Survival Guide


1 – Preface and Introduction


Greetings from the Rector and President

    A doctorate is research at the cutting edge of science and technology and proves that you can complete a project on your own in a given time. It is also a teaching experience where you learn to explain the basic principles of science and engineering to the next generation of undergraduate students.     While you are asked to excel in science and explore unknown territory – a modern form of adventure – you need a solid foundation to build upon, a private infrastructure, friends and colleagues in a similar situation, and if you come from abroad some help to understand and settle down into the Swiss culture.     The AVETH took the initiative to write this Survival Guide to support you during this challenging period of your life. It offers answers to many questions, points out various pitfalls, and offers practical advice on avoiding them.     ETH Zurich offers excellent working conditions in your field of interest: an innovative and competitive atmosphere, state-of-the-art laboratories, and an environment that promotes access to the world’s best scientists, engineers, architects and mathematicians. Being part of this team is highly rewarding and provides many opportunities to grow.     A career both in academia and, even more importantly, in the business world requires additional capabilities, e.g., social skills, critical thinking, understanding the language of other disciplines, and assuming responsibility for our society. To acquire these skills, there are a plethora of opportunities to attend lectures and seminars in your own field of research, in other areas, and in social sciences and humanities both at ETH and at the University of Zurich. You should also remember the importance of physical fitness and take advantage of the many opportunities offered by ASVZ.     Moreover, Zurich is a great town for music, theater and other cultural activities.     In a few years’ time, you will receive at a graduation ceremony your doctoral degree, a degree that not only proves that you „survived“ ETH Zurich, but also that you were able to understand and solve some of the most complex problems of our world and that you have learnt to work and live in an international culture.     We wish you all the best for this exciting and challenging period of your life!    

Joel Mesot


ETH President


Sarah Springman


Rector of ETH Zurich


Greetings from the AVETH team

    Dear doctoral student and members of the scientific staff,     You are starting a new phase in your life. You have graduated and are interested in research – congratulations! And you are considering or have already started a doctorate at ETH Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.The next few years will be packed with thrilling topics surrounding your research, contacts with other researchers, international conferences and new friendships. At the same time however, you may be new to ETH Zurich, Zurich itself or even Switzerland. Things might seem complicated to you. In fact, with approximately 18’000 students and 8’000 employees ETH Zurich may seem like a giant labyrinth at first.     Consequently, the AVETH team has decided to create this Survival Guide. AVETH is the association of scientific staff at ETH Zurich, representing all doctoral students, post-docs and senior researchers. We are responsible for the political representation of rights and interests, organizing social activities and offering consulting services.     This book is designed to help doctoral students discover the objectives, possibilities and consequences of being an ETH employee, researcher and teaching assistant. It will provide you with information about both ETH Zurich and writing your Ph.D. thesis, but also offer practical hints and support.     The survival guide is organized according to the timeline of a typical doctorate thesis, starting with the choice of supervisor, the application and registration process. It provides hints on moving to Switzerland from abroad, finding accommodation and starting your project. It also contains information on how to become involved, be active or free-time activities.     We are very happy to present you the fifth edition of the Survival Guide. The first edition was published in 1998 after a survey revealed the need for a handbook for doctoral students. In only three years, the first edition was out of printed copies. Consequently, it was decided to release an updated version every couple of years. The current AVETH team would like to thank all previous participants and volunteers who put so much work into the guide.     From our side, we would like to wish you all the best for a successful research career and a wonderful time at ETH.     The AVETH board          

Why choose ETH Zurich?

    There are numerous reasons why one would want to pursue a doctoral degree – some of which seem more advisable than others.     It is definitely true that a doctoral degree opens up carrier paths that would not be accessible without a post-graduate degree. The title is essential if one wants to stay in academia on the path to a senior researcher position or even a professorship. It is also useful if one is looking to move into industrial research.     But make no mistake: a doctoral degree usually takes between three and six years of work, during which you are bound to struggle at one point or another. Compared to your previous degrees, you cannot rely on prepared material to learn from and simply pass examinations. Instead, a doctorate takes a great deal of self-motivation and definitely means a lot of work and constant self- reevaluation. Hence, our only recommendation is to choose a subject that you are actually really interested in and a supervisor with whom you feel to have a good relationship. Your field of research should solely depend on your personal preferences. To complete a doctorate requires a high level of personal interest and commitment. Any attempt to foresee what kind of scientific specialization will provide you with an advantage on the job market after your doctorate is clearly legitimate, but often proves difficult. We have included a whole section on career advice after the doctorate in the subchapter titled “Career Services”.     Once you have decided to pursue a doctoral degree, the next step is the choice of the university and research group. Many different factors will contribute to this decision, such as the reputation of the university and the group, the avail- ability of a position, the city and country in which the university is located, and, of course, personal ties with a specific location and the distance from one’s friends and family.     Whereas the last item in the list is not to be ignored, it remains a personal contribution factor. However, it is safe to say that ETH Zurich is a wonderful place to do a doctorate on account of the excellent working atmosphere, working conditions and research, not to mention the city of Zurich as a place to live.     ETH Zurich often features in the top ten or twenty of international university rankings, especially in the fields of architecture, natural sciences and engineering [1-3]. Its many departments, institutes and professors practically cover the full gamut of research in the aforementioned disciplines, allowing for a fluent interdisciplinary exchange and innovative scientific projects.     The city of Zurich is in a prime location on Lake Zurich with the Alps right on the doorstep, allowing for skiing, sailing, hiking and many more outdoor activities. The city itself is also a well-known international financial center. Hence, there is no lack of restaurants, bars, shops and, of course, excellent transport connections via the airport and the world-famous Swiss railroad system. We will provide more details and hints on the city in the chapter following chapters.     [1] [2] [3]    

Ph.D. Motives and Implications

  Nobody is born a researcher; you have to become one. Studying for a Ph.D. will probably be the last, but most decisive stage in the life of a young person who wants to devote him- or herself to the organized search for a greater understanding of the natural and social world. This includes the ability to produce, control and manipulate new phenomena, instruments and other artifacts. Helga Nowotny

Reflections on Surviving by Professor Helga Nowotny

    Studying for a Ph.D. is the crucial phase in which a professional identity is formed and when socialization takes place. Up to this point, much of one’s life has already been dedicated to learning. However, the previous experience differs from what happens now. For the first time, Ph.D. students are challenged to actively intervene in the observation and manipulation of a physical reality. In the previous stages of their education, students had to show their mastery of the content of an object world and the appropriate methods for examining it, essentially by digesting knowledge that had been didactically prepared for them. They learned how to put it to use. But in order to do so, the problems had to be carefully defined and purposefully selected by their teachers. In general, solutions were known, the conceptual frameworks of reliable knowledge were given, and methods and procedures were standardized and had only to be learned. Students were introduced to a world of research in which their teachers had laid out for them the pathways through which the known destinations could be reached by well proven and validated means.     Entering the Ph.D. stage means leaving learning through imitation behind. Students are now expected to do research on their own. They are no longer supposed to act within a frame of knowledge which is given, but strive for an active synthesis which includes what is already known, but also what is yet to be found. The method and meaning of learning change. Studying for a Ph.D. means to become an active producer of new scientific knowledge and technological artifacts. It is easy to see why this can be such a frightening experience at times. It marks the shift from the “mere” reproduction of knowledge to production; from dependence on those who have selected for you what you are supposed to know to a state of independence which requires and results in the originality of ideas, finding new approaches or trying out new methods. Students are expected to become similar to those whom they identify with as top researchers. Their most proximate role models are their supervisors. For the students, the supervisors represent at the same time the professional audience and the wider scientific community who will evaluate their future work.     Socialization is a process in which previous experiences and an identity are actively reconstituted. At the end, a different set of attitudes, skills and behavior will emerge, more suitable for the norms and constraints of the professional world, the membership of which Ph.D. students aspire to. Empirical studies on how Ph.D. students internalize their future profession as researchers demonstrate the difference in attitudes between students beginning Ph.D. work and attitudes held by those who are near completion. The most striking change between early vs. late students, one study concluded, was the way in which the students integrated their sense of being an autonomous individual into their overall new identity. Initially, their sense of self was in conflict with a “personal morality” dimension of values. By the end of training, the sense of self became increasingly associated with drive, ambition, competitiveness and willingness to assume responsibility, and less with flexibility and the pursuit of scientific curiosity for its own sake. The students had learned that failure was their own responsibility (Hill, 1995). Another study examined the effects of socialization on male and female students in technology. The results show that while significant differences between female and male students remained, with female students emphasizing caring norms more strongly, students initially emphasized caring-related norms more strongly than junior researchers who had completed their studies. In other words, socialization continues at the work-place, making men and women more alike. This is a gendered process in the sense that masculine values were promoted, while caring values lost out (Sørensen, 1992). However, this must not necessarily remain so in the future.    

Changes in Knowledge Production

    Working for a Ph.D. is not an aim in itself, despite the intrinsic gratification it may confer. It is supposed to prepare graduate students for what was once meant to be the only desirable career as a scientist: a life dedicated to science and research, preferably within the university or in a comparable research- intensive setting like an industrial lab. But the times in which there was a reasonable expectation that a Ph.D. would open up predictable and secure avenues and in which scientific careers came with the prospect of life-long employment are changing all too rapidly. Only a small fraction of those studying for a Ph.D. will end up in what used to be a traditional university career structure, which itself is undergoing profound change. The vast majority of Ph.D.s will find themselves distributed throughout society across an increasing number of sites where recognizably competent research is being carried out. The interactions among these sites have set the stage for an explosion in possible configurations of knowledge and skills. The result can be described as a socially distributed knowledge production system in which communication increasingly takes place across existing institutional boundaries and where knowledge production takes place in specific contexts of application (Gibbons et al, 1994). Ph.D. students are rapidly becoming part of this new mode of knowledge production and there is a growing awareness that many problems demand a more interdisciplinary or even transdisciplinary approach. If training inside universities, including training for a Ph.D., does not seem to accommodate or encourage more interdisciplinary interaction and communication, it is mainly for the reason that university teaching is still predominantly organized according to disciplinary boundaries. Students are supposed to become socialized into what is still felt to be most important, namely to acquire a professional identity which is discipline-based. However, it is becoming increasingly obvious that a cognitive identity rooted within one discipline must be accompanied by a capacity for inter- or transdisciplinary cooperation.     These tendencies have long been recognized within ETH Zurich, although a densely-packed curriculum and severe time constraints do not easily lend themselves to the accommodation of the need or the desire of many students for greater exposure to inter- or transdisciplinary studies. ETH Zurich’s Collegium Helveticum, located in the Semper-Sternwarte, offers an excellent intellectual space for a small group of highly motivated and competent Ph.D. students to continue work on their doctoral dissertation in a stimulating atmosphere where different research cultures meet. If you are looking for more than survival, join us.    


  • Gibbons, Michael et al. (1994) The New Production of Knowledge. Sage Publications?
  • Hill, Stephen C. (1995) The Formation of Identity as a Scientist, Science Studies, 8, 53-72.
  • Nowotny, Helga, Peter Scott and Michael Gibbons (2001) Re-Thinking Science. Knowledge in an Age of Uncertainty. Oxford: Polity.
  • Sørensen, Knut H. (1992) Towards a Feminized Technology? Gendered Values in the Construction of Technology, Social Studies of Science, 22, 5-31.

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