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My Career: From Start to Finnish

The people and nature here have made an impact on Katerina

Get to know more about Katerina Panina via LinkedIn.Kiki Siivikko / CYF Digital.

Katerina Panina, Russia. Doctoral researcher and entrepreneur

“My parents”. That is the short answer if you ask Katerina Panina, originally from St Petersburg, how she ended up as a PhD student and entrepreneur in Finland. Katerina’s parents wanted her to start Finnish courses as a teenager. At first, it was like any hobby but, when it was time to apply for universities, her parents suggested looking into options in Finland. For Katerina, this made sense. She already spoke the language a bit, and Finland had a reputation as a country with an excellent education system.

On her second try, Katerina aced her entrance exam to the Turku School of Economics. As a result, she moved to the city when she was 18. Ten years later, Katerina has done both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Turku and is currently doing her PhD in marketing. She has also co-founded a company with her university friends that helps newcomers to integrate into their local communities. So it’s safe to say Katerina has made a life for herself in Turku.

Working as a researcher isn’t easy, but Katerina feels it is the right fit for her. Image: Kiki Siivikko / CYF Digital

I wanted to do my PhD in Turku… for both personal and professional reasons.

Professionally, a career as a researcher has always interested me. After learning about the research profile of Turku School of Economics’ marketing department, I knew it would be the place for me. I was also happy to learn that the attraction was mutual, and they wanted me here. We have some exceptional minds and internationally acclaimed talents here. I’m honoured to progress as a researcher working beside them.

The Finnish academic environment is culturally a very special place. People here remember what research really is for and about. They give space for early-career researchers to grow independently and aim high, yet teach to critically approach the profession and the research subject. I find myself very comfortable here, but I’m also continuously challenged to grow. It’s not an easy job, but it’s the right one for me.

The personal reason to stay and do my PhD in Turku is that the city has become my home. I’ve got friends here, met some exceptional people and co-founded a company with my partners. It wouldn’t be right to go somewhere else for the amount of effort it took to integrate and build the precious relationships I have here. My story with Turku is not finished.

“People here remember what research really is for and about.”

The advice I would give to someone contemplating coming to study in Finland is… to learn about your needs and commit early on.

Biking is one of Katerina’s favourite hobbies. Last year she toured the Turku archipelago on her bike. Image: Katerina Panina

For me, the move was not to the north, but to the West. St Petersburg is almost on the same latitude as Turku, so the climate wasn’t the issue. What needed adjustment was how I related to the Finnish people and culture. What I found beneficial in my case was that I knew that I came to stay early on. This motivated me to improve my Finnish and build relationships with local people. Little by little, through hobbies such as singing in the choir or playing board games, I started to understand jokes, idioms and disputes about local politics. I began to feel more and more like one of the Finns in the room.

Suppose I had come to Finland as an exchange student or only to do a degree. In that case, I know that I would’ve behaved differently and prioritised different things.

If you are not going to stay in Finland, you’ll do fine speaking English. Everybody speaks it here. Find a couple of international friends and explore Finland’s beautiful nature trails, architecture and landscapes. And as for the studies: the things that Finns value the most are honesty and hard work. Bring those with you, and you will be fine.

My favourite things about Finland are… people and nature.

I’ve never met as many genuine, diligent and honourable people as I’ve met in Finland. But, of course, it could be that I’ve just been hanging out with the right people.

Finnish nature befits the people. Pure, beautiful, understated. Where else can you leave the office and end up in the forest on the way home?

Katerina has presented her PhD work at various conferences. Image: Katerina Panina

The main reason I wanted to co-found a startup in Finland is… to help people like me.

We started our company as a student project. Almost seven years in, we are a thriving company with several new services under development and coming out. The majority of services we develop help people like me – someone who comes to Finland to make it their home. The way we gather, structure and provide information makes it easier for people to adapt to a new environment and feel like they belong.

I owe a lot to Susanna and Hanna – the other two co-founders. Without them, I wouldn’t have found it in me to start something this big and ambitious. By combining our skills and talents, and later growing the team to include some of the most committed and talented people I know, we made it to where we are now.

What I find surprising about working in Finland is… how important wellbeing is.

Both contexts I work in, academia and entrepreneurship, are demanding and often uncertain environments. There are ups and downs, gaps in funding, a vast creative element, a lot of multitasking… the list goes on.

Katerina has co-founded a company helping newcomers in Turku to integrate. Pictured alongside Katerina are the company’s marketing lead Ninna Valencia and co-founder Susanna Lahtinen. Image: Kiki Siivikko / CYF Digital

Both entrepreneurs and academics are also known for their “grind” in an international environment. The hard work never ends, and only you are responsible for what you produce. So it was surprising to learn that, even in this context, the conversations about wellbeing and work-life balance are never muted. Yes, we don’t always succeed, but it is considered a success if you are able to say no, delegate and prioritise tasks, take a holiday when you need it to recover and be unavailable during your vacations. These things are not just accepted but celebrated and generally approved.

The organisations that have been helpful for my professional growth in Finland are… so many. It feels like the whole of Finland has been my safety net.

Of course, my alma mater, the University of Turku and Turku School of Economics. One should never underestimate the impact academic and educational institutions have on the networks you build. As a result, I’m a member of Suomen Ekonomit (the Finnish Business School Graduate union), which organises events and offers other membership services, such as legal advice and coaching.

Also, my previous employer was fantastic to sponsor my photography and graphic design courses in Turun Aikuiskoulutuskeskus (Adult Education Centre Turku). They ended up being very useful for some of my current tasks both in the university and in our startup.

Many organisations have supported the growth of our startup. For example, different events, competitions and opportunities organised by Turku Business Region, such as the BusinessUp accelerator programme, were invaluable for our growth. Also, ELY funding supported the development and internationalisation of our new services, and we are grateful for that.

What I enjoy most about living in Turku is … the size of the city.

Turku is a wonderful place with a beautiful river and green lush parks on both sides. Historic buildings and modern offices, a lively centre and peaceful residential neighbourhoods, a riverbank full of riverboat restaurants, and serene seaside. The best thing about Turku is that all this is so close you can potentially experience it in one day by cycling around. Coming from a large city of five million, the proximity and accessibility of everything I love was a welcome change.

Katerina has done both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Turku. Image: City of Turku

The hobbies that I have really enjoyed practising in Finland are…singing, hiking, playing board games and going to museums.

A hobby that I could bring with me from St Petersburg was regularly going to museums and exhibitions. The Finland-wide Museokortti covers more than 300 museums, the largest offer I’ve ever seen and totally worth it.

Playing board games with my friends is something I picked up in Finland. The Turku City Library has a wide variety of board games to borrow, and all the pieces are in place. Turku also has a vibrant student choir culture, and I was happy to sing in one of them for many years.

In addition, anything connected to hiking or camping in nature and travelling around Finland brings me joy. Last summer I toured different towns and islands on the Turku archipelago ring road on my bike. That was a proper adventure that I won’t forget for a while.

Published on 04.05.2022