Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Research, Doctorat à la Suisse

This is an extension of Corinne's blog about education and the differences of my research experience at Rice versus here at the EPFL. For me, this summer is also a time to start looking at graduate schools. Besides just looking online, I've been asking advice from the post-docs and graduate students that I work with. Talking to them has given me a basis for understanding differences between the Swiss and American systems in day-to-day observations. This probably applies more to the sciences, especially bioengineering (my focus) than other academics.

Most students pursuing a doctorat are required to have a masters degree. Like Corinne said, most Swiss 'undergraduates' study for five years and receive a masters. It seems that the masters degree here is much more class intensive, rather than research intensive, which allows doctorat students to do full-time research. In contrast, many American (bioengineering) students can enter a PhD program after receiving a bachelor's degree and would spend the first year taking courses to specialize in a particular area. Thus, without the time-consuming classes, doctorat students in Switzerland finish almost always in four years, whereas Americans take closer to five years. (Or unlike Britain, where it's a strict three years, after which funding for the student is cut.)

After the researching for years, the student gives a dissertation. In the States, anyone, usually friends and lab lab members, can attend the dissertation, but may be required to leave for the oral examination by the student's advising committee. Here in Switzerland, there is first a private defense--just the student and his/her committee. Then, the public defense, open to all of Switzerland, occurs; this is based on the logic that the public has a right to be informed about the research because they, as taxpayers, have paid for the education. The public defense is more of a celebration, where the degree is awarded, and when the rest of the lab can roast the new dotorate (so I've been told). A Swedish post-doc here in the lab told me his defense was followed by a celebration similar to that of a small wedding: they rented a room, served drinks, maybe a small meal, etc.

Financing the education--one of the biggest differences between the Swiss and American systems. As Corinne mentioned, student debt in American is very common, unfortunately so. Here, however, tuition is minor cost; in fact, according to the EPFL website, doctorat students don't pay the university. American students are charged tuition, but this is usually covered, as is the cost of (a modest) living, by fellowships and grants. I haven't gotten any numbers what a typical Swiss graduate student's cost of living is, but I'm sure it's higher than an American student's.

The lab's funding, in terms of equipment and such, seems much more generous than in America. My lab at Rice is quite large and considered well-funded; there's 13 graduate students , 3 post-docs, a lab manager, and a lab technician. In contrast, Dr. Swartz's lab has 6 post-docs, 8 graduate students, a secretary, a lab manager, and 2 lab technicians. I've been extremely impressed with the amount of equipment and personnel available to the lab. It seems that there's a greater emphasis on research here in Switzerland than in the States.

Swiss university's also boasts a large number of international students. My lab has 11 different nationalities represented. I hear at least 5 different languages a day! The lab director is American, so English is the principal language. This makes it easier for me to understand, which is critical for successful experiments, but I haven't had a lot of opportunities to speak French, to be fully immersed.

As far as my cultural experience, let the festivals begin! I'm getting ready for Lausanne's Festivale de la Cité that starts this weekend. Most museums here are free the first Saturday of every month, so I'll go to a couple this weekend. After that, I hope to spend my remaining weekends traveling and seeing the rest of Switzerland!

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