Life as a Postdoc at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden

by Dr. Oon Chern Ein


Upon completion of my PhD in Medical Oncology at the University of Oxford UK, I was confronted with the daunting question of “Should I or should I not do a postdoctoral training and if yes, where?” According to the US National Postdoctoral Association, a postdoctoral researcher is defined as an individual with an existing doctoral degree who is involved in a temporary period of mentored research and training towards the aim of obtaining the necessary professional skills in order to grow into a professional identity in his/her chosen career path. Hence, a quality postdoctoral training is a crucial step in the development and maturation of a scientist, or at least I believe so. To reap the most out of my postdoctoral experience, I decided to spend a year or two in another foreign country to establish my research niche in the field of oncology. Karolinska Institutet (KI) in Sweden was my choice of host institute because it offers plenty of opportunities for widening my network, thereby fostering potential scientific collaborations.

Stockholm in the summer.

Stockholm in the summer.

Stretching over 14 islands and forming a part of the famous archipelago of around 24,000 islands lies the picturesque city of Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. This beautiful city is sometimes called the Venice of the North. The vibrant city is spotted with an array of rich terracotta coloured buildings surrounded by clean glistening water and clear blue skies in the summertime. In stark contrast, speckles of bright lights can be seen lighting up the exquisite white wonderland in winter. With a population of just nine million people, the Swedes lead a wealthy and peaceful life, thanks to its booming economy and excellent social security.

Located just outside Stockholm city centre is the world-famous KI which ranks 32nd globally, 6th in Europe, and 1st in the Nordic region according to the 2012 Times Higher Education World University Rankings. In the 2010 “Best Places to Work: Postdoc” survey by The Scientist magazine, KI was voted 9th in the top 10 list of international organizations for postdoctoral research opportunities, making it one of the most popular and highly competitive places for postdoctoral researchers.

As a postdoctoral researcher in KI, one has ample opportunities for networking. Recognized for its cutting-edge competence in medical research, KI has successfully established research and educational collaborations with a number of countries including USA, Singapore, China, India and Japan. The many scientific breakthroughs made in KI have placed it in the forefront of medical sciences1 , further attracting the cream of the crop in the scientific community from around the world for research collaborations, seminars and conferences. I am impressed!

Stockholm in the winter.

Stockholm in the winter.

The institute’s success is also due in part to its role as the proud home to the Nobel Prize. Since 1901, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet has awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine every year. As described in Alfred Nobel’s will, the Prize is dedicated to “the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine”. The Nobel Assembly is made up of 50 reputable professors from KI who meet five times a year to discuss the nominations for the Prize, elect the Nobel Committee who is responsible for nominating the candidates would finally decide on vote(s) for the recipient(s) of the Nobel Prize2.

KI has excellent state-of-the-art infrastructures to sustain high quality educational and research activities. Its close collaboration with the Karolinska University Hospital makes it possible for scientists to interact with clinicians at a research institute-hospital interface for translational medical research. This has successfully paved the way for the growth and progression of the current modern Swedish healthcare system. The finest example is the world’s first successful artificial trachea transplantation seeded with the patient’s own stem cells carried out at the Karolinska University Hospital3.

Sunset at Grinda Archipelago.

Sunset at Grinda Archipelago.

The working environment is generally very international and diversed in culture, despite some departments having more Swedes than others. Since most Swedes speak excellent English, foreigners are not required to learn Swedish prior to coming to Sweden. ‘Fika’, which means coffee break, is an important culture in the Swedish community. Most people, if not all, will take time off – even in the midst of work – to enjoy a cup of coffee accompanied by a cinnamon roll (‘kanel bulle’) or sometimes, a sandwich (‘smörgås’) with fellow colleagues.

On the darker side, postdoctoral researchers have a relatively unfair deal when it comes to pay. A postdoc’s salary in KI is barely higher than the average stipend of a PhD student! In fact, many postdocs are paid stipend without additional benefits; the law allows KI to do so within the first two years of working in KI. In most cases, employers choose to pay by stipend because it is very competitive to get a postdoctoral fellowship in KI due to its brand recognition. Sadly, this situation is very taken advantage of.

A major drawback faced by most guest researchers in KI is the lack of accommodation and the high cost of living. One has to get in the apartment rental queues at least two years in advance to secure a roof over the head, although accommodation contracts typically last for a maximum of only two years. Therefore, it is advisable to discuss with employers and to arrange a few months of accommodation through all means before arriving in Stockholm.

Despite these setbacks, I very much appreciate the opportunity to be part of the scientific society in KI. Being able to work with some world-leading scientists close to the Nobel Prize happenings, this postdoctoral experience is an unforgettable journey.



A brief description of the process involved in selecting the Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine Prize.

September – Nomination forms sent out.The Nobel Committee for Medicine sends out confidential forms to around 3,000 persons — selected professors at universities around the world, Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine, and members of the Nobel Assembly, among others.

February – Deadline for submission. The completed forms must reach the Nobel Committee no later than 31 January of the following year. The Committee screens the nominations and selects the preliminary candidates.

March-May – Consultation with experts. The Nobel Committee sends the list of the preliminary candidates to specially appointed experts for their assessment of the candidates’ work.

June-August – Writing of reports.

September – Committee submits recommendations. The Nobel Committee submits its report with recommendations on the final candidates to the members of the Nobel Assembly. The report is discussed during two meetings of the Nobel Assembly.

October – Nobel Laureates are chosen. In early October, the Nobel Assembly chooses the Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine through a majority vote. The decision is final and without appeal. The names of the Nobel Laureates are then announced.

December – Nobel Laureates receive their prize. The Nobel Prize Award Ceremony takes place on 10 December in Stockholm, where the Nobel Laureates receive their Nobel Prize, which consists of a Nobel Medal and Diploma, and a document confirming the prize amount.



[1] Important discoveries made at KI

[2] Nomination and Selection of Medicine Laureates

[3] First Successful Transplantation of a Synthetic Tissue Engineered Windpipe


SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERADr Oon Chern Ein completed her degree in Biotechnology with First Class Honours at Universiti kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) before obtaining her D.Phil in Medical Oncology from the University of Oxford, UK. She is an academic fellow at INFORMM (Institute for Research in Molecular Medicine) at Universiti Sains Malaysia, and is currently a visiting postdoctoral researcher in Karolinska Institute, Sweden. She can be contacted at [email protected]. Find out more about Chern Ein by visiting her Scientific Malaysian profile at: