All around the world, more people than ever are pursuing a PhD. But how do our PhDs programs differ, what do we all struggle with and what can we learn from each other? Those are some of the questions I have decided to explore in a series of mini-interviews with PhD students from all around the world.
My first lab rat (~interview victim) is Nina Wancova* who is pursuing a PhD in the Czech Republic at Charles University in a completely different area than me – New Media and Museum Studies. She has started in 2013, completed two years and currently is on a parental leave.
In a recent blog post here, Pedro outlined some of the reasons for doing science, so naturally I wondered what Nina’s were and why did she decide to do a PhD? “It sort of just happened. When I was presenting my master’s thesis the committee suggested I continue with the same theme. So I decided to go for it.”
What did you find the most surprising so far? “That everything is so vague. One has to discover everything alone with a minimal guidance. We are not taught how to write, how to teach, but somehow it is expected of us to master it. And nothing is straightforward as it seems in the initial plan.”
While in comparison Karolinska Institutet requires writing courses for PhD students, and offers a teaching course, I definitely relate to Nina’s experience of having to become master (superhero) of many areas and also like her “I became less stressed when I realized it is the same for others, even few more years in. At least I am not alone in it.” And isolation was one of the issues she believes faces many PhD candidates.
But I also wondered about what makes our experiences at our respective universities different, maybe the formal the requirements for completing a PhD?
“The requirements vary a lot, depending on a university and department. We are required to produce scientific work once a year – either publish in a journal or present at a conference and complete one subject exam a year, such as a philosophy, or attend a seminar on theory and methods.”
No, Nina’s requirements seem rather similar mine. Majority of student at my university, complete a PhD with 4 journal articles, which corresponds to one per year. Further, presenting at least once at an international conference is also required. But what about courses, do you have to have to take many of them?
“No, we have no requirements regarding courses. We have a PhD seminar twice per term, where we present our project to others and discuss our progress and we also have to pass a foreign language exam.”
Whaaat? You do not have to do courses?! This was surprising to me. I had to complete 30 credits (~1 full term) of courses. And the other universities in Sweden require even more coursework (60 credits, ~1 year).
But even more surprising were the differences in funding. I was very lucky and in my first year a classical funding by a stipend (Utbildningsbidrag) was complemented by an employment contract. In second year I was funded via an employment contract. The level of my funding corresponds to approximately 55th percentile of Swedish income spectrum**
But Nina’s experience with funding was very different. “In a first year, I was doing my PhD as an external student. And when you do that you are not funded at all. But what is required of you is the same. They might cut you more slack with regards to attendance of seminars, but that’s it.
In a second year, I transferred to internal studies and then you do get a money”. A stipend that according to her corresponds to approximately 30th percentile of average salary.
To be honest I could not believe this! There are days when I find PhD difficult even when I have 40 paid hours a week to devote to it. So how do you and the other students manage the minimal funding? “Well the common solutions seem to be working “on the side” in full time employment, living with parents, or doing PhD while on maternity leave”. Not surprisingly, when I asked what would be the one thing Nina would change about the PhD system, her answer was “Financing so people could devote their full time attention to PhD”.
But Nina still believes that while “it is hard to be thrown in the water and having to learn how to swim, it is a good experience to learn to preserve and find one’s way forward.” And her advice to aspiring PhD students is to “create a good peer group to supplement (the lack of) supervision. If you find good peers to exchange ideas with, read each other’s work it can help you to make it through.”
For more experiences and advises from around the world and experiences follow my future posts. Follow @NikaSeblova
*disclaimer – Nina is my sister; **according to the information here, for men and women between ages of 20-65