To have a free PhD position

​“Free” PhD positions, that is, the specialisation within the research field is not determined from the beginning, is somewhat unusual at the university at large but usual in mathematics. Linnea Hietala and João Pedro Paulos are two of the PhD students who are employed at free positions.

Photo Linnea HietalaLinnea read freestanding courses at the Mid Sweden University, initially at a distance, which she put together for a master’s degree. She has always wanted to study something with mathematics and thought it felt natural to continue to PhD studies. When it was time to apply she found free positions in Göteborg and Uppsala, and Göteborg was first in offering a position.

– I did not really know what I wanted to specialise in, only that it would be fun with something else than complex analysis which the Mid Sweden University focused on. The director of postgraduate studies suggested three different supervisors whom I spoke to, and then I had Hjalmar Rosengren as a first-year supervisor. It felt good, so I have continued on that track, which deals with lattice models in the area of physical combinatorics, which in the long run can be used by physicists. Jules Lamers, who began as a postdoc and became my co-supervisor, has also meant a lot for me to get into the area.

Photo João Pedro PaulosJoão began his university studies in physics at Instituto Superior Técnico, in Lisboa. However, he soon found out that it was mathematics he really enjoyed. The subject of his master thesis was operator algebras, and then the plan was to continue with a PhD in Lisboa. But due to unexpected policy changes there were no grants that year and João had to reconsider. He had a period of doubt if he would be good enough for a PhD position and sent his CV to different companies, but realised that he at least should try. He then looked for free positions in Sweden and Denmark.

– I did not know much about the universities there except their existence, but the Nordic countries have a reputation of being tolerant, relaxed and comfortable, as well as peaceful and serene. Besides, there is also the weather – I really like the cold! As said, I looked for free positions, as I did not find any concrete project with which I would feel comfortable. I have had Maria Roginskaya as my first-year supervisor and I am now working on a special problem in functional analysis. This first year has been a bit experimental and there is still some flexibility as to what my dissertation will be about. In the long run, I would like to work on a topic involving set theory and functional analysis.

Both Linnea and João think that the teaching part of the positions is a big advantage. Linnea, who now begins her third year, is now responsible for the mathematical part in a course for future primary school teachers at the Faculty of Education. She has taught future teachers for all age categories, but also future civil engineers. To be a teacher was a childhood dream she had, and she also taught half a year at upper-secondary schools in Sundsvall before beginning her PhD position. She still finds teaching fun, and she likes when the course coordinators have clear thoughts about what they want with the course and are able to convey them to exercise supervisors and others.

For João, the teaching duties that came with the position were one of the most appealing things about it and something he at least could feel really comfortable with. Last year he held exercises in linear algebra, through an agreement that he could do it in English. In retrospect, he regrets that he neglected to learn Swedish during his first year since this narrows down the selection of courses he could teach. This semester he just has Matlab classes. He tries to give them in a way which is interesting and appealing to the students. Nevertheless, he hopes he will teach other non Matlab classes in the future, as he considers that he can be more useful for the students on those.

Linnea nevertheless finds it was a bit difficult with the free positions since she did not know the research areas here and who were working in them. She believes that it probably feels different if you have done the undergraduate education here as well. It is also somewhat confusing with the different rules for Chalmers and the University of Gothenburg, as well as the fact that the divisions and graduate schools have different boundaries, which makes it difficult for the PhD students to ask each other about what is applicable. But the Committee for PhD studies at the department, which Linnea is a member of, now works for a joint degree that applies to both universities, which will facilitate. She is also one of the organisers of the welcome meeting for new PhD students and a new buddy programme for them.

João still has a mostly positive view of PhD life in Sweden. His biggest impression is of how relaxed and helpful people are. He likes that the academic life is not very hierarchical, as for example that you do not have to use titles all the time, and that the university cares about the personal time of the employees. Chalmers helped him in finding somewhere to live, which otherwise might be one of the greatest obstacles in Göteborg, and he experienced no big administrative problems when moving here. João, as well as Linnea, shares office with another PhD student, but neither of them have had any problems with this. And the conditions in terms of equipment he thinks are really good.

Text and photos: Setta Aspström

Published: Fri 29 Sep 2017. Modified: Mon 02 Oct 2017