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Anastasia Menshikova about PhD in Sweden

A section of the Lab in which we share how the graduates of the St. Petersburg Higher School, who used to be our research interns, are doing.

How did you decide you wanted to get your PhD?
Of course, my decision to pursue a degree came about gradually. Even at the beginning of my undergraduate degree I was strongly attracted to the idea of working in scientific research for the foreseeable future at that time. I had accumulated some experience working on various stages of research projects during my time at Vyshka. I already knew then that it gave me pleasure, it was interesting to do, and it would be cool to be connected to science in the long run. Then I assumed that for the career trajectory that is associated with the academy will need to do at some point PhD, but the picture in my head was pretty blurry.
After the bachelor's I entered a master's program in the Netherlands. My program was focused entirely on science, it was a Research Master. The immersion in academia there was more concentrated, I understood that it was my field, I like to constantly learn and deal with new methods and literature, discuss articles and ideas with the guys and professors. In addition, social selection and social influence does its job. We communicated a lot within our study group, which consisted mostly of super talented and motivated guys. I think from this hodgepodge of friendship and constant competition it turned out that almost half of the group got into different doctoral programs. In short, after my first year of graduate school, I already knew for sure that I wanted to go to graduate school. There was also a pragmatic side - with as much experience and education as I had, a good position in academia was easier to find than in industry. And in a coronavirus pandemic especially.

What does a PhD mean to you?
Graduate school is primarily about contributing to yourself, rather than producing great articles and other scientific products for the benefit of the outside world. This is partly because at the PhD level, you're only building up your scientific muscle so far. So, it's great to invest in your expertise, invest in yourself in the future, and get paid a full salary for it. It's cool to be around people who do top science, learn from them, take advice, and also drink beer with them at the bar on Friday nights.

Why such a choice of university, how did you choose? Did the country matter to you? What factors were attractive?
I didn't choose the university, but rather the supervisor and the research team. The Institute of Analytical Sociology is a cool and well-known place, and they opened a position in a project that coincided well with my activities in graduate school; I applied and was accepted. I generally monitored this institute and several other places in Europe that were interesting to me during my last semester of graduate school. I didn't want to work with a boring subject or at a place I hadn't heard anything about. Graduate school is a lot of work and effort, and getting a degree in a place I had no warm feelings about was something I was wary of.

What do you do at university? What projects do you participate in?
It varies everywhere, so I can only tell you how it works for me. The standard contract is for 4 years, most of this time the graduate student must take courses that are relevant to the profile and improve the quality of scientific work. The rest of the time you need to write 3 or 4 articles that will eventually make up the doctoral dissertation. As a rule, a common framework and datasets are already in place. Or at least it's clear which way to go when you outline the skeletons of future articles.
I was hired for a specific project, it's about studying the discourse around immigration in Sweden based on text corpus of large Swedish newspapers, speakers' presentations in parliament over several decades, and posts from social media. So far I am working with two ideas, looking at the data and reading the literature, in parallel with courses in statistics and text analysis. Every two weeks I meet with supervisors, discuss my progress and where it is best to go next. We also have meetings throughout the Institute where we discuss important administrative issues or someone gives a presentation on their work. Many graduate students teach or assist professors in courses. I plan to get involved in teaching next year, too.
I even found a position in Zurich through Twitter! True, they didn't take me there.
The country only mattered to me in terms of how the doctoral system was set up and how comfortable the salary and stable contract were. I'm a little sad that I did not stay in the Netherlands, but there were no interesting positions in the right season for me to apply.

How do people choose universities for PhD in general?
My academic buddies chose with about the same strategy I described above. There are PhD aggregators, but they are not very helpful. My feeling is that the most important thing is networking and some awareness of what's going on in the field you're interested in. It's also important to talk to the students of the academic advisor you're going to, or at least someone in the department. In academic Twitter there are sometimes horror stories about inadequate academics. It is better to be on the safe side. Four years of working with an unpleasant person in an unhealthy atmosphere is not necessary.

What do you like most about your work/study? What is the hardest part?
As I said above, I like doing research in general, I like constantly learning and being among smart and experienced scientists. This has a downside - I feel a huge distance to the expertise and experience of my older colleagues. This sometimes involves Impostor syndrome. Then it begins to feel that I do not work hard enough and well, not read all the articles, not invested in networking:) But with time and support from friends, things fall into place, and I worry about it less.

How does your sense of self change as your career progresses? Do you feel more confident? Do you manage to fit into, say, structures? Publications, conferences, things like that?
You know, there's that meme, 'what if I was cool? Oh wait, I am.' I try to remind myself of that:) I worry at times about being unproductive and underachieving, but then I look at the global picture, and I realize that I'm actually making pretty good progress. I've been a PhD student at the Institute of Analytical Sociology for almost half a year, doing articles for the European Sociological Review with one of the professors in Utrecht's Department of Sociology. It's going pretty well, and I feel like I'm in my right place. Graduate school is a long-term project, and I'm still at the very beginning of it.

What do you do in your spare time?
Moving to another country and settling into a new job in the middle of a pandemic actually feels pretty weird, same with free time. When going out with friends is difficult, there are not many options for how I can entertain myself. Just recently I started learning Swedish. Besides the obvious Netflix and YouTube, I read, listen to podcasts, walk around quite a lot and look at buildings (Norrköping looks like Peter in places, nice!), bake pies and muffins and try to make hygge in my apartment:)