Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year (almost...)!!!

I wanted to submit my final thoughts to the blog after I got back to the US, but I thought this might be a good way to end 2008. I am sure once I get back to Austin and feel the cultural differences that I have stopped noticing, my perspective would be a little more useful. Anyway, below are my responses to the ThinkSwiss program questions!

I did not really know what to expect from my time here, but I think this program is a really brilliant idea. I see everything that others have written about their experience, and it seems like a lot of people are strongly considering coming back. As for me, I feel more likely to return here than to remain in the US because the Spatial Development and Infrastructure Systems MS program at ETH is exactly what I would like to do. While Zurich is one of the smaller major cities with about 400,000 inhabitants, it has every luxury and amenity a person could want within a manageable area. I will definitely return, especially if for a PhD, since I like the system better. I would like to return for my MS, but we will see how the application process plays out...

It’s difficult for me to name 3 “things” that were great about the stay. I really enjoyed my co-workers, the mountains, Zurich, and in general everything I got to experience. One thing I have been spoiled and especially impressed by, though, is the efficiency of everything in Switzerland. I only experienced a few delays in the public transport during my nearly four months here, and I never waited in line for an unnecessarily long time. It was possible to get information for just about everything online and even in English when I needed it. We were even able to order a 6 kilogram turkey online from a local farmer for Thanksgiving dinner and have it delivered the next day. It was the freshest turkey I have ever consumed. My favourite feature of this efficiency, though, is the integration of the post office and the banking system. The Swiss (and many other European countries) brilliantly combined two of my most frequent and annoying errands in one location.

There are not even three negative points I can think of, either. One thing that irritated me was people’s curiosity about the election and American politics. Obviously it was an exciting time, but some people were really rude when they wanted to talk to me about it. In general I am told the Swiss are as discreet about their personal lives as they are about their banking, so I am sure it was just a rare exception. Still, the exceptions were extremely pushy and insulting.

veryone at IVT, the institute I worked in, was really friendly and helpful. No one personally took me aside and explained anything as you would with someone in a laboratory, but I always felt comfortable asking for help from anyone. As far as comparing US and Swiss PhD programs, Swiss PhD programs take longer and are well paid. It’s more relaxed and people (seem to) have lives outside of their research while they are working toward their PhD. I always had the feeling in the US that getting a PhD was a very stressful and hectic time- where you sleep only a few hours a night but earn your MS and PhD after 4 years. Here the process takes on average 6 years, and it feels like everyone has more time to think about what they are doing. Also, PhD students in the US are typically much younger because they start PhD programs immediately after finishing their MS (and BS and high school diploma before those) so their perspective is different from that here, it seems.

And for budgeting purposes, I tracked my expenses during my 4 months here. I spent about 1400 CHF a month, but that is including airfare for some travel I did while in Switzerland, which is unnecessary and, to be honest, a little stressful. Looking back I would have preferred if I had just tried to visit my friends in Munich and Barcelona but spent all my weekends in the Alps or just hanging out in Zürich. I probably could have gotten by on about 1100 CHF each month.

While in the end I did not feel as though I had contributed anything significant with my research, I am so glad I had the opportunity to work in this environment. My goal was to predict the price and energy consumption of new vehicles purchased by Swiss households based on their environmental attitudes and demographic characteristics. Collecting such psychological data at all is still a relatively new concept, so perhaps there was not enough data to produce conclusive results. Maybe its because it is so difficult to measure at all; the vehicle market is so diverse that there are hundreds of options/luxuries/qualities to quantify. My models were at least consistent with past results in suggesting that price and vehicle size are the most important attributes of new vehicle purchases (so environmental attitudes, not so much). In any case, now that I know what kind of problems to look for in the data and my models, I feel any future research work will be much more productive.

Finally, I'd like to thank everyone involved with ThinkSwiss for this rare opportunity- I think its definitely a program that should be continued, if for no other reason than to advertise and incentivize overseas research. Also thanks to Prof. Kay Axhausen and his entire research group for all the fun and information they shared. It was a really great experience, and I can't wait to come back to Zürich!

With my favorite breed- the Bernese Mountain Dog, or Berner Sennenhund!


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