Struggling with your PhD? Get inspired by an ‘eldsjäl’!

Guestblog Written by Pingling Zeng

“ Who is this happy person holding two babies?”, I asked my colleagues while pointing on a picture I saw on KI main web page. “How can you not know Jonas Ludvigsson? He is an ‘eldsjäl’ , he has done many altruistic works and never expects much return! “, said my colleagues.

Jonas Ludvigsson is a professor in clinical epidemiology at KI. In addition, he is a pediatrician, a teacher, a supervisor, a football coach, the author of several books, chairman or member of several societies, a father, and many more.  When I asked him about future plans in 5-10 years, he is hesitant but then says that he would consider working for the World Health Organization, or perhaps just continues as a researcher-clinician. He also has another career-step in mind.

“If people wanted me to, I think I would like to become the vice chancellor of KI in the future. Being the vice-chancellor will definitely mean less time for research, but it would be a great chance to influence the Karolinska Institutet. I think I can lead.”, explained Jonas.

How does Jonas find the time to accomplish all these fantastic works at such a young age?

“We have no control over the amount of time we have, but we can maximize what we do within that time. I spend a lot of time commuting on trains and buses. From the outside it may look as though commuting consumes a substantial amount of my time, but instead it actually gives me time to read and write. I live 15 km away from my hospital in Örebro where I work Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, so I go by bike back and forth to the hospital. This means I do not have to do physical exercise in my spare time and I gain some time. I think I have a good work-life balance. I work much less than my father, who is also a pediatrician and who inspired me to become a pediatrician.”

During his PhD, he went to Bolivia and collected huge amounts of data, which were deemed almost impossible to acquire in a short period of time. After he returned to Sweden, he encountered many challenges. He re-started his PhD thesis all over again 2 times.

“I failed the first 2 times as PhD student. The first failure was because I had a supervisor who cheated on me. The second time was because I had a supervisor who suggested a project, which was overwhelming and impossible to carry out for a PhD student. In the end, I defended my thesis on my 3rd PhD project with my 3rd supervisor.“

Jonas received his first research grant before he finished his PhD, but it was not all plain sailing.

“I failed on my first 8 grant applications. On my 9th grant application, I got 13 000 SEK. “

What kind of mindset or attitude did he have that eventually led him through all these seemingly unsurmountable obstacles?

“If I were another person, I would have given up.   However, I am who I am, so I just continued. Some other people might think:  failing once, and then failing twice- it is time to quit. But I do not quit. People who quit do not become researchers, but I really wanted to become a researcher!”

How did his uphill struggle influence or shape his latter academic career?

“I think I spend a lot of effort helping my own PhD students, because my supervisors did not spend time with me and I was unhappy about that.  I try to teach my PhD students soft skills such as how to write grant application, how to handle scientific misconduct and how to think about equality in research.”

Because of his unyielding strong character in front of challenges, he not only realized his dream of becoming a researcher, but also maximized the value of his PhD study experience. After he defended his thesis, he shared what he had learned by writing a book about how to conduct research, which became one of the best-sellers at that time.

He continues to write books and actively contributes to societies such as the Swedish Pediatric Society and the Swedish Society of Epidemiology . Why is it important for Jonas to write books and to be active in different associations?

“I think contributing to a society is a good thing to do. These associations are needed to develop epidemiology, to defend epidemiologists, to communicate research results to society and to work with government agencies amongst other things. Writing books is another way to be part of a society, to contribute. Both of these two activities bring me joy, even though they do not give me credit for career advancement. They are not a criterion for becoming a docent or professor. I want to see a better Swedish society and a better world, and this is my way of contributing .”

What are the pros and cons of working in academia?

“KI is a very international community. I speak English throughout the day with people from many different countries. Many people working at KI are very efficient. They get things done. I appreciate that. The research infrastructures and conditions in Sweden are very good. You can do good research quite easily in Sweden compare to what it is like to do the same research in a different country. There is less hierarchy in Swedish research society than in many other countries. I enjoy these.”

 “I dislike the fact that I have to apply for money all the time. I also dislike when people are not generous because of career pressure or when people do not contribute to a project or do a sloppy work for the role they have.”

It is sometimes inevitable that we will encounter tough people or situations in our career path. How does Jonas deal with them?

“I met some people who have been very tough, who have been extremely critical, who have slandered my name and who have tried to cut me into pieces. I feel depressed sometimes. Then I talk to people that I trust about these matters, and that alleviates my anxiety. I also think it is good to have a mentor. If there is something, I feel worried about or that I want to discuss, I always call my mentor. I call him and ask him: what do you think I should do, what do I do now? And he says: oh relax, you do this, you do that. He gives me advice!”

Jonas advice for PhD students

  1. Try to choose a research group leader who has been successful for your post-doc.
  2. Before you join the group, talk to his/her former lab members and learn about the research group.

Gain experience and broaden your horizon by moving abroad or moving to a different environment than the place where you did your PhD.

This is a career portrait written as an assignment during the Career skills course for PhD students 2017 by Pingling Zeng (

Photo By Gustav Mårtensson from article in KI Bladet 2017-01-23

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