Gregor had to finish); Gregor’s time was significantly shorter. This, perhaps, is to do with the difference in our fields – arts and humanities and health and psychology. We spent a lot of time looking; indeed, it was a weekly ritual to trawl websites for available positions. We also were not fussy about where in Scandinavia we went or who would get a job first. In addition, if I saw an ‘ideal job’ outside of Scandinavia, I applied for it, for, as we all know, such ‘ideal jobs’ are rare indeed. But I will focus on Scandinavia.
Once again, letters arrived listing applicants’ details and committee members. Once again, candidates were assessed and ranked. All information contained in these correspondences was confidential, of course, but it was available to all applicants. I do not think I am breaking any confidentiality to say that the highest number of applicants I saw for a job was in the upper 20s, and the lowest was 5. The average was 10-15. (For Gregor’s posts, the number of applicants ranged from four to ten.) For many of these positions, the rank was open. That meant that anyone from established professor to PhD ‘stipendiat’ could apply. Naturally, a lowly postdoc like me did not stand much of a chance if an established professor also applied, but, with numbers so low, that was not necessarily the case.
With such open positions, the assessment committee would draw the boundaries at different points; in one instance, where the candidate numbers were at the top of the range, the committee simply ruled out any candidates who did not have four peer-reviewed publications to their name. The report enunciated the pros and cons of this, but concluded that, due to the large number of candidates (fewer than 30, remember), they had to do something. In other instances, where the numbers were in the low teens, candidates without a PhD in hand at the time of application were eliminated by the assessment committee, who then ranked those remaining in order of research output. Finally, in positions where the number of applicants was low, applicants without or still working on a PhD were called to interview, albeit from a lower position in the rankings than those with a PhD in hand.
There are several points of interest here, and not just the low applicant numbers (low, that is, by the standards we were used to from the UK, and from what we have heard about North America). First is the absolute clarity of the system: at all points the candidates are fully informed of each other and of the process. Secondly, the process is designed to be as fair as possible. That is the reason for the full disclosure of information. Naturally, the same names appeared on some of the lists – I got to know who else in my field was looking for jobs, and of course, in a small research community, we often came across each other at conferences. Such meetings were always, in my experience, amicable and open.
Thanks to Gregor’s experience of finding a PhD position and successfully completing the degree, this time we knew better what we were doing. We also knew that the process was not speedy: it takes a long time for a committee to read and evaluate up to ten samples of work for every candidate. That is the price of thoroughness. Having languished mid-rank for all but one lecturer position, for my first Scandinavian postdoc application I suddenly found myself at no. 2 (no professors to compete against I guess), and, the report clearly showed, a close second. A few months previously, Gregor had found himself at no. 1 for the first time. We were on our way to interview.
Both positions were in Norway. Gregor’s interview came first. His was for a lectureship at open rank, but at a small institution which had not attracted big names, yet was a specialist in his field and as such ideal for him. One of our friends commented about being no. 1 that ‘you’ve only got one way to go and it ain’t up.’ Certainly, he found the pressure quite difficult. It was his first academic interview since the one for the PhD stipendiat, but this one was held in Norwegian. Neither of us had even been to Norway before. The outcome was by no means certain, and while we knew that Swedes and Norwegians can understand each other perfectly well, we are not Swedish. And a job interview is not the most stress-free environment to test out the theory. After an interview in ‘snorsk’ (our word for a mixture of Swedish and Norwegian), and a teaching demonstration in English, he returned home in love with a small town in the Arctic Circle. We heard nothing for six long weeks, but then the letter came – a job offer. We were on the move again. By the time I finally received an interview date, Gregor was ‘førsteamanuensis’ (the level before ‘professor’) in child welfare at Harstad University College.
Then it was my turn. If Gregor only had one way to go which wasn’t up, I too only had one way to go, and it was indeed up. As a result, I entered my first interview in Norway with a reasonable degree of freedom. In addition, I had been at number 2 before, and it was not my first academic interview in a Scandinavian language (though it was my first in Norway and ‘snorsk’). I had nothing to lose. On the day, I met the other candidate being interviewed; we got on very well and vowed to keep in touch, for we both knew that the system could be slow. And slow it was. After interview, references were obtained. The interview panel – now the internal committee (and entirely distinct from the application assessment committee) – then met and discussed our applications, our interview performance, our projects, and our references. They at last came up with the final ranking, which was presented to the dean for approval at the next faculty meeting. Following his approval, the results were sent to HR, who drafted a contract to send to the successful candidate. Unfortunately for us all, HR got the address wrong. It was therefore a full seven weeks after the interview that I received a letter containing a contract. As promised, the first person I told was the other candidate (who, if we hadn’t been in contact with each other, would have had to have waited another two months to find out the result). Thus, 50 weeks after applying for the job, I had a signed contract in my hand.
So here we are, both working in posts that are directly relevant to our PhDs, and in beautiful Norway. Because we moved to where Gregor’s job is based, I am again commuting, but because I am research-only I govern my own hours (within reason) and work from home two weeks in four. The children are happy in their Norwegian preschool, and both slipped straight into Norwegian from Swedish with minimum bother. Gregor’s working hours are 8am to 3.30pm, and his load is 40% teaching, 40% research and 20% admin. As I type, I am looking out over the fjord, at the moose-tracks through the snow down towards the beach at the bottom of our garden. The sun has returned after polar night, and before we know it it will be shining at midnight again.
We now consider -5°C (23°F) to be ‘nice and mild’, -20°C (-4°F) to be ‘pretty cold actually’, and +17°C (63°F) to be ‘lovely and warm’. Our ‘snorsk’ is gradually becoming more ‘norsk’, and, following four fulfilling years of having babies and learning languages, I am very glad to be back in full-time research. But above all, we are both delighted to be living and working in a country which values its free time, which supports its families, and which treats all of its workers with respect.
Kate Maxwell, Postdoctoral researcher, University of Agder
Gregor Maxwell, Førsteamanuensis, Høgskolen i Harstad