Foreign doctoral students hit out at Sweden's new and 'unfair' permanent residency rules

Emma Löfgren
Emma Löfgren - [email protected]
Foreign doctoral students hit out at Sweden's new and 'unfair' permanent residency rules
Sweden's new migration laws affect the rules for doctoral students who want to stay in the country after their studies. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

Foreign doctoral students have told The Local of stress and worry after Sweden's new Migration Act upended their plans to seek permanent residency after their studies.


Previously, doctoral students were eligible for a permanent residence permit if they had lived in Sweden with a residence permit for doctoral studies for four out of the past seven years. Apart from a slim set of requirements, this was granted more or less automatically.

But according to Sweden's new Migration Act, which was introduced in July this year as comprehensive legislation to control the number of asylum applications, they now need to be able to additionally show that they can support themselves financially for at least a year and half. The new law means that the rules for permanent residency are now the same for all categories of applicants, including doctoral students.

The Migration Agency explains on its website: “This means that you must have permanent employment or fixed-term employment lasting at least 18 months from the date on which your application is examined. In some cases, trial employment may also be approved.”


The same rules also apply to self-employed people. Exemptions may be granted, but only in a limited number of cases, for example if you are under the age of 18, old enough to receive a pension, or if there are “special grounds” for why you can't support yourself financially.

The income needs to come from legal employment in Sweden, so income such as savings or returns on capital, unemployment insurance or stipends aren’t taken into account. Temporary sick leave or parental leave benefits may in some cases count, however.

The new rules came into force on July 20th, but will apply to everyone who has applied for permanent residency and had not received a decision by that date. That includes Parastoo Taghikhani, from Iran, who is in her fifth year at Chalmers University and is currently waiting for a decision on her permanent residency request. She applied in January 2021 – six months before the new rules came into force.

“My plan was to find a job in Sweden. I like my field of study and I enjoy Sweden’s working environment. After the new set of rules was published, Sweden is still one of my choices. However, I’ve started to think about not limiting myself to Sweden and search for jobs in other countries,” she told The Local.

Parastoo Taghikhani. Photo: Private

Many students said that they had chosen to pursue their research in Sweden specifically for the opportunity to stay permanently, in some cases turning down more lucrative offers in other countries. This opportunity was introduced in 2014 to attract international talent to Sweden.

“From my perspective, introducing new requirements is unfair,” said Iman Ghotbi, also from Iran, at Lund University. “Especially for current PhD students who started their studies in different conditions. They made their choice of university and PhD programme partly by looking into migration policies. I believe it will hugely affect the number and quality of PhD applicants in the future, not to mention the brain drain.”

The new rules mean that doctoral students who still plan to apply for permanent residency are left with little time to find an 18-month job offer. Several students told The Local of difficulties finding a job while completing a PhD, not to mention the fact that it is only possible to apply for permanent residency 14 days before their current doctoral permit runs out – leaving a short window for starting a new job.

"I personally do not know of any PhD graduate who has managed to get this kind of secure employment. Most of my graduate friends are working at hourly rates or on short-term contracts. Gig workers. So most will now be locked into temporary residence permits for years, which makes life very uncertain, particularly for those PhDs with a family to think about," said Stuart Reid from Australia, in the final year of his PhD at Lund University. He has been living in Sweden with his wife and three children since 2017, and said they had bought an apartment and a car and were planning to stay in Sweden in the long term, which they now aren't sure will still be possible for them.

Stuart Reid. Photo: Private

Rashmi Mahajan, from India, is in the fourth year of her doctoral studies at Linneaus University. Her current permit will expire in early October, which means that if she wants to stay in Sweden beyond that, she will have to apply for her next permit by mid-September.

“Now, being at the end stage of my PhD with less than a month left, how can I arrange this long period of contract? The last stage of this degree has its own pressures, what with the need to finish the lab work, write papers alongside the thesis and then prepare of the defence of the thesis. How will a person have enough time to look for a job?”


Other options do exist, but are far less generous. Overseas students and researchers who wish to stay and work in Sweden after finishing their courses can apply for a special temporary permit which allows them to stay for one year to look for a job or set up their own business.

But several doctoral students told The Local that the uncertainty of applying for a series of temporary permits meant they might have to reassess their future plans. Many also pointed out that the requirement to show you can support yourself for a full 18 months makes it virtually impossible to continue a career in academia, where contracts are often renewed annually, especially for junior researchers.

"When we chose our PhD, we were told that we could get the permanent permits directly after graduation," said Yifei Zhang, who is due to apply for permanent residency in November. He called the changing conditions for doctoral students "a lie and betrayal, and unfair".

Yifei Zhang. Photo: Private


Julie Holeksa, from Canada, is in her third year of a PhD at Malmö University.

She said: Until the introduction of the new rules, I had planned to remain in Sweden indefinitely. I hoped to become a citizen and engage in academic work here as a career. I would prefer to remain here because I enjoy my work, my colleagues, the lifestyle, and working in a Swedish context. The Swedish research environment has been very supportive to me and provided numerous opportunities, which I would like to be able to pursue in the long term. These new rules put into question whether I will be able to remain in Sweden, or if I will have to pursue a career elsewhere.

“One thing that attracted me to Sweden was the relative ease with which I would become a permanent resident, and thus eventually a citizen, throughout my doctoral studies. This gave me a sense of security to put down roots in my adopted country. The ability to become a citizen certainly was one of the drivers for my choice to pursue my career in Sweden, as I had promising ongoing applications in other countries.”

Julie Holeksa. Photo: Private

Mohammad Abuasbeh from Jordan, a doctoral student at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, had been due to apply for his permanent residence permit in September. He said the future plans that he had made in the past decade were now all up in the air.

“If not corrected very soon, I feel extremely disappointed or even betrayed by the Swedish government,” he wrote.

Sandra Donnally, an economics researcher from the US, said: "I imagine that this situation will negatively affect the mental health of an already very stressed group of people. I know this was not the Swedish parliament's or the Migration Agency's intention, however, it bears mentioning nonetheless.

"Having lived here for six years, I do still love Sweden, Swedish culture, even Swedish bureaucracy. However, it makes me feel like I am in a kind of abusive relationship – I am subject to the whims of a government that usually makes sensible and well-reasoned policies. But in this case, as an immigrant, I feel I am part of a population that has little to no standing in the public sphere."

You can read more about the new migration law on The Local, and the requirements for doctoral students applying for permanent residency on the Migration Agency’s website. Thank you to everyone who got in touch with us for this article. We received more than 25 emails from readers in this situation, so were not able to include all comments, but they all helped inform our reporting. 


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mhscholar 2021/09/05 22:33
” today in Sweden, around 40% of all doctoral candidates and around 75% of all staff with career-development positions (a position people have within a certain time after completing their doctoral degree) have a foreign background.” please read this article “New migration law will ‘harm Swedish research’ – Unions” at It is worth noting that just in December 2020, the Swedish government wrote that it wanted the proportion of international doctoral students who stay in Sweden to increase and that it was important to be able to both recruit them and retain the skills and competencies they possess within this country (Research, freedom, future-knowledge, and innovation for Sweden, Bill 2020/21: 60, p. 123). Despite this, only a few months later the proposals for changes in the Aliens Act were presented which will quite obviously lead to the opposite result.
sauravkalita0 2021/08/31 16:58
Getting a tillsvidare or more than 12-month contract for a new job in Sweden for a newly graduated doctoral student is practically impossible. The policymakers clearly did not consider the case of PhD students while setting the new rules. And now instead of admitting that they made a mistake by overlooking this, they will try to justify by issuing empty statements.
kapkuang 2021/08/27 11:34
So annoyed and disappointed by this new policy. It is a betrayal to those Ph.D. students who were misled by the prior "false information" to make their decision to come to Sweden, especially if they gave up other very promising opportunities. I mean the language barrier and weather are not so easy to adapt to.
m.lashgari777 2021/08/24 15:12
This new rule is not fair. Usually the contracts will be extended for 1 year or 6 months, and having a 18-months contract immediately after PhD is not possible. Requiring 18-months contract is not compatible with PhD situation and increases uncertainty about future plan and to continue their career in Sweden. In my opinion, it would be a waste of investment if scholars leave a country. This new rule increase stress which affects quality of doctoral thesis, and productivity in working environment.
ronggufly 2021/08/23 10:40
The bottom line is that you cannot make a law to attract people and abandon the law four years later... To be honest, if there was no chance of getting the permanent resident permit, people would have chosen other universities in the US, UK, or other well-known universities in Europe, rather than some universities in Sweden. It is a trade-off on the quality of education to win a more steady future. However, the sacrifice is in vain now, as the law simply rules out the opportunity for most of the PhD students. Irresponsible and unacceptable.
lan17481 2021/08/21 21:02
It's sad to read in this forum when many commentators don't know anything about PhD education, the nature of knowledge production, and the reality of the universities today. Market principles can't be used as the ultimate principle that governs knowledge production. And employability can't be used to judge whether a PhD degree is "good" or "bad." There is no "useless" degree because the nature of knowledge is not judged by whether it is in use for market gains or not. The crisis of pure knowledge has, unsurprisingly, been predicted by Kant, followed by a permanent crisis of pure knowledge since 19th century with the rise of technology and capitalist industrialization.
steveh-77 2021/08/21 20:10
It seems the Swedes have the right to change the rules to whatever suits their fancy. And we, as immigrants, should respect their choices. Perhaps even admire them a little for building a great country, and for all their achievements in technology, business, industry, culture etc. It's impressive.
  • khar_khoon 2021/08/21 21:10
    Then please also respect the Swedes for their decision to take lots of refugees in the past. I remember you expressed concern about this a while back and suggested that the great Sweden was "finito" due to the "new Swedes". You cannot demand respecting Swedes' decisions only when serves your political agenda. Stop the double standard, just stop it.
john.edwardmartinsson 2021/08/21 17:57
Connecting this decision to “realities of market” shows the arguer is living in industrial age (1760-1970), when people worked in big industries and there were only limited number of sits for people in factories like Volvo and Saab. We are currently living in the information age (1970-present) when knowledge and science are considered “global asset”. Currently Apple Inc market cap is $2.449 Trillion USD. This number is 2.36% of the total global GDP and 9.7% of the US GDP as the biggest economy in the world. According to data from World Bank 97.3% of the countries in the world (263 countries) have less annual GDP than apple including countries like Italy, Brazil and Canada. Apple Inc established by Steve Jobs (Son of Abdulfattah al-Jandali, a Syrian immigrant) has offered jobs to 147000 workers and around 2000,000 workers globally. A new apple iPhone 12 costs around 1000 USD and the approximate cost of the hardware inside it is around 400 USD. So basically, you pay 600 USD for R&D, patents, engineering, quality of service etc. In other words, the richest company in the world sells science and information. The “reality of the market” is that any educated person willing to contribute to the society by hard work is a “global source of income”. This shows the decision to expel PHD students and scientists from Sweden is purely based on political motives than the country’s benefit and gain. In other words politicians try to not loose the ground to Sweden Democrats (SD) by limiting the number of beneficial immigrants rather than affecting uneducated immigrants who traditionally vote for them.
bbenoistlucy 2021/08/21 16:05
“ Lagom correctly, instead of "lågom", as you did several times.” Aouch !!! You certainly do not hold your punches it hurts like hell.………enlighten me……do you really hold a phd……?? Cuz it looks I might have a crack at it 🤣🤣🤡
muhammad.usman.bth 2021/08/21 14:42
1) Every country has a right to legislate and pass laws that the majority in it’s parliament think are best for their country. But, there are some basic rules and traditions. If the country is not a banana republic, one would expect that such changes are not applied retroactively. People opted for Sweden based on the conditions 2/3/4 years ago when they moved here. One question that doctoral students from abroad always ask is the their prospects of staying in Sweden after their PhDs. With this law, the politicians and MV have made HODs and professors who hired PhD students look like liars. If it was such a relevant thing to do, they should introduce some kind of a sunset clause, i.e., applicable to those joining after such and such date. 2) Reading some of the comments gives me the impression that some are not that much connected to academia. I personally know HODs who are worried due to this change, as it would be extremely difficult to hire talented doctoral students from abroad. If someone is interested in finding out how relevant is this problem, please go and check websites of a few departments and see how many of the doctoral students (also Post-docs) are from outside EU.
john.edwardmartinsson 2021/08/21 13:45
Unfortunately, the Swedish immigration services does not care about the education or work experience of immigrants. In fact, after many years of living in Sweden now I can definitely say “the less educated and more troublesome you are, the more chances you have to get permanent residency in Sweden”. I have seen war immigrants who have done many illegal activities, have been involved in fights and were not willing to study or work and they received their permanent residency in a relatively short period of time, but other war immigrants who have been descent and willing to study and work were deported. Besides, the more educated you are the less chances you have to get resident permit in Sweden because even previously work permit residency was very difficult in Sweden and rules were very difficult. This is the reason why you see many uneducated immigrants in Sweden comparing to other countries in Eu or Canada and USA. But why the Swedish immigration service accepts uneducated people and does not like the educated people. According to the official explanation the agency tries to help most susceptible and weak immigrants and wants to protect them. But that does not seem to be logical reason because many of these uneducated immigrants never integrate to the society, and it seems to be failed policy. The most logical unofficial reasoning that I have heard so far is that Immigration Agency in Sweden is run by people who are influenced by Social Democratic Party (Sveriges Socialdemokratiska arbetarparti) and these people know uneducated jobless immigrants would vote for this party so they want to only accept these types of immigrants. There are only two types of immigrants who have good chance to integrate to the host country: 1- students 2- educated people. Because students and educated people can have a better understanding of the host country and they can act as a “bridge” between different groups of immigrants and the main society. When you block students (By imposing very expensive tuition fee for master and bachelor) and educated people (By demanding almost impossible conditions) you are left with an uneducated incapable group of immigrants who can never have a good understanding of the host country and there are is no bridge (educated people) for them to learn about the host country and this is exactly what happens in Sweden, the formation of parallel societies! This has resulted in a negative view towards immigrants in Sweden, because even if you are an educated capable hardworking immigrant the society would generalize you as “lazy incapable uneducated traditional unsociable” immigrant. Unlike Sweden, many other countries like Canada have score based immigration service. They give immigrants a score based on their education, language abilities, work experience and other important factors. So basically, if you want to immigrate to Canada you have to work hard for it for several years and show that you are capable. Therefore Canada has become the most educated country in the world and there are not any complains about immigrants there or there are not bad views about immigrants in Canada despite they also take many asylum seekers who can be uneducated. Yes, if Swedish permanent residency is a privilege, then it should be granted to those who have worked harder for it or at least show that they are law abiding and wiling to integrate and pay their price for freedom. The last word for PHD students: A PHD student should not BEG for resident permit! For good sake you are on the highest level of education, and you can easily apply for work in countries like Canada or USA. Until Sweden changes the rules apply for US and Canada because here they do not care about education and your capability.
  • techctrl 2021/08/21 15:09
    Anybody who understands the political situation in Sweden in the slightest, knows that this change has nothing to due with the realities of the market. This is pure political posturing. A few years ago the Social Democrats were quick to level racism and xenophobia accusations against the Sweden Democrats whenever they brought up the topic of curtailing immigration, but suddenly they've made a U-turn. Gee, what could bring about such a sudden change? Could it be the events of the last election where they only managed to secure power through backroom deals has them worried about their political prospects? Anyone relying on a superficial supply and demand line of argumentation to justify this change in the immigration law is engaging in a fallacy. As if the politicians ever take into account the realities of the market economy. As an aside, I should say that I am absolutely astounded by how apathetic the average Swede is with respect to the political apparatus of their nation. It's remarkable that things have remained as good for as long as they have when the people never demand accountability from the ruling political classes and just assume that their "elites" will take care of them. Guess now the cracks have finally become large enough to be perceptible.
  • khar_khoon 2021/08/21 14:26
    Thanks for the beautifully written post. What you described is basically the story of my life. Back in 2011, I had multiple admissions from American and European universities. Almost everybody advised me against picking Sweden, but I came to Gothenburg anyway because I was younger and more naive and just loved to live where they manufacture Volvos! Right of the bat, they had changed the rules so non-EU students had to pay a hefty tuition fee, in my case, it was 280,000 SEK for a master's program that I loved. Fortunately, I managed to land a scholarship that covered 85% of the tuition fee. It did not sound fair at all but anyway I carried on. To those who rant about market demand for our degree, I don't know why Sweden let us in in the first place if our degrees were supposed to be useless for the market? Maybe Sweden wanted international students here to improve their world ranking and fill their pockets without money? Back then there was Anyway, when I started my Ph.D. back in 2014 the permanent residence permit for PhD students did not even exist, but I loved this country and I stayed here on my temporary permit anyway. I did not question why uneducated refugees could easily get their permanent permit and then immediately their citizenship, but the likes of me had to pay 1000 SEK every year and as you put it, BEG for a permit. Time went on, and everyday I would hear about integration problems and so on due to refugees. I started thinking why someone like me who really loves the country, has learned the language, and truly contributes to the scientific community is put in the same category as the "lazy incapable uneducated traditional unsociable"? Anyway, I got my Ph.D. in 2020, although in late 2019,I already had two job offers, one from a university that wanted me as an assistant professor and offered me short-term employment for the beginning, and another one from a company that wanted me in their R&D team. So, I was getting ahead in life and doing more for the country as time went by, while the Swedish politicians were busy un-doing any little good thing they had done for the educated foreigners as if they really never wanted capable people here. I find it very sad that after living here for 10 years and doing my best to "integrate", and doing my fair share for society, I still don't count as a Swedish citizen, while some less educated person from the EU who cannot even write a basic Swedish word such as "lågom" correctly can come here and hide behind their one-dimensional analysis of the whole PhD-residence permit fiasco and be happy that fewer smart people will be here for him to compete with.
bbenoistlucy 2021/08/21 08:48
Let’s be realistic. After 2015, Sweden, with a little pressure from the Democrats, is realising that immigration has become a problem and that Swedish society is not willing to accept a kind of free immigration on the base of sometimes, even if PhD’s, useless degrees. Tough, but nonetheless, a fact. Take Australia, the UK or Canada, none of these countries are particularly easy to get in, even with a degree. I don’t see why Sweden should be different.
  • khar_khoon 2021/08/21 12:49
    Bruno, I have read your whole thread. You obviously don't know much about the whole PhD business. You don't know how difficult it is for the faculty members to secure the fundings to begin with. And you have no idea how competitive it is to land PhD position in a reputable research group . And the actual research itself, only the smartest and most committed students can succeed. So, PhD is not useless, it is a gift to be had only by a tiny percentage of the population. If you don't understand why educated competent people should be treated differently, you are beyond anybody's help. Clearly, you have a lot of disdain towards people who are more competent than you. Don't hate, get competent yourself. And if you are so worried about too many foreigners in Sweden, you can help the country by leaving. You as a foreigner yourself are no better than anybody else.
  • mhscholar 2021/08/21 09:21
    Bruno, The fact that Sweden has immigration problems is true, and there is no doubt about that, but Migrationsverket took the wrong approach to tackle this problem by considering all PR applicants on the same track. We see that the migration rules are pampering criminals, but kicking out talented international Ph.D. students who can be very beneficial for Sweden. One important thing that is ignored (like many other things !) is that Sweden has an export-based economy that relies heavily on technology and innovation. International Ph.D. students have an inevitable role in this high-tech export-based industry, and this brain drain will affect the economy at the end, which affects all Swedes. There are many of these international Ph.D. students who have a big role in many profitable companies like VOLVO, ERICSSON, SCANIA, SKF, etc. the highly competitive market in the world does not stand by for Sweden to gather up and build all talents needed from inside, if you do a wrong act you will lose the market to those who have the competence, and competence comes from talented well-tarined people. This is why countries like the US or Germany have very generous programs to gather up all talents worldwide in their country, and they have won the tech market. One more thing is that Sweden is not UK, Canada, or Australia, it's an individual country, and if you want to compare Sweden with countries like Canada, it is easier to get in as an international student in Canada than Sweden, and even with a master degree and one year of work you can get the permanent residence of Canada. And the reason behind that is the need for talented people for economic growth in this highly competitive international market. Countries cannot build talent easily, and the smart way is to gather other talents in their country to keep the economy going. And it's not only about tech; you can see how the medical system in Sweden cannot provide the proper service. According to international criteria, there are not enough doctors and even nurses in this country; the same applies to other majors.
danielmedina113 2021/08/21 00:40
Sad for future non-EU PhD graduates from Swedish universities But if you're reading this, understand that your degree is considered valuable in other countries. For instance the Netherlands offers a 1 year job seeking permit for people that have obtained such degrees. Germany has a 6-month job seeking permit provided you have 5 years of experience (PhD gives you 4 already). Canada and Austria also offer migration possibilities for highly educated migrants. The UK has a Global talent visa program. I'm sure there might be more. If swedish politicians don't wake up, keep your options open as there are other places that value the investment of swedish tax payers and are happy to receive the fruits of your swedish education.
  • mhscholar 2021/08/21 11:08
    Dear Henrik, Besides what Sweden may lose by this brain drain, the unfair fact here is that all international Ph.D. students at the time of applying for Ph.D. have many other offers from other countries, including the countries you mentioned. By choosing Sweden, they have lost those options. One key fact for them to choose Sweden is that they can get permanent residence after the fourth year of a Ph.D., why is this important for them? Because these international talents want to build their life in the hosting country and contribute to that country's wealth, they need a form of stability. Ph.D. work is very stressful in itself, and they had in mind this stability option in Sweden when they applied for Sweden. But now, there is no stability guaranteed for them by this new rule, and they need to think about going to another country while maintaining their research in Sweden. It's like changing the rules in the middle of the game. It's unfair. They think Sweden deceives them, and their 4 years of life are wasted here since they need to start another process for stability in another country.
steveh-77 2021/08/20 17:47
If Ph.D. students struggle to find permanent employment on graduation - then perhaps a Ph.D. isn't worth that much in the market - and the holders of such Ph.D's shouldn't expect to receive permanent residence permits. It's quite straight forward and fair really. It also seems rather fair to the Swedish society. As Sweden almost certainly doesn't need a bunch of useless Ph.D holders in their society, not withstanding a few graduates of computer engineering and certain pharmaceutical majors etc. But many subjects are completely useless, and it's kind of a shame that so many waste five years of their lives earning a doctorate in basket weaving or whatever. Most of these doctors should go home when their studies are complete.
  • oioiman 2021/08/21 01:08
    Opening your gob and showing the board that you are a truculent, troglodytic anti-intellectual is not a good look mate. TTFN
  • dandelles 2021/08/20 22:33
    This is such a sad, short-sighted, and anti-education response. Wow. As an American I would expect this type of comment from red-state Americans, but not from Swedes, whose education system has long been enviable because of the wider and deeper support it receives in society. Not for long, I guess. By the way, I wonder what your education level and subject is...? Clearly you believe your assessment of what is useful and what is useless is more important than the universities granting PhDs.
  • techctrl 2021/08/20 18:50
    Your pulling a fallacy here Jack, What a PhD degree is worth and what it may or may not merit is a separate matter. If they happen to be so worthless, pray tell why funds are allocated at creating PhD positions? If PhDs are useless to Swedish society, then said society is mad for wasting money on them in the first place. Kind of like the terrible asylum-seeking policies that amounted to jack shit but were funded by tax-payer money weren't they? Was that fair to Swedish society? Who was responsible for that, the basket-weavers? On the topic of basket weaving, it may interest you to know that most of such useless disciplines originated from within the departments of western universities and subscribed to mainly by western youth. Take a look at the madness present on the university campuses of the USA, or the rein of terror that Portland has been subjected to for a year by "disaffected" youth who's basket-weaving skills have gone unrecognized by their society. Surely it is a waste to spend any amount of one's life on such vapid nonsense, but the complacency of a society which allows such rot to infest it in the first place is what is most lamentable. You don't want people from the outside to be present in Sweden, fine, I can respect that. Just have the integrity to say it straight without relying on a non sequitur.
techctrl 2021/08/20 17:22
"...I know this was not the Swedish parliament’s or the Migration Agency’s intention, however, it bears mentioning nonetheless." It wasn't their intention because the average ordinary individual don't even register on their radars. "I am subject to the whims of a government that usually makes sensible and well-reasoned policies." If they had made sensible and well-reasoned policies they wouldn't have landed themselves in the immigration debacle in the first place. Reason is not part of the politicians' diet.

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