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A PhD Student's Guide to Living in Norway

by EH. Cocker and Mark Bennett

What's it like to study abroad in Norway as a PhD student?

Norway is a country of quiet determination. From the outside it may seem reserved and somewhat mysterious, but warmth, ambition and resolve run as deep as the fjords that form its rugged coastlines.

Norway's seasons involve stark contrasts. Summer enjoys a seasonal 'midnight' sun whilst winter wraps up warm for a long, dark night. Norway is also home to some of the world's most breathtaking natural wonders, perhaps the most famous being the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). Whilst studying for a PhD in the country you can take time out to visit the snow-capped mountains of Jotunheimen National Park, visit the phenomenal Norangs fjords, leap off the Holmenkollen Ski Jump, or go white-water rafting. Alternatively, in true Norwegian tradition, you could simply go hiking ('gå påtur'). Whatever you decide to explore, your time studying at the top of Europe will present opportunities to see and do things that few other international students have the chance to experience.

The vibrancy and variety of the Norwegian landscape is matched by its people. Norwegians consume more coffee per capita than any other country and read more newspapers. They've also been known to eat fish marinated in caustic soda and enjoy a blow-torched sheep's head for dinner. With its quirky nature, forward thinking and extreme love of extreme sports, Norway is a rich and dynamic place to study for a PhD.

Key facts

  • Norway has a population of a little over 5 million people, living in both rural and urban areas.
  • In addition to its main territory in the Scandinavian Peninsula, Norway also comprises the Svalbard archipelago situated in the Arctic Ocean and a dependency, Bouvet Island, in the sub-Antarctic. Svalbard is home to several Arctic research facilities, whilst Bouvet is the world's most remote island.
  • Norway is a constitutional monarchy, with a royal head of state under whom an elected prime minister serves as the head of government.
  • The Norwegian climate is generally cold, but more varied than you might expect. Weather in southern regions is relatively temperate, whilst the northern-most parts of the country experience relatively extreme winters. The country's high latitude also means its northern regions experience some unique phenomena, with the sun visible all day during parts of summer and never rising above the horizon for a month in winter.
  • Tourism in Norway is popular, with large numbers of visitors arriving each year to view the country's famous fjords as well as other unique landscape features. The country is a particularly popular destination for ski holidays, but other travellers come to experience Norway's Scandinavian heritage or to see spectacular wildlife such as polar bears and elks in their natural habitats.
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Norway is the largest religious affiliation in the country and is administered through the state, but other faiths are practised freely.
  • The currency of Norway is the Norwegian kroner (NOK). NOK 1 is roughly equivalent to $0.16.
  • The language of Norway is Norwegian, which exists in two official written forms Bokmål and Nynorsk. English is commonly taught in Norwegian schools, leading to a population with a high degree of fluency.

Culture, leisure and everyday life for PhD students in Norway

Norwegians have adapted to their quite unique geographical circumstances and developed a culture that shrugs off the challenges and takes advantage of the opportunities offered by living at the very top of Europe. Norwegians are known for being stoical and resilient, but maintaining a surprising sense of humour. Much of the population still inhabits rural areas of the country and this means that even smaller towns and villages can be equipped with modern infrastructure, from broadband internet to restaurants and coffee-shops. This doesn't mean Norwegians spend their time indoors sheltering from the weather, though - instead, people in Norway are quite likely to go for a hike in all conditions. So, if you want to make the most of life in Norway, pack a sturdy pair of boots! If you do, you'll be well rewarded, with vast untouched landscapes and stunning scenery waiting to be explored.

These more insular pursuits haven't stopped Norwegian values and culture having a substantial international influence. Norway's political system has long been a model of democratic ideals, with proportional representation in elections and a tradition of equality for all citizens (Norway was one of the first countries to allow women to vote and elected one of Europe's first female prime ministers in 1981). Norway's other exports have also made their impact on the world stage - some quite literally so. Famous figures such as the composer, Edvard Grieg, the playwright, Henrik Ibsen and the painter, Edvard Munch, were all from Norway and the traditions of Romantic music, Realist drama and Expressionist painting that they helped found had a huge impact around the world. Today Norway is home to a variety of more contemporary artists, including musicians as diverse as the electronic duo, Röyksopp, and the black metal group, Dimmu Borgir.

Food and drink

Traditional Norwegian cuisine has been shaped by the limits and advantages of its northern location. Bread and seafood have historically predominated (Norwegians still know a surprising number of ways to prepare herring) but other international cuisines have been adopted and adapted in more recent years. This means that you'll probably be able to eat more or less whatever you fancy whilst studying for a PhD in Norway, but there are a few more characteristic dishes that you might like to keep an eye out for (whether to sample or avoid is up to you!).

Unsurprisingly, a lot of Norwegian food is based around fish. Tørrfisk is a fish dish preserved by drying rather than salting, sursild are pickled herring served in a range of sauces and fiskesuppe (as its name might suggest) is a fish soup, usually based on milk or cream with vegetables.

Other Norwegian dishes are more 'unique' and often stem from a historic need to make the most of different meats by preserving and serving them in particular ways. Two of the most striking examples are lutefisk, fish soaked in a caustic solution of water and lye, and smalahove, usually a sheep's head seared with a blowtorch or other flame and then boiled. Other dishes might be slightly more appealing to international palettes. Syltelabb, for example, consists of cured pigs trotter eaten as a snack. Kjøttkaker and kjøttboller are meat-cakes and meat-balls respectively, and are likely to be much more flavourful than any similar products you may or may not have purchased at large international furniture outlets.

When it comes to drinking, Norwegians are actually quite fond of coffee, but they do enjoy stronger beverages from time to time and the country is home to several traditional alcoholic drinks. Juleøl (Christmas beer) remains popular and Norway also produces its own distilled drinks, such as akevitt (a drink flavoured with caraway seeds) and some varieties of vodka. Norwegian law is relatively restrictive when it comes to the sale of alcohol, however, and this can mean that beers and wines are expensive when bought from pubs or restaurants.

Accommodation and living costs for PhD students in Norway

Living costs in Norway are generally quite high, partly as a result of relatively limited geographical resources in a country where much of the land is covered by mountain ranges that are difficult to inhabit or farm. A meal at an inexpensive restaurant will probably cost around NOK 150 ($25). If you're celebrating some successful research with a friend of departmental colleague, you'll probably pay around NOK 400 ($65) per person for three courses at a more up market restaurant. You'll generally pay less if you have the facilities to cook at home, but grocery prices are still higher than elsewhere in Europe. A loaf of fresh bread will cost between NOK 20 and NOK 25 ($3-4) and a dozen eggs will be around NOK 31 ($5). Meat can be particularly expensive, with 500g of chicken breast costing around NOK 53 ($9). Alcohol is also costly; a bottle of imported wine is likely to be around NOK 100-120 ($16-20) and beer is around NOK 30 ($5) a bottle.

Of course, with sufficient funding or other support and sensible budgeting, Norway is still an affordable place to live as a student. Depending on where you find yourself based you may also find relatively economical ways to shop for groceries, for example by taking advantage of local fish markets. The estimated annual budget for a year spent living as a student in Norway is around NOK 100,000 ($16,000). This breaks down into around NOK 2,400 ($390) a month for food and roughly NOK 500 ($80) per month for travel, depending on your individual requirements.

Accommodation

Universities may offer their own student accommodation and this often takes the form of dedicated 'student villages' in convenient sites on or near to university campuses. Your best bet will be to get in touch with their international office or student services department in advance to enquire about the possibility of housing and its availability to international PhD students. Where available, university accommodation will be cheaper than private alternatives. Prices for these will vary, but you can probably expect to pay around NOK 3,000-4,000 ($480-650) per month for a room, depending on location and facilities.

In addition to getting in touch with your prospective institution, there are a couple of useful online resources that can help you search for accommodation before you arrive. The website, Boligtorget, offers information on student housing across Norway.

Working as a PhD student in Norway

Though Norway is not a member of the EU, EU and EEA nationals (together with citizens of Nordic countries) are still entitled to work in Norway whilst studying. You will need to register for a residence card (see the information on Norwegian visas and immigration in our guide to studying in Norway), but will otherwise be able to seek work freely alongside your studies. Students from other countries will also be able to work in Norway in most cases, but may need to undergo additional registration at their local police station. You can find information specific to your country at the website of the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration, which offers an official guide to Working in Norway.

Don't forget that you can also use PostgraduateFunding.com to search a comprehensive database of small grants available to all postgraduate students. These could be a great way of topping up your funding if you have any difficulty finding work alongside your studies.

Other useful information for PhD students in Norway

In addition to finding a place to live, deciding whether or not to look for a part-time job and getting your residence permit sorted, you'll want to sort a few other details before you head off to study a PhD in Norway. Click 'more' for a concise introduction to health insurance, communications, transport and banking for students in Norway.

Health insurance

As a result of reciprocal agreements, most PhD students in Norway will be covered by Norway's own Norwegian National Insurance Scheme for the purposes of emergency care and necessary treatment. Exceptions may apply if you are not covered by social security arrangements in your home country and are not a student of an EEA or Nordic country or Switzerland. You can find more information from Nordsoc, the Nordic Social Insurance Portal.

Communications

The official postal service in Norway is Posten Norge. Founded in 1647, Posten is one of the oldest companies in Norway, but is now owned by the Norwegian Government. Post-boxes and offices are available throughout Norway, with coverage in more rural areas as well as major cities. You can view detailed information about services and prices at the official Posten website If you own a mobile phone, you may be able to use it whilst studying in Norway, but, depending on your provider's roaming charges and partnerships with Norwegian networks, you may be better off taking up a local service. If you don't expect to use a mobile extensively then a kontantkort (pay as you go) service may be suitable. Some providers will also provide a temporary phone rental service for visitors or temporary residents in Norway. If your friends and family are calling you on a Norwegian landline, they will need to use the international dialing code +47. Norway's high-speed internet coverage is impressive given the dispersed nature of its towns and cities and the difficulties posed by its geography and climate. In fact, Norway was the first non-English country on the internet and access is now available to almost the entire population. You can read official informaton on Norwegian communications services at the website of the Norwegian Post and Telecommunications Authority.

Travel and transportation

Hiking might be a popular activity once you're in Norway itself, but you're better off starting small and arriving by boat or plane. International airports are located in and around major cities such as Oslo and Trondheim, and ferry operators also offer services connecting Norway with other parts of Europe. Once you're in Norway you'll be able to take advantage of rail and bus services to travel within and between cities, though you may find that the long journey to northern cities such as Tromso is still best taken by plane! Students are usually eligible for discounts on most public transport services. You can find up to date information on services and timetables at the website of Ruteinfo Norge.

Money and banking

Norway has a modern banking system with branches in major cities (and many smaller towns). Services such as online banking and international money transfers are readily available and foreign cards will usually be accepted. If you wish to open a bank account in Norway you should be able to do so, provided you have registered for a residence card and National Identity number.

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