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A PhD Student's Guide to Living in Poland

by Mark Bennett

Poland is well-established as a destination for short breaks in beautiful and vibrant cities such as Kraków and Warsaw, but, as a resident PhD student, you'll have time to experience much more of the country's impressive diversity. After all, how many other places offer the chance to go skiing on snow-covered mountain slopes, visit a desert and explore lush primeval forest - all without crossing a single international border?

Poland's history, whilst often turbulent, has also established a rich heritage that is celebrated in the country's many historical buildings, art galleries and scientific research centres together with its internationally renowned film and cinema tradition. The Polish university system draws upon these cultural and intellectual resources and you'll have plenty of academic and extra-curricular opportunities to engage with them whilst studying for a PhD in the country.

Key facts

  • Poland has a population of around 38.5 million, distributed between major cities and more dispersed rural and agricultural communities. Its largest city is the capital, Warsaw, with a population of a little under 2 million.
  • The country is governed as a parliamentary democracy, led by an elected Prime Minister. A President is also elected to serve as ceremonial head of state and undertake some executive functions.
  • The climate is temperate. Summers are typically mild, but winter can be relatively severe in some regions.
  • Poland has become a particularly popular tourist destination since joining the EU in 2004. Current figures identify it as the 17th most visited country in the world.
  • The majority of Poland's population are Roman Catholics, but other religions are practised freely.
  • The official language is Polish. English and German are becoming established as popular second languages.

Culture, leisure and everyday life

Polish culture is a fusion of Eastern and Western European characteristics that is open to the influence of its neighbours whilst maintaining rich traditions of its own.

Polish customs and holidays

As a country with a large Catholic population, many of Poland's national holidays are based around religious festivals such as Christmas and Easter. However, these are celebrated in a uniquely Polish style. At Christmas, for example, the exchange of gifts takes place on Christmas Eve, when, after a day of fasting, an evening supper called the Wigilia is shared. This usually centres on traditional fish dishes (particularly carp) and does not include red meat. Christmas Day itself is spent visiting friends and family. On Easter Sunday a traditional breakfast meal is served and decorated eggs called pisanki are given as gifts. Name days (the day sacred to a saint after whom a person is named) are just as important as birthdays and are celebrated each year with gift-giving and family gatherings.

Other Polish holidays derive from the country's political history. These include the anniversary of the first Polish constitution on the 3rd of May and National Independence Day on November the 11th.

Food and drink

Polish cuisine specialises in hearty and wholesome winter food, incorporating strong vegetable bases and various cured and smoked meats. You've probably heard of foods like kielbasa sausage, but you'll soon discover that, within Poland itself, this is an umbrella term for a rich variety of products that represent the country's expertise with meat dishes. Stews and soups are also a staple of Polish cuisine, with borsht (a beetroot soup sometimes served with filled dumplings) and bigos (a hunter's stew based on seasoned meat and cabbage) being particularly popular.

Poland's most famous beverage is well known, but vodka, or rather wódka, is far more than just an alcoholic mixer in Poland. Various artisanal brands and varieties exist and the drink may be served on special occasions.

Polish university cities

  • Most Polish universities (or uczelnia akademicka) are located in and around the country's larger urban areas.
  • Warsaw is the Polish capital and is home to a number of its major university institutions as well as extensive libraries and archives. Part of the city, including its historic market square, has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Kraków is home to Poland's oldest university and was the nation's administrative and political centre in the early decades of its history. As such it features many historic buildings and monuments as well as a UNESCO World Heritage area. Today the city is also renowned for its vibrant nightlife.
  • Łódź is Poland's third largest city and another important education hub. It is home to the National Film School, whose alumni include the director, Roman Polanski.
  • Wrocław is near Poland's border with the Czech Republic. It is the country's third largest university region with a substantial student population. Conveniently, the city is also home to the international Festival of Good Beer (Festiwal Dobrego Piwa).

Accommodation and living costs

Living costs in Poland are lower than in most other EU countries; the government estimates a total cost of around 1200-2500zł ($400-850) per month, including accommodation.

Accommodation

You should get in touch with your institution as early as possible and investigate the availability of any subsidised accommodation it may offer. Many universities will provide dormitory facilities and these can cost as little as 400-600zł ($130-200) per month. However, a private alternative may be as much as 1000-1600zł ($300-500).

Living costs

Groceries will be cheaper in supermarkets than in smaller stores, but you should also make use of local markets. These take place regularly in most Polish towns and offer a great way to purchase locally produced food and other products at affordable prices whilst also experiencing another dimension of Polish culture.

Working in Poland as a PhD student

Citizens of EU and EEA countries can work in Poland without a permit and most major cities will have job opportunities available that will suit research and study activities. Your university may be able to provide information on local vacancies and employers, but if you'd like to secure something before you arrive you can use online services such as the European Jobs Network.

If you are not an EU or EEA citizen you will be able to work freely during the summer period (July to September) but will require a work permit for the rest of the year; this in turn requires a residence permit. You can find more information on immigration and residency procedures here.

You can also use PostgraduateFunding.com to search a comprehensive database of small grants available to postgraduate Masters students. These can help top up your funding if you have difficulty finding work alongside your studies.

Other useful information

Travel and transportation

Poland's major cities have modern transport infrastructures, with regular bus, tram and rail services - full-time students may be entitled to a discount of as much as 50% on some routes! With seven international borders, Poland is also an excellent base from which to visit other parts of Europe for research purposes (or as a break from your thesis). The country's main airport is Warsaw-Chopin, which offers links to most major global destinations. Other principal cities also have international airports, and cities on the northern coast, such as Gdańsk, offer ferry travel links.

Money and banking

Poland will eventually adopt the euro, but its present currency is the Zloty (zł). Private currency exchange counters called kantors are relatively common in travel locations and city centres and do not usually charge commission (though the exchange rates they offer may vary). You should be able to exchange major international currencies such as US dollars at kantors without problems. Other currencies may need to be taken to a bank or converted into travellers' cheques before you arrive. Polish banks are usually open between Monday and Friday and ATMs are common in towns and cities. Opening an account will usually require you to show your passport; some knowledge of Polish may also be helpful, though your university's international office may be able to assist you if you have problems communicating.

Communications

Post offices are available in towns and cities and are usually open between Monday and Friday. International mail should be deposited in red post boxes (green boxes are for domestic items). Public phones do not usually accept cash or tokens - instead you will probably need to purchase a pre-paid telephone card, but you can do this from most post offices and newsagents.

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