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Why Study for a PhD in Sweden?

by Mark Bennett

Sweden offers a well-established and internationally recognised higher education system providing a variety of doctoral programs in all major subject areas. Swedish universities have a long history of achievement and prestige, dating back to the fifteenth century origins of Lund University (Lunds Universitet) and Uppsala University (Uppsala Universitet). Today both Lund and Uppsala consistently place within the top one hundred universities in the world, as does Stockholm's Karolinska Institute (Karolinska Institutet). All three universities are recognised as centres of excellence in medicine and related fields. In total Sweden offers over fifty universities and university-colleges with exceptionally renowned research output in natural sciences and technology.

Sweden's history of recognising and rewarding achievement in research, excellence and innovation is reflected in its status as the home of the Nobel Prize: Sweden itself has produced twenty-nine Nobel Laureates since establishing the prize in 1895. Today Swedish universities are behind many of the technological and service innovations that have shaped the early twenty-first century. These include media and telecommunications platforms such as Skype and Spotify, as well as the Bluetooth wireless communication standard. In addition, Swedish universities work closely with business: contributing to the international success of brands and manufacturers such as Volvo, Ikea and H&M.

International Achievement and Appeal

The international profile of Swedish research and innovation is reflected in the makeup of the scholarly and student community that produces it. Roughly 10% of students enrolled at Swedish universities have international backgrounds and this figure rises to 20% for those studying research degrees. Many Swedes are fluent English speakers and English is frequently employed as a working language in Swedish businesses and universities. However, universities may offer parts of a course or program in Swedish and encourage candidates to undertake some language training accordingly. This requirement is dependent upon the content of a given program, but many universities now offer Swedish language training to their international students. This training is often provided in partnership with the Swedish Institute, an academic organisation that exists to support and encourage links between Swedish universities and international scholars and students.

In addition to their international appeal, Swedish universities attract a high proportion of adult-learners and over 60% of students are women. These qualities endow Sweden with a flexible, mature and varied research culture that draws upon expertise wherever it finds it.

The quality of Swedish research training and output is further guaranteed and supported by a government that invests over 60% of G.D.P. in education and 4% in research alone. This makes Sweden the top-ranking country in the EU for research funding – a figure made even more attractive by the fact that most doctoral programs in Sweden incur no tuition fees.

The Swedish University System

Swedish higher education institutions are divided between full university (universitet) institutions and university-colleges (hogsköla). Traditionally the universitet institutions maintain a greater research focus, whilst hogsköla provide technical training in given subject areas. Both provide bachelors (first cycle) and masters (second cycle) level qualifications, but the entitlement to offer doctoral (third cycle) qualifications is typically confined to the universitet. Recently, however, the Swedish government has begun granting some hogsköla the rights to offer doctorates in their areas of expertise.

Swedish Doctoral Degrees

Doctoral level study in Sweden takes two forms. A full Ph.D. consists of 240 ECTS credits and requires a minimum of four years full-time study leading to the production and defence of a thesis representing a significant contribution to the scholarly field in question. Alternatively, candidates may register for a licentiate degree, consisting of 120 ECTS credits. This requires only two years full-time enrolment and the production of a shorter and less ambitious thesis. The licentiate may function as a pre-doctoral qualification – broadly akin to the UK's MPhil or similar degrees – but is also taken as a terminal degree by those already working within an appropriate field of profession. Both Ph.D. and licentiate qualifications typically combine the supervised research of a thesis with a program of seminars and courses through which a candidate obtains and demonstrates appropriate theoretical and methodological training in their field.

PhDs in SwedenExaminations

In Sweden a Ph.D. thesis is ultimately subjected to a public examination that differs slightly from the viva voce procedure employed in some other countries. An "opponent" with applicable expertise is engaged to fulfil the role of external examiner, but is not personally responsible for deciding if a thesis passes or fails. This decision is taken by a separate examination panel, before which the opponent scrutinises and the candidate defends the thesis. Other researchers and faculty members, along with friends and family, may also be in the audience; however, these play no part in the formal examination. As the candidate's broader scholarship and expertise will already have been tested alongside their research, the focus of the public examination is primarily the quality of the thesis itself. At the end of the examination the committee retires to discuss the outcome in a meeting to which the opponent may also contribute their opinion. Candidates may initially find this more elaborate examination process daunting, however it is also intended to offer an appropriate climax to the student's endeavour and achievement: allowing them to assert their expertise and prove their qualification in front of an audience of their peers.

Admissions and Application

Places on Swedish doctoral programs are highly desirable and application is often competitive. In addition to demonstrating requisite qualifications and achievement, prospective candidates may advantage themselves by also undertaking their Master's level study within the Swedish system.

The minimum requirement for enrolment in a Swedish Ph.D. program is a bachelor's degree majoring in an appropriate subject area and including a dedicated independent research component. However, as in most other countries, an applicable Master's degree is usually also required.

Applications should generally be made to the institution and department with which a student wishes to study, many of which will advertise their own vacancies for studentships. Officially certified copies of relevant qualifications will be required and supporting documents such as letters of recommendation may need to undergo a certified translation into Swedish. Individual departments should be contacted for information on their own applications procedure and requirements. Details of current program vacancies, together with places supported by funding bodies, may be found at www.studyinsweden.se.

Fees and Funding

In most cases those studying at doctoral level in Sweden are not required to pay tuition or application fees, regardless of nationality or EU status. Exceptions may apply to students whose program of study involves compulsory or additional components drawn from a university's bachelors or masters level portfolio. In these cases students from the EU and Switzerland may still be exempt from tuition fees.

All students at Swedish universities are expected to be able to cover living costs and this may be a condition of immigration (see below). Where applicable, students will be expected to cover any additional costs of study such as equipment or textbooks. All Ph.D. students are expected to be adequately funded for their entire proposed period of study and the offer of a place may be conditional upon confirmation of this.

Many Swedish universities offer Ph.D. studentships or study grants. In these situations a candidate is employed as a salaried staff member with teaching and departmental responsibilities at a reduced level. Various independent funding bodies support research at Swedish universities and may provide sponsorship to Ph.D. students upon application. Details of studentships and funding opportunities may be found advertised at individual institutional websites or searched on FindAPhD.com.

In addition, the Swedish Institute provides scholarships for the specific purpose of supporting foreign students in Sweden. For more information see the Swedish Institute's scholarship portal.

Visas, Immigration and Residency

Because Ph.D. students will typically wish to take up residency in Sweden for more than three months, a visa is not usually required. However, depending on a student's country of origin, registration or application for a residency permit may be necessary in order to study at a Swedish university.

EU and EEA Students

Students from within the EU and EEA are able to reside in Sweden without applying for a visa or residence permit, but must register with the Swedish Migration Board within three months of arrival. For Ph.D. students this registration requires evidence of university enrolment, proof of comprehensive and valid medical insurance and a personal assurance of funds sufficient for living costs.

Non-EU and EEA Students

Non EU and EEA students wishing to study for a Ph.D. in Sweden will need to procure a residence permit from the Swedish Migration Board before arriving. In order to apply for a residence permit, students will need to have a confirmed offer of a university place and, if applicable, have paid the first instalment of any tuition fees. In order to grant a residence permit, the Swedish Migration Board will need to be satisfied that a prospective student is able to support themselves for the duration of their studies in Sweden by being able to pay living costs currently calculated at 7,300 SEK. This amount may be adjusted for students able to demonstrate that they have been provided with free accommodation and/or a full or partial scholarship. In order to allow sufficient time for the application procedure, the Swedish Migration Board recommends students submit their application at least six weeks before their intended departure date.

Permits are granted and renewed on an annual basis unless the proposed period of study is less than one year. Ph.D. students will therefore need to demonstrate continued financial resources or support in order to annually renew their residence permit. A single, non-refundable, fee of 1,000 SEK is incurred upon initial application to the Swedish Migration Board.

Students from Switzerland or Nordic Countries

Students from Switzerland will need to apply for a residence permit as above. Students from other Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway) do not require a visa or residence permit to study a Ph.D. in Sweden.

For more information on immigration requirements applicable to students at Swedish universities, visit the Swedish Migration Board website.

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