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A PhD Student's Guide to Living in Switzerland

by Mark Bennett

What's it like to study abroad in Switzerland as a PhD student?

Switzerland has always been a cosmopolitan country and a centre of international exchange in Europe. This is reflected in its attitude to higher education, with around 50% of students studying a PhD in Switzerland hailing from abroad. As one of them you'll have the chance to spend around three to five years enjoying a vibrant multicultural lifestyle surrounded by spectacular landscapes.

Switzerland is relatively unique in that it doesn't have a single 'official' language. Instead separate regions of the country speak either French, German, Italian or Romansh. As you might expect, the spread of the first three languages is heavily influenced by proximity to Switzerland's borders with France, Germany and Italy. Western regions tend to speak French, central areas speak mostly German and parts of southern Switzerland speak Italian. Romansh is a uniquely Swiss language descended from Latin. It is spoken as the dominant language in small areas of Switzerland, but is unlikely to be used much in Swiss universities. This multilingual character makes Switzerland an ideal place to make the most of postgraduate study abroad; as a PhD student in Switzerland you'll have the chance to develop language skills and experience a unique blend of European culture and ideas.

Studying a PhD in Switzerland will also give you the opportunity to explore some of the most famous landscapes in Europe. The Swiss lakes and mountains have attracted travellers and tourists for hundreds of years, from British Romantic writers such as Lord Byron and Mary Shelley (who began writing Frankenstein in a villa on the banks of Lake Geneva in 1818) to the many tourists who have visited the Reichenbach Falls, famous as the site of the (fictional) 'death' of Sherlock Holmes. So, whether you're motivated by research interests in nineteenth-century Gothic fiction, the ecology of alpine flora and fauna, or just the chance to see some spectacular sites, you'll have plenty to keep you occupied alongside your PhD studies in Switzerland.

Key facts

  • Switzerland has a population of around eight million, around a third of which live in the country's five biggest cities (Zurich, Basel, Geneva, Bern and Lausanne).
  • Switzerland operates a federal constitution, with some power organised at the level of regions (cantons). Somewhat unusually, elements of Swiss governance are decided through direct democracy in which citizens may vote on policy themselves, rather than simply electing representatives to do so.
  • The Swiss climate is broadly temperate, with some variation. Mountain regions, such as the Swiss Alps, are substantially colder than lowland areas. In the far south of Switzerland, meanwhile, some areas experience a more Mediterranean climate.
  • Tourism in Switzerland is very popular, with large numbers of visitors each year. In fact, Switzerland is one of the most historic tourist destinations in Europe, having attracted large numbers of international visitors since the eighteenth-century.
  • There is no state religion in Switzerland. Christianity is the most popular religion among those Swiss who profess a faith.
  • The currency of Switzerland is the Swiss franc (CHF). CHF1 is roughly equivalent to $1.1.

Culture, leisure and everyday life for PhD students in Switzerland

Swiss culture is a mixture of European influences with some unique twists. The majority of the modern Swiss population now lives in the country's urban areas and, as a PhD student in Switzerland you are likely to find yourself in a larger city such as Zurich, Geneva or Basel. You should bear in mind though that even Switzerland's largest cities aren't particularly 'urban' by international standards: Zurich, the largest city, has less than 400,000 inhabitants (this is less than many cities in the UK, including Liverpool, Sheffield, Birmingham and Manchester). Smaller towns and villages offer a glimpse of more traditional life, but, wherever you study in Switzerland, you'll not be far from the country's spectacular rural landscapes.

Sporting activities are particularly popular in Switzerland. The country excels at winter sports in particular, but also has a strong international football team and is home to famous tennis players such as Martina Hingis and Roger Federer. As a PhD student in Switzerland you'll have the opportunity to try your hand at a range of leisure activities that might not be available in your home country, from alpine skiing and mountaineering, to canoeing and lake sailing.

Food and drink

As you might expect, Swiss cuisine draws upon influences from neighbouring countries. You might think of Swiss cooking as a kind of melting pot, or, indeed, a fondue combining European influences, with its own innovations . The result is that Swiss cuisine offers a varied combination of international influences and, whatever your personal tastes, you should find plenty to enjoy whilst studying for a PhD in Switzerland.

When it comes to drink, Swiss products have a certain notoriety. Absinthe was originally distilled in the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel before becoming popular in bohemian Paris during the nineteenth-century. It was banned for much of the twentieth-century, but has been reintroduced in recent decades. Whilst you might wish to sample a small amount of Switzerland's most famous spirit during your time in the country, champagne may be a better choice when celebrating a successful day in the library or lab!

Accommodation and living costs for PhD students in Switzerland

The cost of living in Switzerland is broadly comparable to that in other regions of Europe, and student accommodation is relatively easy to find in most major university areas. Swiss universities are used to welcoming and assisting international students and this has led many of them to provide detailed practical information about life in their local area online. You should be able to view this advice on your university's website or contact their international office if the information you need is not easily locatable online.

Accommodation

Swiss universities may maintain some student housing, but its availability may be limited. You should get in touch with your institution as early as possible to enquire about the availability of university accommodation for international PhD students in Switzerland. If you cannot secure accommodation in a university halls or residence, don't worry, there are usually plenty of private rental options in regions near major Swiss universities. Your university's website may offer advice on suitable local landlords and / or have a matchmaking service to help you find other students with similar needs looking to rent a shared flat or house. The cost of accommodation will vary greatly, but you can view some information on accommodation organisations and services in Switzerland at the website of CRUS (the Rectors' Conference of the Swiss Universities).

Living costs

The cost of living for PhD students in Switzerland is estimated at around CHF 1,500 ($1,600) to 2,500 ($2,665) per month. Bear in mind that this figure includes housing as well as an average transport cost - you won't need to spend this much on groceries alone! Of course your own expenses whilst studying a PhD in Switzerland will vary depending on your personal circumstances and interests. Taking up some of Switzerland's unique leisure opportunities may incur a few additional costs, and making clever use of self-catering facilities could be cheaper than relying on eating out.

Working in Switzerland as a PhD student

Whatever your living costs, you may find it financially and personally rewarding to work part-time whilst studying for your PhD in Switzerland. Taking a job alongside your studies can be a great way of offsetting study costs as well as meeting people and practicing your foreign language skills. Foreign students in Switzerland are usually permitted to work alongside their studies, but there will be some restrictions on this. As a PhD student you may also be employed by your university as a teacher or demonstrator. Such work will usually still be subject to regulations on foreign workers in Switzerland.

Students from the EU and EEA will usually be allowed to work without requiring a specific permit, depending on agreements between Switzerland and their home country. Students from other countries should contact the Swiss Immigration Authority or a Swiss Embassy in order to enquire about their entitlement to work whilst studying a PhD in Switzerland. You should bear in mind that some restrictions will apply to the number of hours you can work and the degree to which you can be dependent upon your own income as a student in Switzerland. In order to prevent potential abuse of the student immigration system, foreign students in Switzerland are usually required to have sufficient funds to support them through their studies before they arrive in the country.

Remember that you can also use PostgraduateFunding.com to search a comprehensive database of small grants available to all postgraduate students. These could be a great way of topping up your funding if you have difficulty finding work alongside your studies.

Other useful information for PhD students in Switzerland

There are a few other things you'll want to investigate before heading off to study a PhD in Switzerland. You'll need to get into the country and get around, for one thing and you'll need some form of bank account to keep your income or funding in. You'll probably also want to be able to get in touch with friends and family back home, or at least have access to the internet (for research purposes, of course). Click more for a concise introduction to transport, banking and communications in Switzerland.

Travel and transportation

One of the many advantages of choosing to study a PhD in Switzerland is the ease of travel to other nearby European countries. Simply by crossing a border you'll be able to visit countries like France, Germany and Switzerland, with other destinations accessible by international rail and coach services. So, if you plan carefully, your three to five years of PhD study in Switzerland can be a truly European experience! You can find information on domestic and international train services in Switzerland from the official website of the Swiss Railway network. For longer journeys you may wish to travel by airplane. Switzerland's largest airport is Zurich Airport, which maintains flights to and from various international destinations.

Money and banking

You may have heard of the notorious 'Swiss bank account' - a by-word for slightly shady financial deposits and transactions that developed as a result of Switzerland's historical emphasis on the absolute privacy of its banking system. Today the Swiss banking system operates according to common standards so don't worry, trying to open a bank account as a PhD student in Switzerland is unlikely to bring you to the attention of international authorities! You'll be able to open a standard account in the normal way by providing proof of address and residence in Switzerland. Some banks will also offer accounts designed specifically for students.

Communications

The official postal service in Switzerland is Swiss Post, providing delivery of domestic and international mail. You'll be able to access their services at post offices in Switzerland and use postal boxes in convenient locations. Check out the Swiss Post website for more information. Various mobile phone operators serve Switzerland, including several well-known international companies. You may find that your current provider can transfer you to a partner during your PhD, but should check this before you travel: roaming charges can be expensive if you remain on your domestic tarif. If friends or family wish to call you in Switzerland, they'll need to use the international dialling code +41. Broadband coverage in Switzerland is extensive and there are various operators and rates available. You may even find that your accommodation already includes internet access.

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