So, here I am, in the city with the fourth highest living standard in the world, being paid a ludicrously generous amount to do a Ph.D. How on earth did I swing that? Good question. Why are there hardly any other British postgrads here? Even better question.
Back in the final year of my physics degree, I was in a bit of a quandary. I knew I wanted to do a doctorate in experimental physics, but I really didn?t know what field, let alone where I wanted to go. The only concrete idea I had was to try for a place following on from my final year project. Fortunately, at just the right moment, I spotted a notice for a Ph.D. in Geneva. It was in French, which gave it a certain allure (more about that later), the research was in a field that I had already thought about, and the salary (around £19,000/?29,000 pa at the time) was fairly gobsmacking to your average final-year student contemplating graduate poverty (unless you plan to sell your soul to the world of finance).
So, having checked with the lecturer who had posted the notice to discover that all seemed kosher, I sent off my CV. A few weeks later I flew out to Geneva for an informal interview and a look round the department. I found a well-equipped lab with a nice atmosphere where they seemed to be doing decent research, so I went for the job! Strangely enough there seemed to be relatively little competition for Ph.D. places. I think this is partly due to the relatively small number of physics students here. Even fewer want to carry on studying rather than get a job in the private sector, which pays even better, obviously. The situation for postdocs is similarly well funded, and although the total number of positions in the department is pretty much fixed there is a degree of flexibility over the nature of each post.
Despite my fairly chaotic approach to career planning, two things helped overcome the inevitable apprehension about heading abroad. Firstly, I was lucky enough to spend a year in France when I was much younger, during which I went to school and learnt to speak French. Secondly, I spent 3 months working at the Institut Laue-Langevin in Grenoble between the second and third years of my degree. There?s not much you can do about the first, but if you are thinking about moving overseas, I do recommend trying to get some sort of short-term placement in another country. Unfortunately most science students in Britain don?t get to spend a year abroad as part of their degree, so it?s a big step going from a couple of weeks on a school exchange to three or more years in another country. Personally, I found that my 3 months in France were extremely helpful, serving as a sort of dry run for a much longer period.
Swiss universities are run along similar decentralised lines to the country itself. Individual professors run their own research groups and receive funding from the national and cantonal governments and the Swiss National Science Foundation. This is partly to cover the teaching duties that almost everyone has to do, and partly for research. Each research group and/or department asks for money for their own specific projects. These grants cover 1 to 3 years, with some additional longer term funding such as for the recently founded ?National Centres of Competence in Research?. The group heads have a good deal of autonomy over the direction their research takes, and indeed how they spend their money once they get it.
Despite the relatively favourable funding environment, the pressures of an increasingly competitive world are never far away. There seems to be a general trend toward applied rather than fundamental research and fairly close collaboration with industry, although I personally am doing my best to research something as useless as possible.
With Ph.D.s lasting 4 or 5 years, it is possible to tackle more ambitious projects and take a slightly longer-term view than is feasible in many other countries. The labs are very well equipped, and it is often more of a problem finding suitably qualified people to fill them. Ph.D. students are usually employed as teaching assistants, so as well as your research you have to spend a certain amount of time fulfilling those duties. This often consists of lab demonstration work or running example classes, in French if possible, although not exclusively.
I was glad to be able to speak French before coming here, but it is by no means essential. A lot of my fellow postgrads and postdocs are from much further away than Britain and didn?t speak more than a few words of French before they arrived. You can write your Ph.D. thesis in English, French, German, or Italian (and possibly even in Rumansch--Switzerland?s fourth official language). As in many European countries, the viva is held in public: You give a lecture to your friends, family, and fellow students, along with the jury, who then ask you questions. This also is usually in French or English, sometimes both! Having a native English speaker around is probably more useful for my colleagues? paper-writing tasks than being able to swear fluently in French is to me! Geneva is an incredibly international city (40% of the population is foreign), and all of the academic staff are multilingual to a certain extent, so you can get away with only English. On the other hand, many of the technical staff don?t speak English, and you are never really going to get past the surface of a place if you don?t learn the local language.
Switzerland has only just voted to join the United Nations (ironically, given that Geneva hosts the UN?s European headquarters), so it is unlikely that it will join the EU any time soon. This means one has to do a certain amount of faffing around with permits, but most of this was taken care of by the department before I got here; I was left with some queuing to do and the inevitable cash to hand over in return for my ?Livret pour étrangers?. You may have problems if you want to stay in the country after the end of your Ph.D., although recent agreements between Switzerland and the EU member states should make things easier for EU citizens in the future.
I have absolutely no regrets about moving to a different country after studying in Britain. A small amount of courage repays itself enormously in terms of personal and professional development. It helps of course that I am working with the nicest bunch of people you could hope for, but I defy anyone to be completely immune to the charms of this eccentric little country.