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PhD Programs in Finland

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

Less well known than its Scandinavian neighbours, Finland boasts a small number of institutions with a good track record. The University of Helsinki is ranked in the world’s top 100. The other characteristic of Finnish higher education is that it prides itself on providing free higher education to ALL, including non-Finnish citizens. Education is seen as having an important role in the development of the knowledge economy.

There has been a considerable expansion of postgraduate programmes in English to attract international students. Add to that a no-tuition fee policy for doctoral programmes, and Finland is becoming an attractive destination for international doctoral students.

Higher education

In Finland, higher education institutions essentially follow the Bologna three-tier system: Bachelor (three years)-Master (two years)-Doctorate (four years). Only universities (but not polytechnics, also called Universities of Applied Science) can award a PhD.

Doctoral education is delivered by Graduate Schools which are funded by the Finnish Ministry of Education. Their aim is to enhance doctoral research and training. They are the tool chosen to enhance collaboration between different universities in Finland, both in postgraduate education and in research.

It is worth noting that in Finland, the term 'postgraduate studies' usually refers to Doctoral studies i.e. studies after the Master's degree rather than the Masters degree level itself.

Fees and scholarships

Tuition fees

In Finland, there are no tuition fees for doctoral students (this is also true for most Masters programmes).

PhD student status

PhD studies are conducted by people who may be either university employees or have external funding: All must be enrolled with a university. However, your funding source will affect your PhD student status at the university and also other practical matters such as immigration, health care and housing options. You may therefore be a:

  • Doctoral student employed under a contract.

In addition to access to research facilities as any other member of staff, you will receive a salary and related social security benefits. As an employee, note that you will have to pay income tax. This status is common for students involved in national doctoral programmes (see 'scholarships' below).

  • Grant-funded doctoral student.

A student agreement, which is NOT an employment contract, should be drawn up between a doctoral student and an academic unit. The agreement will have details of your rights and responsibilities and that of the other research colleagues.
Interestingly, studentships/grants are less common in the natural sciences than in the arts or social sciences. In the natural sciences, PhD students are more frequently employees conducting their doctoral research in groups where facilities, equipment and other resources are readily available for all group members.

  • Self-funded doctoral student.

Other costs

PhD students have the option to become a member of the university or of the student union. This costs around €40. Other costs may include access to student facilities, such as sports centres, as well as buying textbooks and other materials.

Scholarships

Please note that it is usually not possible to apply for any Finnish scholarships before you have received a minimum of a conditional offer of admissions.

  • University scholarships.

A small number of grants and scholarships may be offered by universities but the majority will be discipline-specific and available competitively from Graduate Schools as those at the University of Helsinki or Aalto University are.

  • National doctoral programmes.

Doctoral candidates may also apply for national doctoral programmes, the majority of which are organised as a collaboration between several universities. Studies are to be carried out on full-time basis and doctoral candidates receive a salary. Information is available in individual academic schools or faculties of universities.

  • Erasmus Mundus: A list of Erasmus Mundus programmes involving Finnish universities is available here.
  • Rotary Foundation Fellowships may be available. Candidates should contact the Rotary Foundation within their district.
  • Fulbright  scholarships (US citizens only).

PhD structure

Finnish university students tend to be very independent. A PhD lasts around four years and the main focus during a PhD is doing your own research, which you will start from year one. In parallel, you will undertake compulsory coursework and take part in courses, seminars, and conferences. These will provide credits which are required to progress, as well as the skills to become a researcher and an expert in your own field. Courses for PhD students are organised by faculties, doctoral schools, groups of universities or by independent research institutes.

At the end, you are likely to have your final examination as a public defence (rather than a closed-door oral exam), although this is an area of debate at present. There are, therefore, variations across universities or within universities. The University of Helsinki has some in depth information about the doctoral examination.

Entry requirements and admission

Some universities may accept doctoral study applications at all times, while others may have specific application periods. The exact dates may vary from one university to another, or even within one single university, depending on the programme.

Entry requirements

As a minimum, PhD applicants should hold a Masters degree, although direct entry into a PhD is possible with a Bachelor. If your qualification is from a country other than Finland, your eligibility is decided based on:

  • Your academic performance.
  • Language skills: English or Finnish if you are opting to pursue a masters in the country’s language.
  • Other faculty-specific requirements, if applicable.

Application process

You will have to apply directly to your chosen university.

Careers and employment

In Finland, the PhD is still considered as the qualification of choice for those aiming to start a career in academia.

It’s not just academic jobs that PhD graduates can look for. With a greater emphasis on transferable skills, PhD graduates will be highly sought after in private or public organisations which value their enhanced analytical, reflective, and critical abilities.

Universities have careers services that can advise you on employment opportunities. They will have local knowledge of the labour market in Finland and in Scandinavia so if you intend on staying after your studies, it is worth consulting with them. Aarresaari is a network of Academic Career Services representing 19 Finnish Universities. The network offers services for university students, graduates and employers and aims to build bridges between students and employers.

If you require a visa to study in Finland, check what the post-study employment situation is. Aarresaari also has links and advice for non-Finnish nationals seeking employment in Finland after their degree.

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