Having just submitted an exam this morning, I came to the realisation that, despite having spent seven months studying abroad, I’ve yet to actually address the academic side of my year in this blog. I like to think that this is because the opportunity to travel and immerse myself in Swedish culture has been much more representative of my experience so far than any discussions of exams or assignments, but they are nevertheless all part of the package.
Whilst I don’t think it’s unfair to say that, for most people applying for a year abroad, the prime motivation tends to be the opportunity to live in a new and exciting place, academic considerations are undoubtedly also important.
So, what’s it like to be an undergrad student in Uppsala?
Well, firstly, really different from my previous two years at Durham. I knew that learning in a foreign environment would be a big change, but I had no idea what to expect from the pace or style of teaching, or the workload. Every subject is taught differently, so I can only really speak for the humanities, but here’s my two cents for what they’re worth:
- The year is divided into two semesters – running from the end of August to mid-January, and then mid-January to the end of May. Something worth noting about this system is that it’s far more accommodating than its British counterpart in terms of the opportunity for students to stay for half the year. This is pretty handy if you’ve somewhere else to be for the other five months, but, for those of us registered for the whole academic year, it also means you’ve got to be prepared for a lot of reluctant goodbyes after Christmas. The majority of the people I befriended in August ended up leaving mid-January, which made an already cold and gloomy month that little bit more miserable, but thankfully I’d made some wonderful British pals amongst the international crowd, who were also sticking the full year out.
- Holidays don’t really exist… This was something I’d spotted when applying, but – used to Durham’s generous month at Christmas and five weeks at Easter – had assumed I’d misunderstood. I hadn’t. There are no official holiday periods in the academic calendar, with only national holidays guaranteeing time off. Between modules, it’s usual to have a few days or a week clear, but, taking Easter for example, there’s only Good Friday and Easter Monday off-timetable. This can take a bit of getting used to, and makes booking trips a little more challenging, but it’s certainly not impossible to travel.
- Teaching is modular, with most modules comprising 7.5 ECTS. The standard format would be four 7.5 modules taken back-to-back, per semester, but this can vary a lot.
- So far, I’ve taken modules in the department of cultural anthropology, modern languages, economic history, social and economic geography, and history. The method of teaching has varied, but has generally focused more on lectures than seminars, with a couple of two-hour lectures per week as standard. My next module is seminar-based, but so far, their absence has been one of the most noticeable differences for me, as I’d become accustomed to them on quite a frequent basis at Durham, and learnt the hard way to prepare adequately…
- One of the nicest differences is the practically stress-free assessment that the Swedish system seems to encourage. The knowledge that this year doesn’t contribute to my final grade is always reassuring, and takes a lot of the pressure off, but regardless, the system here seems designed to minimise stress – a model I think British universities could learn a lot from. Firstly, there’s the exams, which (though admittedly aren’t ideal – often involving bike rides in the dark to reach locations very far from campus for an 8am start), rather than rinsing you of knowledge in the smallest amount of time feasible for you to write legibly, actually set the clock hours beyond the time necessary for completion. The prospect of a five hour exam is initially pretty daunting, but when you realise you’re only given that much time so everyone can work at their own pace, and walking out after an hour is perfectly acceptable, it all becomes a lot easier. Re-sits are also far from the terror they’ve become at home, being released only a few weeks after the original, and lecturers actively encouraging students not to turn up to the initial exam if they’re under-prepared. Another perk is the take-home exam, a set of questions released by email, which are submitted online after a period of time. With these, you can work entirely at your own pace, with whatever resources you desire, even at home in your pyjamas, if that’s your jam.
- Studying in the U.K. had made me accustomed to pretty erratic sleeping-patterns and hours of work, with the first all-nighter a veritable rite of passage for the uni student at home. In Sweden, however, the student culture is far closer to the world of real work. This can be seen most clearly in the hours libraries are open. Who knew that the 24/7 Billy B was such a blessing? The university main library here, Carolina Rediviva, closes at 7pm on a weekday, and 4pm on a weekend. I love the idea of being sufficiently organised to pack-up work in the early evening like a real adult, but I’m also not completely naive… I think it says a lot about Swedish culture that, whilst the libraries shut at seven, you can rely on cafés to be open until 10pm. Priorities.