Sandra Hellstrand

Unreasonable requirements make life difficult for foreign doctoral students

03/09/2021 - A new law imposes very high demands on non-EU citizens who wish to apply for a permanent residence permit in Sweden. According to Sandra Hellstrand, from the Board of the Union of Civil Servants’ (Fackförbundet ST) Universities and Colleges Division, the law can cause a major blow to foreign doctoral students and recently graduated PhDs.

Here’s what has happened

Since 2014, it has been possible for doctoral students who have had a residence permit in Sweden for at least four years to apply for a permanent residence permit. This decision was made by Swedish politicians in an effort to entice more foreign doctoral students to study in Sweden.

The idea was that more people would stay after completing their studies and contribute their competence to the Swedish labour market.

But in July 2021, new migration legislation was introduced that completely upended the conditions. The new law imposes very high demands on non-EU citizens who wish to apply for a permanent residence permit in Sweden.

The Swedish Migration Agency has also interpreted the rules in such a way that applicants for a permanent residence permit must have an employment contract lasting at least 18 months in order for their application to be granted.

Sandra Hellstrand, from the University and Colleges Division of the Union of Civil Servants, gives her view on this situation

What is the problem?

“All PhDs who, just like myself, have recently received their doctorates and are now entering the labour market, are met by employers who offer very short-term employment contracts. This applies regardless of whether you want to stay at a university or college, apply for another job as a civil servant, or want to work at a company.

The vast majority of recently graduated PhDs, both Swedish and foreign, are offered an employment contract that lasts a few months which is then extended and re-extended. It is very common to have to wait several years to be offered a permanent position.

For me, this means an insecure work situation and a bit of stress, but for my foreign colleagues, it’s now life-changing. In addition to the insecurity that an insecure job entails, they have to deal with uncertainty about their chances of even being allowed to remain in Sweden if they don’t find a job lasting at least a year and a half.

It’s thus a completely unreasonable requirement, because very few employers offer such long-term employment contracts to a newly minted PhD.”

What are the consequences for foreign doctoral students?

“We already know that doctoral students are a vulnerable group in the labour market. You can read more about that issue in the 2020 report ‘How are doctoral students doing?’. Doctoral students who come from countries outside the EU/EEA* are in an even more vulnerable position.

They are already very dependent on their employers, and some find it difficult to report or raise issues in the workplace because they’re afraid that the employer will cause problems when the time comes to renew their temporary residence permit. Now they’ll be even more dependent on employers to get a residence permit after completing their studies.

How can you possibly negotiate with or criticise an employer who controls your chances of staying in the country?”

How does this affect workplaces within universities and colleges?

“Of course, having colleagues who are worried and feel bad about things affects the entire doctoral student collective. It doesn’t create a good work environment when many people are afraid of raising issues in the work environment with their employers.”

How does this affect society in general?

“As a country, Sweden risks losing a well-educated workforce; many companies and authorities are screaming for their skills. It’s downright idiotic for us taxpayers to pay for a person’s studies for four years and then not give them secure opportunities to stay in Sweden and contribute to our economy and our society.

We know that they’ll turn to other countries and contribute to their development and growth instead.”

What needs to happen now?

“The Swedish Migration Agency must review its new rules. It’s completely unreasonable to believe that recently graduated PhDs, be they are Swedish or foreign, will be able to get jobs that last 18 months or longer so early in their careers. That’s simply the state of the labour market.

The government must back down and reintroduce the exemption for doctoral students in the migration legislation. This is a group in which Swedish taxpayers have invested a great deal of money, and which we really need in the labour market — and in our country.

The total lack of a transition period makes matters especially serious. Doctoral students from many countries have sought to come to Sweden because they planned to study at a good university and then stay in the country and contribute to the labour market. It’s disrespectful to pull the rug out from under this group overnight.”

*EEA = EU member states, along with Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. 

The Union of Civil Servants (Fackförbundet ST) can help you

Are you a doctoral student from a country outside the EU and have questions about the new rules and how you are affected? Contact ST Direkt, the information hotline of the Union of Civil Servants.

0771-555 444

We offer counseling every weekday between 08.30  a.m 16.30 p.m. Emergency or just a general inquiry? We can help you. Email us directly at

The Union of Civil Servants works for doctoral students like you. Read more about why you as a doctoral student should join Fackförbundet ST and become a member