This post is part of a series on what goes into getting a PhD around the world. In this post, Mari A. Fjelldal discusses getting a PhD in Norway.

Mari with brown long-eared bat. Photo by Helene M. Hannestad
Mari with brown long-eared bat. Photo by Helene M. Hannestad

Where are you getting your PhD?

I am doing my PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), which is located in Trondheim, Norway. It is the same university that I obtained both my BSc and my MSc from, and where I am now connected to the Stawski Physiology Lab for my PhD. Trondheim happens to be Norway’s 4th biggest city with around 197 000 inhabitants, which relative to other European cities probably sounds quite small. It has, however, an extremely lively atmosphere due to the student invasion, and I have loved the city since the day I moved here to enroll in my BSc program.

How long does a typical PhD take where you are located?

A PhD program in Norway normally lasts for either 3 or 4 years. If you have a 4-year contract you are required to use 25% of your workload (which equals one year) on duty work, but you are free to perform your required duties at any time during your PhD. This includes teaching, supervising, and assisting in lab practicals. It is usually up to the PhD candidates themselves to choose if they want duty work as part of their PhD or not. However, if there is funding for 4 years it is strongly encouraged to accept the 4-year contract, and during the interview for the position you are likely to be asked if you would accept duty work as part of your PhD. It is therefore normal in Norway with three years net time to work on your PhD and then potentially one year of teaching and supervising.

Tell us about the process of completing your degree (e.g.; must you sit in front of a panel? Is it a formal defense or more casual? Is your thesis examined by reviewers?). How “important” or “weighted” is your defense for your graduation?

To obtain your PhD degree a three-fold process is carried out: First, your thesis is sent to an assessment committee suggested by the department. This is the critical part, as the committee evaluates whether your thesis is “worthy of public defense”, if it needs revisions or if it is unworthy of defense. The two last options both allow for re-submissions of the thesis, so there is generally no need to panic if you get one of these responses. The day of your defense normally consists of two parts: a trial lecture and your defense. For the trial lecture you are given a relevant topic and a target group by the assessment committee 10 days in advance. On the day of your defense you will start with the trial lecture, which is open to the public and where 2-3 representatives for your target group will join the committee. The trial lecture must be approved by the panel before you are allowed to move on to your defense. For your defense, which is also open to the public, you will be questioned by the panel and ideally have a discussion regarding your scientific work during your PhD. The defense is formal and an important part of the graduation, but as long as you have successfully been approved by the committee in the thesis-evaluation phase you can be almost certain to pass.

Tell us about your research.

Picture of brown long-eared, named “Laffa”. Photo by Rune Sørås
Picture of brown long-eared, named “Laffa”. Photo by Rune Sørås

My research is on free-ranging Norwegian microbats, which are tiny insectivorous bats weighing between 4-16 grams, depending on the species. Norway is a cold and dark place during winter, where the bats must hibernate in order to survive. The summer season is short and doesn’t give much time for the bats to meet their energetic demands for surviving, reproducing and getting fat and ready for the next hibernation season. Additionally, as all bats in Norway are nocturnal, they do their best to avoid flying during the daylight, but the dark hours of the Norwegian summer nights are very few, or even non-existing if you go far enough north to experience the midnight sun. If you add the incredibly unstable and sometimes hostile summer weather conditions to the equation it is easy to understand that the Norwegian bats need some incredible survival skills!

My research focuses on how bats survive in Norway by looking at how they are using torpor, which is a short-term hibernation state where the animals reduce all physiological processes in order to save energy. Through my PhD I aim to answer questions about what kind of weather conditions which are most favorable (or unfavorable) and how the bats can adjust their activity levels to the changing light-conditions throughout the summer. I use temperature-sensitive transmitters which are attached to the skin of the bats in order to collect body temperature data. It also gives me information about their activity levels during the night, so it is possible to know more about their individual strategies. After releasing the bats with the transmitters, we track them by the use of radio telemetry in order to find their day roosts, where we set up data-loggers which record the body temperatures of the bat. The bats are usually not recaptured, but the transmitters fall off within 3 weeks. In addition to the body temperatures I also collect data on ambient temperature, humidity, light conditions, rain, wind, barometric pressure, etc.

During my PhD I will construct optimization models to know more about what the optimal strategy may be at a certain night with specific weather conditions: to hunt or to stay in torpor. How does the perfect night look like through the eyes of a bat? To answer this question I am mainly looking at two species: The brown long-eared bat (Plecotus auritus) which is a rather light-shy species and won’t be found further north than mid-Norway, and the northern bat (Eptesicus nilssonii) which may use artificial lighting, like streetlights, opportunistically to hunt for insects, and which is the most northern-ranging bat species in the world! As I am interested in how light-conditions are affecting their torpor use over different environmental conditions, I am investigating the species at three latitudes. One in the south, one in the middle of Norway, and one location in the north, where only the northern bat is found. This summer my research-team and I collected data at the southern location, close to Oslo. It was absolutely amazing to spend the whole summer working with these little animals, who are so unique in their evolution, physiology and behavior. We had a good field-season and captured lots of bats, using mist-nets. One of my favorite measurements was the weighing of the bats – these tiny creatures have strong claws for hanging upside down and we could therefore put them inside empty toilet-rolls where they would hang while we placed the roll on the weight. Quite amazing!

Aside from research, what else are you expected to do as part of your PhD?

In addition to your research and duty work you are required to take at least 30 credits of relevant coursework. At NTNU this usually corresponds to 4 courses, and of these 30 credits a minimum of 20 credits is required to be coursework at the PhD-level. One such course, which is mandatory for all PhD-candidates connected to the Faculty of Natural Sciences, is a PhD-level ethics-course where you are expected to carry out philosophical discussions regarding science.

Another requirement during your PhD is continuous outreach work, which has become more and more important and which focuses strongly on reaching the public audience. As conferences usually are platforms where you present your work to other scientists and professors, alternative types of outreach are being encouraged, like through the use of social media. We even have some biology PhD-candidates working on a children’s book!

What are some challenges you’d like to share associated with obtaining your PhD In Norway?

NTNU has a very strong international scientific environment, but Trondheim may still feel a bit far away from the rest of the world sometimes. It can therefore be challenging to get opportunities to bond with other research-groups unless you have some already established connections. However, the biggest challenge is actually the weather! Many struggle with the Norwegian winter, and as we are incapable of hibernation, we just have to face those long winter months as best we can. Many experience what we call “dark-depressions” which is mood-swings and fatigue that can be explained by the prolonged lack of daylight. On the other hand, the long winters make you cherish the spring and summer even more, seasons which are really wonderful in Norway. Also, the further north you go and the darker it gets, the bigger the chances of seeing the northern light.

What do you like about your PhD or the PhD process?

Except from being scared by a few badgers, I find the nights very peaceful and a bit magical, with misty landscapes and early sunsets. It offers you some of the best parts of being a biologist, which is to experience nature in a different way than you might be used to.

I love the lack of hierarchy in the Norwegian science world! Experienced professors are highly respected, but there are no restrictions for students at any levels to seek advice from PhD-candidates and professors alike. This allows for a dynamic atmosphere and I personally find this extremely giving. It also makes it easier to share knowledge and to discuss your research across disciplines at the university. As a young researcher doing her PhD, I think I benefit from this system. I would also like to mention that Norway has a very good reputation regarding gender-equality at work, something I am extremely grateful for.

I am very happy to pursue a PhD where I can do a mix of research activities: I get to spend long periods of time in the field, in the lab, in the classroom, and in my office, analyzing data. Additionally, the fieldwork itself is also quite special as me and my team are working during the night in the Norwegian summer, which has a lot of light even during the darkest hours. Except from being scared by a few badgers, I find the nights very peaceful and a bit magical, with misty landscapes and early sunsets. It offers you some of the best parts of being a biologist, which is to experience nature in a different way than you might be used to.

What will you do after your PhD is over?

After my PhD I will apply for relevant post-docs, as I really feel that doing research is my path forward. As I did my MSc-project in population ecology and am now doing research in the cross-section between physiology and ecology, I am hoping to find interesting projects where I can use my skills to connect different directions in biology. I especially find the bridging between physiology and ecology incredibly interesting!

Why did you want to get a PhD, what are you hoping to do with it, and what did you not realise going in ?

I have been dreaming about pursuing biological research since I was in primary school. It started by a drawing of chloroplasts inside a leaf, where I couldn’t understand how someone had figured out exactly how photosynthesis inside a leaf actually worked. The simple flower-drawings couldn’t possibly show how it looked inside a leaf if you cut it open with a knife, so how had anyone been able to find this information? Along the way I realized that it was possible to work as a scientist to find the answers of such questions in nature and I started actively working towards getting a PhD in biology. Now that I have reached my goal and been offered a PhD-position it is the official starting-block for my scientific career. I love science and being able to do research is just as thrilling as I pictured it! I had, however, not expected science to be competitive. I find it quite sad that it globally seems to be a pressure for scientists to publish articles. The fact that research in most cases is a question of funding creates an economic pressure which I think in many ways is unhealthy for modern science.

Read more posts in this series here.