By Kim Bergqvist |

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Those words aptly sum up my PhD experience. Being able to devote my time to my chosen topic – which to some people may seem weird or even utterly boring, but to some quite interesting – has been a privilege indeed. At the same time, during these last few years I have more often than ever before questioned if I’m really suited to this job. Paradoxically, I barely ever doubted it before being accepted into the doctoral programme – and I decided abnormally early to pursue a PhD in History, at the tender age of eleven. You’ll have noted that I used the word ‘job’, and that has everything to do with my being a PhD student in Sweden and not elsewhere.

One of the most fundamental particularities of the Swedish system of doctoral studies nowadays, is that all PhD students must be funded for the whole of the four-year programme before they can be admitted. This allows for better working conditions for the PhD students, since the Departments within which we carry out our research employ us. This is a change that has only been completed within the last few years. The downside might be reckoned as the small amount of people who are accepted into the programme. I can only speak from my limited experience, but out of all the applications, the great majority of which come from competent applicants with two-year MA degrees, departments can usually accept no more than ten per cent.

Once accepted into the doctoral programme, PhD students are basically treated as part of the Faculty. We have access to an office, or part of an office, at the Department. While there are regional differences, at my home department PhD students have been given the opportunity to teach first, second, and third semester students, as well as supervise Bachelor’s theses. We act as teachers on the same grounds as other Faculty members – and not as assistants – and are recompensed for our time.

PhD students in Sweden, at least from my personal experience, are treated as part of the staff of researchers not only in the formal sense, but informally as well. Our presence at research seminars is encouraged and appreciated, though we willingly uphold our own doctoral training seminar. Several of us have been asked to contribute essays to volumes edited by scholars at the Department. We also have funds to cover expenses when presenting our research at national or international conferences, or for archival studies abroad. Myself, I have made extensive use of the opportunity to travel; I have enjoyed and benefited from my international experiences, which are highly valued in Sweden.

Universitetsbiblioteket

I think most scholars agree that the research conducted by doctoral students represents some of the most important contributions to research overall. However, there are also downsides to this fact, since a PhD student in Sweden is both a Faculty researcher and a student. Not least, this can create problems in the relationship one has to maintain with the thesis director/supervisor, who will most likely treat you as a student above all. This can cause clashes of interests for the student, who has to manage professional relationships with scholars at their own and other universities, while meeting expectations from their supervisor who they work on the thesis with, and not let any other priorities (even ones that could help further their future career possibilities) get in the way.

In the eyes of society, we are definitely still students – and perhaps not even studying for anything useful or productive. We’ve all heard the questions: When will you finish? What will you do after? In the eyes of our parents, friends, and the rest of society, we are not yet working at a proper job, since we are still students. Being both is too complicated a concept, and I ask myself these questions too. The ludicrous thing is that if we had finished, and if we did know what we were going to do afterwards, we’d proclaim it for the entire world to hear.

In a sense, the fact of being employed by the Department to do a job changes the context of your studies in a way that can have some negative effects. The demands put upon you from others, by the mere fact that you are fully funded and thus responsible to fulfil your obligations, makes pursuing the doctorate appear less the fulfilment of a personal dream or enthusiasm for a subject, and more like a job you do because you get paid and people tell you to. This can be detrimental to the way you view your own work. However, working at a PhD with so many pleasant colleagues to hand, who are or have been in the same situation, has been fantastic, and the expectation that I’d only be alone in a library with piles of books to surround me has not become reality – for that I’ll be ever grateful.

Kim Bergqvist is a fourth-year PhD candidate in History at Stockholm University. He studies literary evidence of the political mentality of the aristocracy in medieval Castile-Leon and Sweden from a comparative perspective. For more information, you can visit his academia.edu profile

(Photo 1 and 2: Amanda Jackalin, University of Sweden)