I moved to Sweden as an early career researcher – here’s what I learned

The pursuit of an academic career can mean moving to a different country. Here, Federica Di Biase shares lessons for early-career researchers who want to move to Sweden or have already done so

Federica Di Biase's avatar
University of Salerno ,University of Naples Federico II
27 Mar 2023
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Early career researcher balancing the many demands of their working life

Academic work often requires flexibility. This can mean being ready to move to some new place, possibly even overseas, to progress as a researcher and avoid career breaks. Yet moving can be hard, especially when it is done frequently and you are not really free to choose your destination. For this reason, reading about the positive experiences of colleagues in the country you will move to can be supportive and motivating.

I recently finished a five-month research period at Uppsala University in Sweden in the frame of a post-doc scholarship. Like every country, Sweden has its peculiarities. It offered opportunities I never imagined before my transfer and which proved inspiring.

My time there was valuable, so I want to share what I learned in order to prepare other early-career researchers (ECRs) interested in a research experience in Sweden.

1. Relaxed but not lazy

This is how I would describe the majority of the people I met while working at the university. It was a pleasant and supportive working environment, a place where my colleagues were highly productive and simultaneously did their best to avoid stress and enjoy the rest of their lives. This was very motivating for me both as an academic and as a person.

Working too many hours is unhealthy mentally and physically, and is unproductive, if not a complete waste of time. Almost all of us find it hard to strike the right work-life balance, especially at the beginning of a new research project. If you are surrounded by academics who respect breaks, work to timetables and foster a non-toxic work environment, it helps you to successfully manage daily tasks. After five months in such a department, I learned how to improve my academic life by respecting my time and working efficiently.

2. Exploit the fika as much as you can

The word “fika” can be translated as “coffee break”, but it is much more than that. Coffee or tea breaks are a must almost all over the world, but in Sweden the fika has cultural importance. It is a social occasion that is, in some ways, mandatory. Fika matches meetings, seminars, workshops, conferences. During a fika you can chill, leave your work duties behind for a while and talk with colleagues about stuff that is not necessarily work-related.

In an academic environment you could – and you must – exploit the fika to talk to your team, meet new people and build your academic network in a relaxed environment. Your daily tasks and your creativity will greatly benefit from that. Personally, I gained advice for a workshop and several positive suggestions for my research project during fika chats.

3. Cooperation instead of competition

Universities are often places where there are few positions and little money. Over time, that has transformed academia into a very competitive space where everyone seeks to advance their own position. Yet – to my big surprise – after working in Sweden I can tell a different story. The Swedish research environment I experienced is extremely collaborative and supportive. I received several proposals, ranging from invitations to co-write papers to cooperation in organising workshops and sessions at conferences. Cooperation is a key driver of success. It prevents ECRs feeling alone or lost in their daily work and can support progress towards longer term goals. Apart from sharing tasks, which reduces individual workloads, teamwork often results in higher quality work and boosts creativity.

4. Funding

There are many opportunities to prolong your work in Sweden, which you can find on Swedish university websites. You just need to look for them and apply. Once you are part of a Swedish university – even as a visiting researcher – you can apply for internal grants reserved for employees of or collaborators with the department. These grants are aimed at supporting a wide range of activities, such as organisation of and participation in workshops and conferences, writing papers, study travel and much more.

Last, but not least, if you are involved in a Swedish project, or if you want to propose a project in cooperation with a Swedish institution, you can apply at the Swedish Research Council, which supports research within all scientific fields.

I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to work in Sweden. It has made me conceive of my academic life and my research in a very different way.

For all ERCs who are looking for middle- to long-term positions in Sweden, I recommend enrolling in the mailing lists of Swedish universities to receive alerts about vacant positions. For researchers who are going to Sweden, I suggest they contact Sulf, a trade union and professional association for university teachers, researchers and doctoral candidates, to get all the necessary information about the benefits they can receive.

Federica Di Biase is a scientific consultant in archaeology and cultural heritage at the University of Salerno and Federica Web Learning at the University of Naples Federico II.

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