I have a lecture coming up this week. During the lecture I will, along with another grad student colleague of mine, talk about my experiences as a grad student in the University of Helsinki’s Doctoral Programme in History and Cultural Heritage.
The intended audience is current history students mostly doing their Master’s, and I will receive five (five!) full credits for preparing and conducting this one 90 minute lecture with another person. Ridiculously easy credits. Not to mention it will also go into my bank of 5% yearly teaching duty as dictated by my contract of employment. To top it off, I thought I might as well write about this topic in here too, and use this pondering to fill ½ of my self-dictated monthly quota for blog posting. A very profitable lecture, all in all.
The lecture will be held dialogue form with each topic prompted by an interview type question, so for the purposes of this blog post I will simply interview myself. Who knows, maybe I’ll make a FAQ page for the blog out of it later, even though no one has ever asked me any questions so far.
[Author’s note postscript: I was halfway through writing this when I realized I might as well have written it in Finnish, as it concerns Finns first and foremost. But oh well.]
How and why did I end up as a Grad Student?
While I was studying for my Bachelor’s and Master’s, it became clear to me that the University of Helsinki’s BA and MA History programmes only prepared students for two professions; historians and history teachers. Fortunately, I had already decided to study up until I at least had my PhD even before entering university, so this realization did not bother me much. It did make me feel for those student colleagues of mine who desired neither of these career paths though, as all who opt out of both are left to carve out a path for themselves job-wise.
…However, one could also argue that if you decide to study history in Finland in the first place – a discipline with no job guarantee at the end – all that follows is on you. I was willing to try my hand at research and if that didn’t work out, I would have been ready to go do something completely removed from my education. This likely had an influence on my studying pace, as while I was ready to switch careers if I couldn’t make it as a researcher, I was less enchanted by the prospect of potentially wasting my time as a student for any longer than necessary. Ultimately, I settled on a pace which got me through BA and MA in three and a half years, which for me was a pace that allowed me to maintain a relaxed mood while progressing swiftly. More than wanting to become a researcher, I wanted to acquire at least semi-enjoyable employment to sustain myself and build a life. But, becoming a researcher was my first option.
Why did I want to become a researcher? Because I love the nature of the work and the independence that goes with it.
Why did I want a PhD? 1) You cannot actually be a researcher without one. 2) Honestly, I just kind of like status symbols.
After graduating with my MA, I quickly applied to become a PhD student upon graduating with my Master’s Degree. I was promptly granted he privilege, as this in itself requires nothing from the University apart from keeping one on their lists. Considering our uni gains both funding and clout based on how many students graduate, there are few incentives not to grant grad student privileges, as we are all ultimately responsible for our own source of money.
What is my funding/employment situation like, and how does it affect my research?
As I graduated right after the Autumn grant cycle of 2017 had ended, I worked for a year in a different job before the good/viable grant applications came around again. Having gotten used to earning a monthly paycheck and generally not being very good at receiving rejections, I already felt like I might drop the whole thing completely if I received no funding on my first try. I hate lingering without a sense of direction, and in November 2018, I had just landed a job that I enjoyed and which paid fairly well compared to what I’d been doing before. Subsequently, even as I was invited to an interview for the paid four-year positions as a PhD Candidate at the uni, I did not dare to dream too much and assured myself I would be fine whatever the result.
Long story short: I got the job, and this created the best funding situation I could have asked for out of all options available to me at this time. Simply put, I have a contract of employment at the university between January 2019 and December 2022, which includes 95% research work and 5% of teaching. The pay is not that great, but the other benefits of the contract more than make up for it in my current life situation.
For instance, as an employee instead of a grantee, I have access to all the employee benefits of the university as well as freedom from having to think about money at all. A four-year contract frees all my time (sans the 5% that goes to teaching) into focusing my energy for my own benefit, and I can plan more long-term than most of my researcher colleagues can. Additionally, I am free to schedule my whole year according to my own preferences, since I report my work hours by the year instead of the day-by-day basis most jobs require. I am basically my own manager, and I am working with secure source of payment on a project that is mainly for my own career benefit. A good deal from my perspective.
Another good thing to note is that most grad students have to constantly think of where they will receive their funding next year, and consequently spend a lot of time that could go into research by writing grant applications instead. I have to deal with none of that, on top of which I can feel at ease as my law-mandated maternity leave soon begins. While the uni is not required to extend my contract for an equal duration of time that I will be away, they are very likely to do so both because of equality reasons as well as to support me in finishing my dissertation. The institution doesn’t benefit from my project at all until I actually graduate with my PhD, so they have every incentive to help me through.
What kind of support does my University provide me?
From my perspective, the ways in which University of Helsinki supports their grad students and cheers them on is way out of proportion and frankly makes me feel second-hand-embarrassment for those that require all this help – unless these occasions are the only chances for them to further their dissertation (in case they don’t have funding, for example). To demonstrate, here are just a few screenshots of events, courses, and resources offered to grad students:
All I personally want and need is to be left alone to work in peace, and I am glad to say the university has stepped up to this task splendidly.
From my perspective, what other things than research should grad students do?
In Finland, at least, they should try to acquire pedagogic credentials for teaching at university level as this will be an asset if they later apply to open positions at the uni. My own employment situation serves me well here again, as the courses are filled with a preference for current employees. Another thing they should of course do is attend conferences, build personal relationships within the field and – if possible – attempt to write at least one or two articles for publication before they graduate. All of this will help future employment.
Describe an average day of your life as a grad student.
For me, a most average day from the past year would go something like this, from waking to returning home.
5:55 — I wake up, grab my pre-packed gym bag and catch a bus to the gym that is located right next to my office.
8:30 — Finished with gym and ready at the office to start the day. To get distractions out of my system, I use the first 30-60 minutes of the day sipping coffee and going through my preferred news and social media platforms. I will not open any of these pages before my workday is done after this.
9:30-10:30 — This time slot I will use for something that needs the most concentration and creative energy out of all the things I could choose to do that day, as I am still energized. First I will answer any emails that need reacting, though.
10:30-10:45 — Lunch break, during which I will eat a lunch I made for myself yesterday while watching a YouTube video essay of my choice.
10:45-12:00 — If I haven’t experienced an energy drop yet, I continue doing something that needs good creativity and concentration. Usually this equals something like editing the main body of text of my dissertation, writing a blog post, planning a course or a conference paper, etc.
12:00-14:00 — This is usually the low energy point of my day, but even if I’m feeling fine, I will switch things up at this point at the latest anyway to avoid boredom by staying on one task for too long. Usually at this point of the day I either read through sources or literature while taking notes, as this is semi-passive but ultimately requires a lot of time. It’s the perfect kind of work for when I feel a bit slower, because I find that reading takes very little out of me if it’s only few hours at a time.
14:00-16:00 — During this time I will do whatever I most feel like doing and might switch between doing different tasks a lot. Usually I reserve the easiest tasks for this final slot of the day, such as doing meta-work to keep all sides of my project in control and fresh in mind.
After I leave work at 16:00 – apart from checking my work email once in the evening – I don’t think about or do anything related to work for the rest of the day.
Is being a grad student worth it?
If you really enjoy research and want to become a researcher in the future, then yes. Otherwise, absolutely not.