On the Way to Riva

On the way to Riva from Basel. Saying goodbye to the German part of Switzerland and on to the Italian. I am interested to see how different they are. We have some definite regional differences in the US but nothing quite so official as the divisions in Switzerland.  Even within the regions we have visited so far, there have been distinct differences culturally and institutionally between cities/schools.

Anyway, it has certainly been an interesting and fulfilling trip so far. We have seen some interesting aspects of Swiss and Frnech education (I am pretty sure half the class is currently tweeting about how low tuition is). I was thinking of the most distinct differences I have noticed and one of them that comes to mind is just a difference in culture surrounding graduate studies and PhDs in particular. I feel like, in the US, we treat graduate studies as much more an extension of the undergrade experience or at least the collegiate experience. We call PhD students students and we have fairly structured graduate programs that somewhat mirror the undergrad programs. In contrast to this, the PhD system in Switzerland is very much more one of PhD as professional. They apply to a PhD “position” and have contracts. Discussions with faculty from Zurich included comments about how there has been major pushback to the relabelling of PhD employees as “candidates” or “students” which has come along with an Americanization, if you will, of the Swiss graduate experience.

So what are the practical effects? A contract and a salary is a major benefit. This provides security for students who in the US can have finding pulled on short notice. Strasbourg mentioned benefits and social security accrual/pension for students. There also appear to be much more in the way of spelled out responsibility. Students are on contract for a specific number of hours or teaching obligations or the like rather than the more vague requirements of a US PhD. Phd students here appear to be expected to be employees rather than studbets though, which also appears to have other effects. Students are not coddled or coached along as much. It appears that students are expected to work and fulfill their contract. We have a much more flexible system that appears more concerned with personal growth or adaptation than the Swiss model. Things like mental health or student services appear to just be the emerging stages at a lot of schools. One related comment was that students are typically hired for specific PhD positions and projects whereas it is often the case in the US that people start a PhD program without an actual advisor or project. This gives us more flexibility but also means we can’t have the same security going in as Swiss student/employees.

It has been interesting to see the tradeoffs of different educational models. Even between the schools we have seen, the different institutions have found very different ways to function within the same Swiss system. There really is no “best” way to do it but there are certainly things I’ve seen that could make a positive differences. Also things that make me grateful for the US system. I am excited to see what schools are like in the South and compare methods with what we have already been exposed to.

For the next few hours though i am just excited to see the Alps 🙂