Neighbours with different practices - Doctoral education in Finland and in Sweden in the linguistics
Updated: Dec 13, 2021
In Europe, academic education has been uniformed in many ways. Despite that, there are surprisingly many differences between the countries. In this blog post we ponder on some differences between doctoral education in Finland and in Sweden. Tanja and Ricardo will use their home universities as examples. Some practices may vary across different universities within a country. We write from the viewpoint of linguistics, and practices may also vary across disciplines.
FIN: Euroopassa akateemista koulutusta on yhtenäistetty jo vuosia. Siitä huolimatta yllättävän moni asia toimii eri tavalla eri maissa. Tässä kirjoituksessa Tanja ja Ricardo tarkastelevat joitain eroja Suomen ja Ruotsin välillä käyttäen heidän kotiyliopistojaan esimerkkeinä. Jotkin käytännöt voivat kuitenkin vaihdella yliopistoittain samassakin maassa. Lisäksi kirjoitamme kielitieteen näkökulmasta, ja käytännöt voivat vaihdella myös aloittain.
SWE: I Europa har den akademiska utbildningen gjorts enhetlig på många sätt. Trots det finns det överraskande många skillnader mellan länderna. I det här blogginlägget funderar vi på några skillnaderna mellan forskarutbildning i Finland och i Sverige. Tanja och Ricardo använder sin hemuniversitet som exempel. Praxiskan variera mellan olika universitet i ett land. Vi skriver utifrån lingvistiskt perspektiv, och praxis kan också variera mellan olika discipliner.
University of Gothenburg, Sweden. (Kuva: Tanja Seppälä)
Finland and how Tanja got finally the funding
In Finland, when one is applying for the right to do a PhD, it’s important to find someone who could be your supervisor. When you find the right person, you can apply to their department. I received a Master’s degree at Oulu University, but found my main supervisor at the University of Jyväskylä, at the Centre for Applied Language Studies (CALS). I then created a research plan (my future main supervisor supported in creating it) and I applied to a doctoral program. I was accepted, so I was officially a doctoral researcher in CALS autumn 2018.
Meanwhile, I was working as a teacher. In my spare time, I applied for funding. In Finland, when you get accepted into university to do your studies, it means that you are allowed to begin your courses, you will get official guidance from the supervisor, and you can attend doctoral seminars where others comment on your work. It doesn’t mean that your studies are financed, though. So, one of the most important things to do first is applying for grants.
In Finland, in the Humanities at least, doctoral studies can be financed by a project (and then you usually know when you apply that the project will finance your studies), by a university or by funding organisations, which have a big role in funding all types of research in Finland. Only a small part is financed by the university. In my case, after one year of sending applications, I first got a short grant from my department in 2019, and after that I got a doctoral researcher’s position at the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. A small part of that work contract is teaching or doing some other activities for the university, for example organising conferences, and for some it may include teaching.
Sweden and how Ricardo keeps updating the research plan
In Sweden new PhD positions must be announced publicly in such a way that anyone could apply. This means that you do not have to contact a supervisor beforehand. However, you do have to prepare a project proposal that aligns with the research areas of the people at the department that you intend to apply to. As a result of this, the creation of the actual research plan you will follow can be part of the first stages of the PhD.
In terms of finance, you are required to prove that you can support yourself for the duration of the whole PhD in order to be accepted. This is usually done through the university, sometimes through university and some project or through private funding and essentially means that you have an income for the entire duration of your project from the get go.
Getting funded by the university essentially means that you get hired for a certain amount of time as a doktorand. At least in Humanisten, at the University of Gothenburg, this position lasts for four years, with the option of extending it to a fifth one by taking on extra responsibilities such as teaching or doing administrative duties. This way you also acquire all of the rights that any other employee of the university is entitled to.
On the other hand, applying with private funding usually means that you have a project that is being backed by a company and that you will be receiving a stipend from them for the duration of your project. It is important to note that these two options are not mutually exclusive.
To illustrate this with my own experience, when applying I first had to look through the job offerings by the university to see if there were any PhD positions being offered in the area of my interest (natural language processing). Once I found one, I had to determine a topic (fake news detection) that was related to the interests of one or more of the researchers in the department that I would be applying to (in this case their project was rumour mining) and prepare a project proposal as a proof of concept. Once I got accepted, I got hired full-time by the university for four years and the first few months of my time here will be dedicated to going through my original project proposal and to polish it in order to have the actual plan that I will be following for the rest of my time here.
Comparing the countries
Even though getting a position as a PhD student is not extremely hard if you have a good research plan, continuous applying for funding is a cause for stress in Finland. Some are lucky and can get financing for the whole estimated time of 4 years of full-time studies. Some get shorter and longer grants, others only short ones. That leads to a situation where some of us are at times doing our doctoral research, at times working. It’s also possible to do your dissertation mostly on the side while you work elsewhere, but attending courses or conferences may be difficult. It means that quite often the dissertation process takes longer than 4 years.
In Finland, uncertainty of the funding situation also makes planning for the future difficult, for example Tanja needed to plan her data collection so that it would have been possible also while working full-time as a teacher. Also it’s difficult to plan which conferences you can attend or estimate when your papers are ready to be sent to a journal. On top of that, it makes planning your whole life difficult. Doctoral students have also unequal situations depending on the funding source: those funded by the university have better benefits when it comes for example to insurances, paid days off (holidays) and health care. Sometimes also getting an office or integrating into the university in general is easier as an employee. Many will need at least some periods of full-time research to complete their doctoral dissertation.
Some universities in Finland, for example. University of Jyväskylä calls doctoral students doctoral researchers (väitöskirjatutkija), as the doctoral researchers have wanted to raise the status of the position and to emphasize the fact that actually courses are smaller and research bigger part of what is being done. Doctoral researchers are not entitled to all student discounts, for example when traveling, so it also makes sense from that point of view. Still the update of the title of the position doesn’t solve the financial uncertainty that is related to the studies.
One of the disadvantages of the Swedish system is that only a limited number of PhD positions are announced every year - at some departments, due to different reasons, they might decide not to announce any at all for one or two years. This entails that the competition for a PhD position becomes fierce and that you might not get the PhD position you aim for in a couple of years.
On the other hand, when you begin your studies, you know how those will be funded. And if you do get the position in Sweden, you can enjoy quite a few privileges. First of all, you are considered as a regular full-time worker, which means that you get paid (a quite decent monthly wage) and that you get an amount of paid days off every year. You have the possibility to teach at undergraduate level, supervise undergraduate theses, and can get involved in the matters of the department by joining the council that represents the rights of PhD students. In this sense, you are more of a PhD researcher, rather than a ‘PhD student’ - perhaps that is why in Swedish the position is not called ‘PhD student’, but ‘doktorander’ which roughly translates into ‘doctorals’. At the same time, you are also eligible for student discounts, which is a privileged position.
Summing up, while it is harder to get a PhD position in Sweden, if you happen to get one, you are going to be in a good spot for the next couple of years. In some other countries - as in Japan -, it is the other way around: as long as you have a supervisor it is easy to create a PhD position for you. But once you get admitted you have to ensure your funding yourself and do not get nearly as much responsibility or privileges as in a PhD position in Sweden. Japan’s practices resembles lot of Finland’s way of doing things.
The practises vary in Finland and in Sweden, and both countries’ approaches have their pros and cons. Nevertheless, no matter where you do your studies, your persistence and short-term and long-term planning skills are very important features, if you want to earn a doctorate. So, what is common in both countries is that your motivation is a very important driving force during this quite a long project of earning a PhD degree.
Tanja Seppälä, University of Jyväskylä, Finland
Ricardo Muñoz, University of Gothenburg, Sweden
Márton András Tóth, University of Gothenburg, Sweden
Tanja wrote the Finnish part and Ricardo the Swedish part. Tanja wrote the comparison from Finland’s viewpoint and Márton András Tóth from the Swedish (and Japanese) viewpoint. We would like to thank Kirsi Leskinen and Minttu Vänttinen for the comments to the Finnish part, and Márton András Tóth for the comments to the Swedish part and to the Swedish introduction paragraph.