“I have worried that staying in academia will make it difficult for me to find a job in the ‘real world’, but my anxiety has been alleviated after examining my potential through the lens of transferable skills and by conducting informational interviews, thus revealing a more concrete picture of how to find a job in Finland.”

Navigating the Finnish System as an International PhD Candidate

If you’re not fluent in Finnish, Finland’s job market can be frustrating. Wasiq Silan explains that Finnish businesses should provide language support and accept employees with intermediate Finnish skills.

In January 2018, Finland’s Trade and Innovation Office in Taipei shared a feature from website This is Finland about studying and working in Finland. Unfortunately, it merely provides a set of links regarding administrative procedures and turns a blind eye to the true difficulties foreigners face here. Such is often the case with initiatives that seek to lure people to Finland to work and study.

If you don’t know much about Finland, its promotional materials might have you mistakenly believing that the country always has beautiful, sunny weather. And if you’re not familiar with its labor market, you might think that high-paying jobs are easily found in this land of happiness.

My experience, like that of many other foreigners, has been radically different. And while almost everyone has a love-hate relationship with jobhunting in Finland, the most recurrent complaint is that Finnish employers often require high-level Finnish skills while themselves using English in the workplace, and some jobs may not even require much Finnish at all.

In 2011, after completing a one-year exchange program at the University of Helsinki, I decided to remain in Finland and entered the Swedish School of Social Science’s international master’s program in ethnic relations, integration and diversity. For me it was a success: I enjoyed immensely the international atmosphere, and I developed solid academic skills, cultivated critical thinking and established bonds with inspiring friends, all of which contributed to reclaiming my indigenous roots and continuing with my doctoral studies in 2014.

Yet, finding a career in Finland remains a daunting task. I was shocked to learn of fellow international jobseekers’ shared frustration with job-hunting in Finland, regardless of their alma mater (e.g., University of Helsinki, Aalto, Laurea, Haaga-Helia, Metropolia) and field (social science, business, law, mechanical engineering, computer sciences, etc.).

In one case, a colleague returned to her home country after studying for just one year because Finland offered insufficient hands-on learning and career prospects. Graduates of the program explained how it is nearly impossible for foreigners to find permanent positions: one had to take a job at an ice cream kiosk while sending out hundreds of CVs before finally landing her first contract.

My own funding from Taiwan ended soon after I commenced my PhD program. I had wanted to contribute to society, and I saw great value in applying my skills as a researcher, but it remained a distant dream. After two years of unsuccessful grant applications killed my motivation to continue, I sought new opportunities away from academia.

However, I ultimately decided to stay in Finland because I had a Finnish partner, which meant my visa would not expire. I was also fortunate to have the support of numerous friends and mentors, which resulted in my successful application for a grant from the Finnish Cultural Foundation in 2017.

Finland’s labor market has undergone rapid internationalization in recent years, but still many employers have excellent Finnish as a prerequisite (regardless of whether the job itself requires fluent Finnish or not). I have seen many job advertisements written in English, but at the bottom of the page they often state that “native-like Finnish language proficiency” is required. This is something I heard again and again from international jobseekers.

It should not be hard to find work in Finland. Over the years, the number of available jobs has increased, while the Finnish workforce has diminished in size. Although more people are needed in the labor market, it is still difficult for someone like me to find a job.

For many who come from somewhere outside the EU, such as Taiwan, job opportunities are limited to sectors where Mandarin Chinese is an obvious asset: tourism, restaurants, teaching Mandarin and so on. Learning Finnish is an obvious choice for immigrants who want to access a wider range of jobs but, as many know, it is an extremely challenging language and often requires years of devoted study.

I have met many international students from the humanities and social sciences who have received a master’s or doctoral degree in Finland and wanted to find a job here but, when they failed to do so, were forced to leave. Over the past decade, this problem doesn’t seem to have improved. (On a positive note, the University of Helsinki has acknowledged this serious “brain drain” phenomenon and has allocated resources and taken concrete actions to amend the problem – for example, by offering career services and workshops for international students.)

One clear message is that most doctoral graduates are not going to work in academia. Thus, we PhD students need to transfer our know-how from academia to the world beyond the ivory towers of the university. The researchers at career development organization Vitae demonstrate how concretely such skills can be transferred from doctoral studies by dividing them into four domains: knowledge and intellectual abilities; personal effectiveness; research governance and organization; and engagement, influence and impact.

Indeed, doctoral research is far more than purely a scholarly pursuit. We are doing much more than reading books and writing a dissertation. First of all, there is the (vicious) game of grant application: we apply for grants and relentlessly try to convince the foundations and universities that we are worthy of their support. To do so, we develop skills of rapid information-seeking and self-promotion (mainly of our research proposal).

Second, because we are constantly under pressure to “publish or perish,” we are also constantly under pressure to “submit, revise and resubmit,” as if enduring the principle of karma and all its consequences.

Third, we learn how to effectively communicate our research and our emotional, psychological and mental wellbeing to our supervisors. Because 99% of supervisors are not from Asia and thus are not familiar with Taiwan’s history and education system, it is very much up to us to resolve the overwhelming self-doubt and anxiety resulting from unsuccessful communication with supervisors. These aspects are a common part of my life as a doctoral candidate.

Two tips that have been repeatedly emphasized in the above-mentioned workshops are: identifying your transferable skills and making use of interviews. When I personally look through the lens of transferable skills, I discern many valuable abilities.

Grant applications require time management and analysis, evaluation of large amounts of information and self-promotion. It also cultivates personal qualities such as perseverance and self-confidence. Submission of papers requires efficiency, risk management, adroitness, project planning, self-esteem, coping strategies for dealing with criticism and time management. Communication with supervisors enhances cross-cultural dialogue and demands critical thinking, self-awareness, stress management and networking.

According to a survey conducted by Duunitori, Finnish companies are most eager to hire highly-motivated employees and team players. Previous work experience comes third. But how does one connect with these companies?

One strategy is to conduct informational interviews to simultaneously network and get familiar with job opportunities. Students are instructed to find a “role model” working in our “dream job” (regardless of whether this person is in academia or elsewhere) through LinkedIn and investigate whether that person has a connection to the University of Helsinki, where we can start “networking.”

For example, if you want to work in academia, you can interview a professor in your field. Or, if you want to start your own business, you can interview a person who has a start-up and/or a person with a similar background as yourself. The alumni association can also assist in connecting with the person, if need be, after which you sort out a time to conduct the interview. Questions may cover the interviewee’s background, how they found the job, what kind of positions they have worked in and what advice they can offer.

I have worried that staying in academia will make it difficult for me to find a job in the “real world,” but my anxiety has been alleviated after examining my potential through the lens of transferable skills and by conducting such interviews, thus revealing a more concrete picture of how to find a job in Finland.

I hope to stay in Finland, either within academia or elsewhere. My hope is to continue working within my passion as an intercultural educator, bridging my experiences in Taiwan and Finland. I applaud the country’s progress in adding more career-oriented elements to international master’s programs, in particular the launch of the Talent Boost program, which is a beacon of hope for international students.

Nevertheless, the struggle remains real for the majority of international students. Systemic change is needed, and I urge more Finnish organizations to take the initiative in providing language support and to accept intermediate Finnish when employing international talent.

Text Wasiq Silan
Doctoral Candidate,
Swedish School of Social Science and Faculty of Social Sciences
Photo: Ruby Ying-Ju Lin

Painetussa lehdessä sivu 36