7 – Finishing the Doctorate

The procedure of finishing a thesis is not only dependent on the department, but to an even greater extent, on individual professors. When you have reached this point (normally after at least three years), you should discuss the matter with your professor and check the doctoral administration website.

7.1. Paper-Based & Normal Dissertations

ETH has adopted a system that relies on you submitting a paper-based dissertation. Instead of writing a complete thesis, all the papers that have been published by the doctoral students during their time at ETH Zurich are taken as the body of the thesis text. The student only needs to add an introduction and a conclusion. While this may seem like a very comfortable option, keep in mind that this way of writing the dissertation requires a thorough check of the copyright laws (may a figure that has been published in a journal be published again in a thesis?) and co-authorships (you rarely have a paper of your own; usually there are contributors). Leave plenty of time for this before handing over the thesis to your examiners.

7.2. The Defense

Once again, this is highly dependent on the department. In most cases, it consists of a public presentation of about half an hour to an hour followed by an either public or sometimes private question sessions. Keep in mind that there are no grades for finishing a doctorate at ETH Zurich, so be relaxed and simply prepare well (i.e. reread your thesis, reread the papers you referenced, look at the publications of your examiners). Additionally, by the time you defend you will have gathered enough knowledge about your subject that you are the expert in your field. If you are unsure about how to prepare for your public defense, you could attend other people’s public presentations and ask for their advice. If you are unsure about your readiness for the defense questions and whether you are ready for that, you should address this with your supervisor. Your supervisor wants you to succeed and would not suggest to plan the defense if they didn’t think you were ready for it. It is also worth asking your supervisor, or a trusted professor to do at least one practice session.

7.3. Contract Ended, Thesis not yet Finished?

HR or your group secretary will notify you four months before to the termination of your contract. Often, doctoral students are employed on annual contracts which are renewed yearly. Unfortunately, professors are sometimes rather forgetful about renewals. Try to avoid this by reminding your supervisor in good time about your contract. If, especially at the end of your dissertation, when the grant period is drawing to a close, a problem arises with the renewal, talk with your supervisor about the issue. Do not rely on vague promises but obtain a clear written statement (paper statement or email) on how to proceed in the remaining time until your contract ends. Make suggestions for solutions. There are scholarships for doctoral students available (see below); your supervisor should write you a letter of reference.

7.4. Scholarships for Doctoral Students

ETH Zurich does not finance a student’s complete doctoral course with scholarships. Doctoral students at ETH Zurich generally have an employment contract. If the employment contract cannot be extended, they can apply for a scholarship. Scholarships for doctoral students are limited to three months. Requests must be submitted in the form of a letter to the Financial Aid Office Scholarships for doctoral students.
You can find further information about other sources of research funding at vpf and you can also contact AVETH Counselling for advice (counselling@aveth.ch).

7.5. Allocation of Workplace

In case you stay at ETH for some more time after you contract has ended you can ask for allocation of a workplace (Zuteilung eines Arbeitsplatzes). This form entitles you to use the infrastructure of ETH, i.e. the office and laboratory, in order to finish your dissertation beyond the time of the contract with ETH. The form has to be signed by your supervisor. Updated regulations may be found here.

7.6. Career Services

Make sure to figure out further career plans sufficiently in advance, so at least some months before your thesis end date. To support you with this, there is a comprehensive set of career services (e.g. CV checking and mentoring), job fairs, etc. organized by ETH Zurich and affiliated groups.

Career Center

The ETH career center offers a variety of services for doctoral students in search of a position outside academia. This ranges from individual personal advice to organizing career events. They also have a useful application guide on their website: https://ethz.ch/en/industry-and-society/career-center.html.

Alumni Network

ETH Zurich has a strong and committed network of alumni who are still connected to their university. They are organized via the ETH Alumni Association in different faculty groups. They offer events, a web-based platform, meetings, career services and many connections to other alumni. You automatically become an ETH Alumni member free of charge for one year after you finish. After that, you can decide if you want to remain a member or leave. 


Polymesse is a large company fair taking place in April every year. Typically, around 150 companies set up their booths on three days. The fair is accompanied with presentations given by company representatives (Polyvortrag). In addition, the career centre organizes some events for preparation. Some weeks before the actual fair, a booklet with all information about the upcoming Polymesse is distributed. Watch out for them at the Mensa or main building entrance. Polymesse is a very good opportunity to get into contact with companies, but it is also a good occasion to think about future career plans.

Long Night of the Career

The Long Night of the Career is a rather new event presented jointly by the Career Services of Swiss universities. It takes place once a year in November and “allows the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral students attending ETH Zurich to spend a whole evening focusing on their professional futures, gathering ideas, meeting employers in an informal setting, forging contacts and honing their candidature skills – in a relaxed and enjoyable setting”. 

Campus Interview

Campus interview is an annual event taking place in autumn each year and is organized by ETH juniors. As a job seeker, you have the possibility to conduct one or several interviews with participating companies on one day. In addition, the event is accompanied by additional career counselling services (like CV checking, etc.). 

ETH get hired

Telejob is a subunit of AVETH and aims at assisting graduates in finding a job. Telejob operates the job platform eth-gethired.ch together with the Career Center at ETH Zurich. The objective of ETH get hired is to support students and doctoral students in finding a job tailored to their skills and ambitions in industry or academia. 

7.7. Employment Reference Letters

Most employers in Switzerland attach high importance to the employment reference letter. Providing information on the candidate’s professional qualifications and personal qualities, it often forms the basis – in combination with certificates – for deciding whether to invite a candidate to interview or not.
All employees have the right to an employment reference letter at any time which gives information on the type and length of their employment, their performance, and their conduct. It is forbidden in Switzerland to use ‘coded language’ (hidden message) in these letters. At the same time, many managers in smaller companies have little experience in compiling employment reference letters, while others suspect a secret message hidden in every turn of phrase. It is therefore in the interest of all involved to communicate openly and clearly in order to prevent misinterpretations as far as possible.

A comprehensive employment reference letter should include the following points:
Personal details of the employee (name, date of birth, place of origin)
– Name of the employer
– Exact start and end dates of the employment relationship
– Detailed list of responsibilities and duties
– Description of the employee’s position (hierarchical position, promotions, and transfers)
– Assessment of performance and conduct
– Reason for employee leaving
– Legal signature of the employer
– The statements must be true, clear, comprehensive and favorable.

HR of University of Zurich states they will check if the reference letter is written in a personal and appreciative tone or if it only contains empty and standard phrases. Frequently, and particularly when time is short due to so many applications, a reference letter is often read from bottom to top, meaning that the final sentence is particularly important as this gives an indication as to whether the employment relationship ended because the employee was dismissed or if the employee’s departure is sincerely regretted.

7.8. Interim Reference Letter

An employee can also ask their boss for an Interim Reference Letter at any time and with no reason. This is particularly advisable in the event of upcoming staff changes (i.e change of supervisor) or if the employee wishes to change position. An interim reference letter differs from a full reference letter only in the fact that the start of the employment is mentioned, not the length. It also assumes that the employment relationship is still ongoing (not contractually terminated). An interim reference letter is generally written in the present tense.

7.9. Certificate of Employment

A confirmation of employment merely contains the employee’s personal details, length of employment, and functions performed. Performance levels and conduct are not assessed. A confirmation of employment is often interpreted by HR staff as a sign that the former employer was dissatisfied with the employee’s performance and conduct. It is therefore advisable to be cautious about asking for a confirmation of employment.
In addition, the employee is entitled to correct the letter of reference, i.e. to add content that in their view are missing and/or to propose new phrasing. The best idea is to take the revised reference letter to your supervisor as most employers do not deliberately intend to cause harm with a badly compiled reference letter. If no agreement is reached, an employment reference letter can be contested in a labor court. However, this is generally an emotional and time-consuming undertaking and you are better advised to find a solution on a bilateral basis.
Information on employment reference letter was obtained from www.careerservices.uzh.ch/en/ratgeber/vertragsverhandlungen/arbeitszeugnis.


Leaving ETH