On Starting an Academic Career in Switzerland

In Switzerland, vocational education is highly respected and encouraged, and creating and maintaining connections with industry partners is highly desirable for faculty in technological and applied science disciplines.  Moreover, Swiss universities tend to offer high levels of assistance to graduate students that are transitioning to industry, as only about 10% of graduate students continue in academia. So few graduate students may remain in academia due to the barriers of starting a successful academic career. However, remaining in academia also has several benefits. For example, the starting package and salary in the leading federal universities (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich and Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne) is very high compared to international trends, especially the United States. With such good terms offered by most Swiss universities, the competition for positions is high. Thus, non-tenure track positions are probably the most feasible ways of starting a career in academia at a Swiss university.

The Global Perspectives Program allowed me to meet and listen to the former rector of Basel University (Dr. Antonio Loprieno), and current rector (Dr. Sarah Springman) of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. Moreover, the program included visits to the university of Zurich and the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland. As I learned from these visits, a feature of academia in Switzerland is that when funding is public, publications are mandated to be open-access. Because applied research is highly valued, technological breakthroughs that have been subsidized by public money will propagate faster as common knowledge.

The program arranged talks and social meetings with faculty and graduate students in Swiss universities that revealed different cultures and approaches to graduate life between Switzerland and the United States. The differences included tuition cost, available university-services, and diversity in continuing education programs. However, the United States appears to be placing more value in available university services and continuing education programs, and universities are increasing offerings in these areas. In both countries, tenure track positions in universities are being reduced, with the goal to have fewer professors, but more associate and assistant professors. Non-tenure track faculty will be filling in on an as-needed basis. Such a trend will probably boost mobility within academia even further. Specifically in Switzerland, non-tenure positions are more approachable to people that do not speak any of the official Swiss languages or the language spoken in the canton that is the home of that Swiss university.

A highlight of my visit to Switzerland was the detailed discussion by Dr. Antonio Loprieno on the history of the Ph.D. systems that exemplified how pure scientific contributions became less favorable than applied scientific contributions within doctoral higher education. Moreover, the different kind of students that universities in both the United States and Switzerland are trying to attract painted a complex landscape that the future professoriate should be aware of in order to make informed decisions about their career. This trip revealed that what is most important in making a career decision in academia is not how universities work now but how they plan to work in the future. Being in alignment with how a university envisions itself in the coming 20 years or so seems to be key in having a reliable future in the academic job-market.

In informal discussions during our trip, self-regulated learning came up as a subject a few times. In short, there was some anecdotal evidence that students who are self-regulated learners pursue applied research of their own during their early years of doctoral studies. Consequently, they experience longer periods of study due to the unavoidable switch to committee regulated dissertation/thesis work. However, self-regulated learning is a subject relevant to the future of universities as they move more and more towards online and distance learning offerings. The high velocity of today’s technological driven world is adding temporal constrains to a doctoral education. Therefore, universities ought to create the conditions, in terms of both social networking and technological infrastructure, which will enable both faculty and students to increase the quality of teaching and research.

Starting an academic career in Switzerland means living in it. There are 26 cantons, and the main languages spoken are German, French, Italian, and the Swiss-German. Nine details that may matter:
1) The federal universities offer classes in English even for some undergraduate courses
2) Vocational services are expensive
3) There is plenty of nature to look at and enjoy
4) Along the older one, there is a lot of modern architecture
5) If you speak German, then people will be talking to you in Swiss-German
6) There will be driving on narrow roads while surrounded by bicyclists
7) Private health insurance is compulsory
8) There are plenty of bakeries as well as good chocolate and cheese
9) Trains run on time.

During the Global Perspectives Program, my observations were that academia is a global community that contributes knowledge to the public domain. Also, both Switzerland and the United States support research that can be applied by industry partners. Hence, developing links with industry is a highly desirable and favorable achievement for graduate students seeking to join the academic professoriate.

In conclusion, just like when students leave their families to attend college only to realize more about the inner workings of their family, our cohort left the Virginia Tech campus so that we may learn more about how it works.