“I have the right and the opportunity to be a generalist” – Career path of Matti Nikkola

Name: Matti Nikkola
Did PhD at: Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden

Current position: Head of Education, Department of Cell and Molecular Biology, Karolinska Institutet, Sweden
Interviewed and written by: Moa Stenudd

I meet Matti Nikkola in his office at Biomedicum, where he works as Head of Education at the department of Cell and Molecular Biology at Karolinska Institutet. Matti’s office is full of things that he enjoys, and things he’s proud of. A robot dog, beautiful glass statues, and a vast collection of newspaper articles. I comment that it’s tidy despite all the objects. “With my job, you have to stay organized”,  he explains.

Matti is responsible for all education at the department, including everything from undergraduate education to PhD student education. Matti explains that his work has developed a lot throughout the years. “It probably became increasingly complex to describe”, he says. Other than setting up courses at the department, he works on developing new educational programs for the university. He spends a lot of time informally mentoring PhD students, and making sure students are progressing as they’re expected throughout their studies. “A big part of my job is to create an atmosphere of growth for the students in the department”, Matti explains.

Matti grew up in a farm in the Vaasa area of northern Finland. Already as a six-year old, he knew he was going to work at a university. Matti had a thirst for knowledge, and a godmother who encouraged it by giving him many books to read. His favorite book was The adventure of knowledge – a popular science book that Matti read over and over.

Even if Matti knew that he wanted to work at a university since his childhood, he stresses that he never thought he would end up where he is today. “I have found my niche, but it took a long time”,  he says.

After undergraduate studies in marine biology, Matti completed a PhD degree at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, followed by a period as a postdoctoral researcher at Uppsala University. He worked as  a lecturer at Uppsala University for 6 years, and then joined the department of Cell and Molecular Biology at Karolinska Institutet as Head of Education.

Already during his PhD, Matti ran his first university course. Over time, teaching took up an increasing part of his work. After his postdoc ended, almost all of Matti’s focus has been on teaching. Matti is passionate about communication, and in particular about popular science writing. If he ever doubted his career, he thought he’d be a writer or a gardener. But Matti stresses that he never really doubted his career path. “I get a kick out of coming here every day”, he says.

Matti sums up the best about the job: “I have the right and the opportunity to be a generalist.”

Moa Stenudd, 2020

Image credit: Linda Lindell

This career portrait was originally written for the PhD course “Career skills for scientists”, organized every spring by KI Career Service. As explained in the introduction post, all participants in the course interviewed PhD holders with an academic or a non-academic career. Keep an eye on the tags #careerportrait, #InsideAcademia and #OutsideAcademia listed below, for a selection of these portraits. Get inspired and learn more about your options for your post-PhD career!


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