The Greek medical doctor who came to Sweden as an exchange student and who shares his insights on job hunting, patience and flat hierarchies
Tell us about when you decided to move to Sweden!
The whole story started back in 2001. At that time, I was a student at the university in Heraklion, in Crete, I come from Greece. I took the opportunity to come to Sweden as an exchange student. Why Sweden? That was actually chance, Sweden was the only country that could accept students speaking English and not Swedish.
Was this an Erasmus exchange?
OK, so you started off as an exchange student in Sweden!
Yes. So, I came here and I was here for a whole term, it was fall term. The first taste was this splendid Swedish autumn and winter (laughing). But, it was then that I got the idea that I liked it here and I said to myself “Why not try to come here and work after my graduation?”.
What did you like about Sweden back then?
First of all, I thought that there was more order and tidiness in Sweden when it comes to living here. Things were calm. My reference was Larissa, my hometown in Greece, which is a quite large city but not as busy as Athens, and then Heraklion, which is equally large but a lot more chaotic. I liked that the tempo was slower here, people respected rules and regulations and I liked how you consider your fellow citizens here.
And you were in Stockholm back then?
I was in Stockholm, yes. And then at the hospital, that was the most positive chock! I was used to this mentality where in each clinic you have the professor and then the consultants and then the residents and at the bottom of the food chain comes the students. You have to show your respect and whatever is asked for, you have to do. I came here and saw what the attitude was like between students and staff working at the clinic, regardless of rank. Nurses, doctors, senior consultants or professors with 30 years of experience…it didn’t matter. You could sit with them, have lunch, breakfast, a cup of coffee. Talk about things at the clinic or life in general. And that was very striking. I remember thinking “Hm, this is how you earn respect. You don’t need to demand it just because you have a title”.
It sounds like you are describing a more flat organisation than what you were used to?
Now, you are still working at a hospital, do you still have the same idea of this?
Actually, yes. I remember being a little surprised from time to time, because people coming from other parts of Sweden thought that my hospital, I am currently working at Karolinska, was quite hierarchical in Swedish terms. They thought that things were very stiff. And I thought “are you kidding me?”.
When did you end up actually moving here?
After my exchange period, I went back to Heraklion and finished my studies in 2003. When I went back, me and my classmate who had also been in Sweden with me, we both started Swedish lessons in Crete with a Swedish speaking lady who was married to a Greek. So, the interest was there and when I graduated, I had to do this type of internship between graduation and residency, which I did in my hometown. The plan was to stay with my parents and save some money to be able to support myself while looking for jobs in Sweden. In the middle of 2005, before finishing my internship, I started looking for a job.
That means you have been here for almost 15 years?
Yesterday was 14 years exactly!
Congratulations on your anniversary!
So, when you actually made the move, you already had some experience from Sweden and you were prepared. You even studied a little Swedish before. But, can you tell us something about what was different about moving here than what you expected?
To be honest, I have been quite lucky in many aspects. My reference is friends who are also colleagues, and they have also come to Sweden to find work. I know finding a place to stay is difficult, but for me it went smoothly. At first, I had an apartment arranged by the Karolinska Institute. What I found difficult, was to learn Swedish. I had these private lessons in Greece, but then there was a gap. I was reading newspapers and expanding my vocabulary, but if you don’t practice Swedish, you don’t really develop your language. My first job here was as a PhD student, and not as a medical doctor, so I could work in English. That made things even harder. When I started attending courses in Swedish, I was working in a lab where the environment was international, but I had Swedish lab mates. I was trying to convince them to speak Swedish to me when no one else was around. But that has been a pain in the neck! Because Swedes are so polite. If you make mistakes, they don’t want to tell you. And it is so easy to switch to English.
They want to speak English a lot of the time, too!
Yes. I think this has been one of the biggest difficulties I have come across.
On the topic of expectations, did you expect Swedish to come a little easier or more natural in the beginning?
I don’t think I had any expectations like that, but I don’t think I thought it would be that hard to get some practice with Swedes, here.
Yes, it makes sense that you thought people would speak Swedish to you in Sweden! So, what happened? I heard you speaking Swedish before the interview, and your Swedish is excellent. If I would just hear you speaking Swedish, I wouldn’t even know that you weren’t from here originally. How did you reach that level of Swedish?
First of all it was because of courses that I took in the beginning. But most of it has come from daily exercise. Actually speaking the language. I was telling my supervisor that we could have meetings in Swedish, I started reading patient journals in Swedish…gradually, it became more natural.
You actively put yourself in situations where you would speak Swedish or use Swedish.
Do you wish there was something you would have known before moving to Sweden so you could better prepare yourself?
Another difficulty was to find a job, even as a PhD student.
Could you go into that a little deeper?
Yes, first, when I was in Greece, I started sending e-mails. The first attempt was to find work as a resident. I was sending e-mails in English to different clinics. No one replied. So I thought, OK, residency doesn’t work. Then I will try something similar to the Greek internship in Sweden. This was not necessary for me since I already had my license to practice medicine, but I did not mind. I could start there so I could easily get into the Swedish system, get more accustomed to it and so forth. When I started sending e-mails for that, it was either no answer or I got an answer saying that I was over-qualified.
Yes. Then, I had another classmate at the university who was a year older than me. He had also been an exchange student, and at that time he was a PhD student. I thought that maybe I could do what he did and find a PhD position. Maybe that could be a way into the system. I started e-mailing group leaders at Karolinska Institute. And today I am like “What was I thinking?”.
Why do you say that?
Because, still, there were no answers, I mean I was e-mailing professors who are busy and are getting hundreds of e-mails every day.
And usually if you apply for a PhD position, it is advertised as any job and you apply for it in a formal way with a CV and so on.
Yes. But at that time, I was not just applying to formally announced positions, I was also just contacting places to express my interest in working for them. So, there was no response on that front either. So, when my internship in Greece was finished, I came to Stockholm for a couple of weeks and knocked on doors, literally. Which I, in hindsight, doubt a little, because it didn’t really work, but this was how I found my PhD position in the long run. But this whole process was a little disappointing. Why aren’t they replying? Of course, now I know that most professors are not able to reply to all the e-mails they receive.
But that was impossible for you to know back then. You tried out these strategies, and they didn’t really work. If you were in the same situation today, would you just not do those things or did you find a different strategy that worked?
I would probably ask more. The people around group leaders, I would ask them how it works.
And nowadays, at the departments at universities there is usually a Study adviser that you can ask too. Let’s move back to present time. What is your favorite thing about Sweden?
My favorite thing is still that there is order in how things work. Daily, maybe trivial things: coming in contact with a bank or a public authority. I have a sense that it is much easier than in Greece. It is maybe just a call or an e-mail.
You know which steps to take.
Yes. Maybe things in Greece are better now than fourteen years ago, but I think the difference is still huge. I have come to this insight after all these years here, that we have a very ideal image of Sweden and the Northern and Western European countries, that everything is perfect. It is not perfect, but it is much better. There are still problems, but some things were solved a long time ago. Things that we are still struggling with in Greece.
It sounds like you are really getting into the Swedish culture. Relating to what you said earlier about working at a hospital here, and how the hierarchy is flatter compared to a lot of other countries, but a lot of your Swedish colleagues will still think there is a lot of hierarchy. Probably there is a similarity there when it comes to what you are saying about getting in contact with Swedish authorities; you find it easy and accessible but if you would ask a Swede I am sure a lot of people would say the opposite! Even if things are working well, there is always room for improvement, how can we make this even better.
You told us about when you were looking for a job, you knocked on doors and you sent a few e-mails that you wouldn’t have sent today. Have you made any other mistakes here in Sweden that you can share with us?
Back at that time, when I was knocking on doors, I wasn’t actually prepared for sitting in an interview. I don’t know why it never crossed my mind! But you know, at one of these occasions, one of the professors actually opened their door, and I got questions which today I know are very typical for an interview. But back then I was just sitting there with my mouth open, thinking “what does she mean? How would I know what I want to do in five years?”. That would be something that I would do differently.
To actually prepare yourself for the person letting you in and asking you questions about the job?
Yes. I was better prepared the next time.
Do you think it is very different going to an interview in Sweden than in Greece for instance?
You know what, I haven’t been to an interview in Greece.
Well, then of course you weren’t prepared!
No, but I still ask myself why I didn’t ask someone what kind of questions could come up, what I should be careful of and how I should prepare myself?
What is your best advice for someone who wants to move to Sweden? A doctor for instance?
Have patience. My experience is that I haven’t had a hard time communicating with people and getting closer to them. That is another stereotype we have in Greece, that northerners are a bit stiff and not very open. But this is something I have realized, that it’s not true, not all Swedes or Germans are cold or rigid. For me, the difficulties have been practical. I know for example housing is a problem. Language of course. If you are coming here temporarily, English can do the work. But I think that if you plan to stay in Sweden for a few years, it will always pay off if you know the language.
It definitely opens doors. When you mention the language part in combination with patience, it is also a matter of what perspective you have. When you think about learning a whole new language, a very small language that you have never been exposed to before, and learning any language as an adult is a challenge…and people learn this language and are basically able to work and have a functioning life in Swedish in just two or three years. To me, that’s amazing. But when you come here, if you expect to be fluent after one year, three years feels like an eternity. However, I agree with you, if you have the patience and you put down the effort, it’s going to enrich your life, open doors for you and today, if you are a doctor, you actually need a certain level of Swedish to obtain your Swedish licence.
Yes, and as I said, I have friends who were more or less forced to learn Swedish, much faster because they started working directly. They had no option. Better or worse to do it like that? They made it, and I admire them for it. I know they had a tough time in the beginning…
…If you are forced into it maybe you have negative feelings connected with the language. So, advice: be patient and learning the language is a very good investment. Before moving to Sweden, maybe a good idea could be to make a draft of a time line: how much time do I think I need to find a job, a place to live and maybe get started with my Swedish and maybe even speak Swedish? So you have this idea of how much time you will need. Manage your expectations.
Do you know the word Smultronställe?
No, this is a new one!
I am testing your Swedish now! This is just a term to describe a hidden gem. A place that is special to you, but that not a lot of people know about. Like a special place that you are usually not supposed to tell anyone about, but I am asking you now anyways if you have a place like this in Sweden?
On the north side of Södermalm in Stockholm, there is a little alley on a mountain where you can walk and everything is green, especially in the spring and summertime. There is a little kindergarten along this alley and then a little park. And the view from this point is fantastic. You have the old town, Stockholm downtown, you see how the metro goes back and forth…Mariaberget!
Mariaberget! That’s a perfect hidden gem! Even for Stockholmers, I would say not everyone knows about it. It’s hidden behind a big street so you can’t see it.
Yes, someone needs to tell you about it.
Exactly! And that is the perfect definition of a smultronställe! Do you have a favorite Swedish word?
I have come to love lagom*.
That’s a popular word! Also, a word that you usually love or hate.
Yes. There is an expression in ancient Greek: “Everything in measure”. In Greek, we have this ancient expression, but in Swedish you manage to say this in just one word.
I guess our expression would be “Lagom är bäst”, meaning “lagom is best”. How would you translate lagom?
Not too little, not too much.
Yes, and you can apply this word to situations, to people, to food, to experiences…Do you agree that lagom is best?
What is your favorite Swedish food?
Wow, I’m impressed! You are really turning into a proper Swede. We have a Spotify playlist that we add Swedish music to every week. Do you have a song we could add?
I used to listen to a song on repeat back in 2001. Patrik Isaksson with the song “Ruta 1″*.
That was back when you were an exchange student?
Do you have anything that you would like to add before we end the interview?
Fourteen years later, I am still here. Things have shown that my decision was right. I have a few friends who after one or two years went back to Greece. But, if you are looking for a country to live in where everything is working, flows smoothly, people respect each other, and life is calm and not very noisy or stressful, I think Sweden is an ideal place to be. Of course, there are difficulties, apart from the aspects we have already mentioned. I actually forgot to mention the weather factor. But, that is also something very individual and subjective. Be prepared that winters are dark and cold. Maybe the cold is something you can handle, but you also need to handle darkness. You get repaid in the summer when everything gets lighter. But I have a few friends who couldn’t handle it, neither the darkness nor the light twelve or sixteen hours a day. And this can be very different depending on where you come from and what you are used to. But other than that, I think Sweden is perfect. At least, give it a try and see if it works.
Thank you very much!
*”Ruta 1″ translates to “square one”
*”Lagom” is an adjective that translates to “just right” or “not too much or too little” and is very often used to describe parts of the Swedish mentality and culture too.
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