An Interview With Yenlik, a Social and Public Policy Student in Contemporary Societies

The Master’s Programme in Contemporary Societies (COS) at the University of Helsinki aims to provide a variety of fields, topics, and phenomena to study. But how do its students feel about the programme and the city?

Yenlik Dairova, a first-year Contemporary Societies student, discusses what made her choose the programme, the pros and challenges, and student life in Finland.

The Person and the Programme

Who are you and what were you doing before you joined Contemporary Societies?

Hello! My name is Yenlik and I am a first-year COS student with a study track in social and public policy. Before I came here, I graduated with a bachelor's in sociology in 2022 and worked for a year as a data curation specialist at a health tech company. I felt I needed to gain some professional experience before deciding on my track and what I wanted to do. I'm grateful I made that decision because initially, I wanted to focus on gender studies, but after working for a year, I realized I was much more interested in policy research. I had also been doing some research assistance before coming here, which further solidified my interest. So, gaining more experience in that area became my goal.

Why did you choose to study in Contemporary Societies and Social and Public Policy?

When I first read the name of the programme, it was a bit unclear what it entailed. However, after researching the University of Helsinki, I was particularly interested in public policy and social policy studies. I looked into the research done by the university's research groups and was especially impressed by the work of international scholars. That inspired me to pursue the same path, especially since I aim to pursue a PhD after my master's. The depth and diversity of the research, ranging from consumer research to topics like digital death and specific policy research on poverty, inspired me to come here. I wanted to take some courses and then decide what to focus on.

Have you found anything special about studying in Contemporary Societies and your specific study track?

I appreciate the independence we have in choosing our electives. Initially, I was more interested in policy research, but after taking courses on data and society, I became fascinated by that field and probably want to pursue it further in my PhD. I also liked that in group work, we could mimic how actual research is done. It involves a lot of teamwork, negotiations, and task assignments, and I enjoyed working with peers from diverse backgrounds. We all bring something unique to the table, so even though you work alone a lot, you also learn from each other. I think what’s special about COS is the people.

Studying at Helsinki

When it comes to studying at Helsinki, what does a typical day as a part of this programme look like for you?

A typical day mostly involves a lot of independent work for me because I don't have classes every day. Usually, I go to the library because I feel more disciplined with friendly peer pressure. I also try to meet some friends at least biweekly. With friends, especially those from the same programme, we can discuss our courses, share challenges, and support each other. I get a lot of inspiration from them about what to pursue next; they often give me tips like, "Oh, that course is interesting," or tell me about events like job fairs. Through word of mouth, I learn about interesting activities happening at the university or in Helsinki, like museum visits, especially on Free Days. So, my days are a mix of studying and trying to socialize as much as I can.

Have you found anything challenging about your studies here?

The challenge of this programme or pursuing higher education after a bachelor's degree in general is independent work. You have to actively seek help if you face challenges, whether academically or with integration into a new country. For example, finding a traineeship can be tough. There are materials and guides, but you have to keep track of everything yourself. In coursework, if you need detailed feedback, you can always ask your professors. The key is to realize what's important to you and actively pursue it. I would suggest being intentional with the courses you take and trying to picture how they might enrich your future thesis.

How do you feel about the city and the university as a place to study?

Studying at the City Center campus makes me feel lucky because I like the area and the general infrastructure. There are so many campuses and facilities. I enjoy studying at the library, not just for its functionality but also because the scenery of Helsinki itself is beautiful. While I started off liking Helsinki because it was very convenient in terms of infrastructure, I also grew to like it even more because of the people and the community I built while exploring the city.

Was there anything that surprised you when you first came to Helsinki or that still surprises you?

The things I found surprising about Finland are quite dependent on where I come from. I'm from Kazakhstan, where we're not allowed to protest freely. So, when I came here during my first week, there were a couple of protests—one about student budget cuts and another was the anti-racist protest. It surprised me in a good way. My first instinct when I saw the protests was to run away because I saw the police. But I was surprised that the police were there to ensure the safety of the protesters, close down streets and monitor that everything happened in a safe environment. I was impressed by the unity and organization among the protesters, from whom I learned I could speak out and be heard.

Something nobody told me about was that you have to raise your hand when hailing a bus. I missed a lot of buses and bus stops because I didn't know you needed to press a button. Overall, though, everything was pretty intuitive to navigate in Helsinki, and I didn't experience much of the culture shock every guide was preparing me for. I had a lot of support when I came here from both my peers and tutors. Shout out to tutors—they were really helpful during our first couple of weeks.

People say Finns are very closed off, but maybe I'm just used to introverted people. Honestly, I like how Finns are very respectful of personal space. Everyone is very polite and respectful.

Looking Into the Future

What would you say to students who are considering joining the Master's Programme in Contemporary Societies?

Sometimes you don't know about the opportunities available because you're coming from abroad. If you're considering pursuing something far from home, it's a great idea. For example, as an academic researcher back home, I wasn't aware of a lot of global academic research groups and work opportunities. Finland offers a strong platform to look across academic fields, with excellent professors and supportive international scholars who do guest lectures. It's a great way to network and inspire yourself to pursue academic interests you might not have known you had.

If you're considering academia, it's wonderful to come to a place where you feel inspired by the work done there. That's how I felt about Finland, especially after reading papers by professors at the University of Helsinki.

What would you have liked to have heard when you first came to the University of Helsinki?

When I think about what I would have wanted to hear before I came here, it's important to know that it's okay if you don't have a clear research interest yet. I was working at the time and didn't have a lot of energy to think deeply about my research interests to have one definite master thesis idea while preparing documents. It would have been nice to outline some interests, but I found that the interesting electives here gave me good ideas about what I want to pursue in the future.

I would also recommend starting to learn the language. That's my general advice whenever I travel—to at least get the basics down, especially if you plan to study here. Even if you feel like you're independent, it's still better to prepare for reaching out to people. In Finland, associations are very important. There are many opportunities to join different student organizations, and I highly recommend getting involved. It’s beneficial not only for making friends and personal connections but also for sharing struggles and achievements as an international student.

What are your near future and long-term hopes and plans?

In the near future, I need to work on my master's thesis and perfect my research proposal. It's important to realize that your master's thesis is a way to prove you can conduct academic work, so you don't need to put too much pressure on yourself. I'm trying to focus and not make it too hard for myself.

Long-term, I plan to prepare for my PhD. This summer, I'm going to start applying to PhD programmes, and I'm considering staying in Finland or possibly going elsewhere. My long-term goal is to stay in academia.

Contemporary Societies

In the Master's Programme in Contemporary Societies, you choose from six major subjects:

  • Global Development Studies
  • Social and Cultural Anthropology
  • Social and Public Policy
  • Social Data Science
  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology

You also study themes like Data and Society, Ethnic Relations and Migration, Mind and Society, Socio-Cultural Shifts and Sources of Inequalities.