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Image: Johan Gunséus

Published: 2018-12-11

Three perspectives on doctoral student life

FEATURE Tora Dunås, Jakub Krzywda and Per Boström are doctoral students at Umeå University, but at different faculties and with varying backgrounds.

Per Boström, doctoral student in language studies, linguistics

"I'm working on a dissertation in Nordic languages focusing on the word love in spoken Swedish, love in metaphors. I started my doctoral studies in 2012, but I've been on parental leave and am active in an association of doctoral candidates, which has taken its time. I'm hoping to complete my doctorate in 1.5 years."

Tora Dunås, doctoral student in medical engineering

"My studies focus on measuring bloodstreams in the brain. I'm employed by the Faculty of Medicine, but have a background as an engineer. I took on my doctoral studies in 2013 and have about one year left until my public defence of the dissertation."

Jakub Krzywda, doctoral student in computer science

"In my doctoral studies, I focus on so-called cloud computing. In November, it was three years since I took on my third-cycle studies. In March, I'm planning on holding a licentiate lecture after which I'll have about 1.5 years until finishing my dissertation."

The journey from being a student to a researcher is a feat that unites. However, the prerequisites — including everything from supervision and work environment to career prospects — could probably not differ more. This article dives into the perspectives of three current doctoral students at Umeå University.

Jakub Krzywda, doctoral student in computer science has 1.5 years until his public defence of the dissertation. Per Boström, doctoral student in linguistics, will also finalise his doctoral studies in 1.5 years. Tora Dunås, medical engineer, only has one more year until she has finished. If everything goes according to plan, that is. Even if doctoral studies often are considered as a safe and already paid-for, four-year form of studies, life as a doctoral student is not just a bed of roses.

Organised doctoral education conditions in Sweden

"The great advantages of the doctoral education is that I have an employment with a steady income, relatively good terms of employment and funding for my research studies," says Per Boström.

"It often strikes me what an advantage it is to work and discuss with colleagues on a daily basis what really interests me. I can't do that in my personal life. There, no one really understands what it is I'm doing. In that way, being a doctoral student really is a privilege to me."

Even if doctoral studies are limited to four years, and are prolonged on a yearly basis, Per Boström believes the employment agreement is reasonably good. This since doctoral students are not employed as teachers and hence are not really affected by what happens at the departments. Doctoral students have their obvious place and tasks that need to be carried out. Another benefit that doctoral students enjoy is being students as well, and hence have access to perks similar to other students.

"As I see it, Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries have the best conditions for doctoral students. You're given a salary, which may be low from a Swedish perspective, but high enough to allow for a good life. If I was to study in Poland, where I come from, I'd need both a scholarship and financial support from my parents to manage. So, the situation here is rather advantageous," says Jakub Krzywda.

Neither a real student or real employee

But there are two sides to the coin. Something that all three mention is that doctoral students neither count as real students nor as real employees. Doctoral students are often caught in the middle. You get invited to some happenings, but not all. Sometimes this has advantages, other times it is a shame. Naturally, it leads to some form of stress for doctoral students, since it is so uncertain where they fit in. This is particularly tricky to international doctoral students, according to Jakub Krzywda.

High expectations to be self-sufficient

"The Swedish system is often difficult for foreign students to get to know. For instance, I'm given a much larger responsibility over my studies, whereas in Poland, my supervisor would have told me step by step what to do. In Sweden, my supervisor said already from the start that I was supposed to take the role as his expert within the field I study. It can be scary to many," says Jakub Krzywda.

On the same note, he says that there is a loneliness built into the Swedish doctoral studentship, where expectations to be self-sufficient are high. This can be particularly hard to handle at the beginning. The Swedish system has a built-in requirement for doctoral students to function as independent researchers after completing the degree, and some supervisors therefore want doctoral students to learn the workmanship by themselves.

Differences depending on the faculty

Tora Dunås agrees, but also points out the huge differences for doctoral students at different faculties.

"I solely work with studies planned together with my supervisor. Even if the study plan has been adjusted along the way, I still knew from day one what to spend the next three years working on; this due to the grant that my supervisor had received from the Swedish Research Council. The choice I had to make was if I was interested or not," says Tora Dunås.

Per Boström has a whole other experience from the Faculty of Arts.

"In my field of linguistics, all options are open. We choose our own subject, specialisation and so on. We rarely take part in large projects with several researchers and doctoral students, instead we do our own thing. But much also depends on the supervisor. Some see doctoral students as students who should run everything on their own accord, whereas some want a collaboration where they lead the doctoral student towards his or her degree," says Per Boström.

"When I look back at the research plan that I sketched out at the onset of my doctoral studies, I realise that I've hardly done any of the original plan. My research has simply led me on other routes."

Does your supervisor understand your research?

"For the most part. She hasn't studied exactly the same, but she works within the same research domain. I also have assistant supervisors who are more knowledgeable in the metaphors I work with, so they complement each other well. I'm happy to have such good supervisors, but I know that all doctoral students aren't as lucky," says Per Boström.

What are doctoral students' major concerns regarding supervisors?

"At the Faculty of Medicine, some doctoral students have a hard time getting hold of their supervisors, particularly those active in medical professions. Sometimes, they can be without a supervisor for weeks or months. The supervisor may reply to emails, but haven't got time to read material. As a doctoral student working on a manuscript, you get rather left out," says Tora Dunås.

Another challenge mentioned is that many supervisors are in need of further grants and therefore focus a lot of their time on such applications. Holidays and parental leaves are other factors that make supervisors difficult to reach and may be a hindrance in the contact between doctoral student and supervisor.

Per, Tora and Jakub also recount shocking examples where supervisors have shown extremely little interest in their doctoral students. The students have been expected to do everything by themselves, including planning their own work. In some cases, supervisors have several doctoral students, which limits the time spent on each student. But the problem is also the reversed.

Benefit of being part of a group

"It's not always an advantage to be the only doctoral student. In a group with several doctoral students, at least you have the opportunity to seek support from each other, which can help your everyday. I was very lonely at the beginning of my doctoral studies, but the group has gradually grown and that's made things easier," says Tora Dunås.

Even if the basic conditions for doctoral students are the same for everyone, Tora, Per and Jakub still see huge differences that partly depend on differences in traditions and conditions for funding at the various faculties.

Some doctoral students work on external projects and hence have external funding, all the while others, particularly in arts and humanities, are fully funded by the faculty.

"In humanities, 15—20 doctoral students are accepted every other year. When I was admitted, there were a few vacant positions in various subject fields at our faculty. At that point, us newly admitted students formed a small group that has stayed in touch," says Per Boström.

Short-term employment agreements

The doctoral students sign a one-year employment agreement. This is usually alright, but sometimes it causes problems. For a doctoral student who signs a new agreement in May, planning the summer holidays becomes difficult, since you are simply not in the system until the agreement has been signed. In other cases, employments have ceased during holidays, which has meant that doctoral students have not been allowed into the premises upon their return and access to their emails has temporarily been denied.

Challenge of balancing doctoral studies and family life

Just like in the rest of the population, doctoral students can suffer from ill health, and among them, psychiatric diagnoses are increasing. At the University, this first and foremost concerns symptoms of stress and being overloaded. In statistics from occupational health care services, women over the age of 30 are overrepresented, and so are doctoral students. Although, this does not surprise Tora, Per and Jakub.

"It's naturally very sad that this negative trend is underway, but it also reflects the rest of society. Among doctoral students, a majority of the women are at a childbearing age. At the same time, women generally take a greater responsibility for children, the household and the family than men. Combining family life with doctoral studies can therefore be really tough, particularly if you're unlucky with your research projects, supervisor and so on," says Tora Dunås.

On the same note, Per Boström mentions another problem. Doctoral students do not automatically get their doctoral studentships extended due to short sick leaves. In order to extend your time after a sick leave, the doctoral student needs to turn to the head of department, who is authorised to make such a call.

"This is an important reason to why many doctoral students work although they are sick or ill, which is a well-known fact. Some universities have changed their routines to make short sick leave absence automatically prolong the doctoral studentship, but this is still not the case in Umeå. From a doctoral students' union perspective, it's an important issue to solve," says Per Boström.

Umeå University has fewer doctoral students now than before, some even speak of a crisis. What would you say?

"It's difficult to have a definite impression or explanation to this, but from 2015, the departments had to pay for their doctoral students' salaries already from day one — previously they could give a period of doctoral grants. Many researchers are therefore complaining about how expensive doctoral students are becoming, which is awkward for us to hear. Some say they'd rather pay for a post doc who is more self-sufficient than a doctoral student, but I'm not sure if this happens in practice," says Tora Dunås.

Varying perspectives

"To us at the Faculty of Arts, the problem is rather that we have no post doc positions. Since the doctoral students start and finish together, we also disappear in groups. This year, five or ten of us will defend dissertations and leave, which negatively affects the entire operations," says Per Boström.

"Another issue is that we don't know what to do after our dissertation defences if there are no post doc positions to apply to," continues Per Boström.

He describes the future prospects of finding work as grim, to him and many of his colleagues alike, since there is no industry or private business sector to turn to. This differs greatly from the situation for doctoral students in medicine, technology and science, and some of the social sciences.

"In my case, we're probably dealing with an 'unemployed academic' after the dissertation," says Per Boström half seriously, half-jokingly.

For Jakub Krzywda, the situation is entirely different since getting a job in the IT field is rather easy:

"To me, the tricky part is not getting a job, it's rather figuring out what I want to do. In computer science, the industry is always a backup. What's peculiar, however, is that a doctoral degree can limit your opportunities to find a job as you can easily be seen as overqualified. But there are also private research institutes to turn to where higher qualifications are required, and there's also the academic community."

Just like for Jakub, Tora has a bright future ahead of her on the labour market. She has already set her goal.

"I definitely want to stay within the academia and after completing my doctoral studies, I'm planning on applying for an international post doc in the US. After that, I'd like to live and work in Stockholm for a while before deciding where to settle down," says Tora Dunås.

Text: Mattias Grundström Mitz
Photo: Johan Gunséus
Translation: Anna Lawrence

This article was first published in the magazine Aktum no. 1 2017.