On Tuesday I was reduced to tears at my desk. Not, like, bawling, but a few tears gently running down my cheek. Dejected. Hopeless. I was sitting with my head in my hands when Roman, the other PhD student in my lab group and one of the two other people I share an office with, walked in. I also had earbuds in, listening to a podcast as I checked my e-mail, so at first I didn’t notice him.
“Good morning!” he said, his normal cheery self.
“Oh… um… hi,” I replied or something like that.
At some point in the next few minutes, after I had surreptitiously wiped the tears from my face, I turned my chair around and asked him, “have you enrolled in the MNF yet?” I’m sure my eyes were wild, although I’m unsure whether he could tell that my voice was cracking. I was gesticulating like a madwoman (mad scientist?) with my hands as I complained about my latest frustration.
He soon left to go do some labwork. Whether the labwork was really urgent or I was just too crazy to put up with at 8:30 a.m., I will never know.
What could be driving me so mad? The answer might surprise you. It’s enrolling in a PhD program at the University of Zurich.
Wait wait wait, you might say. But you’re already doing your PhD! You have been there for six weeks! Your supervisor offered you a position in June, and you were accepted into the PhD program then! Yes. That is true. But I am still not an official student in the faculty of natural sciences (MNF).
What I’ve been through, and I guess every other student as well, is a labyrinthine process involving at least three different parts of the university, none of which communicate with each other. It involves well over a dozen different documents, some of which I need to have in both original form and certified copies. It involves repeated fees, document delivery only accepted in person, the list goes on.
The worst thing about the process is that, through all of the different steps, you don’t actually know how many steps come afterwards or what they entail. Repeatedly, I have thought, “yes! The last thing, check!” only to, days later, receive an e-mail with a whole new list of requirements.
It’s bad enough for Swiss students – even then it commonly takes three months to enroll – but it’s really terrible for non-Swiss.
I began the application process well before I ever left the U.S. to go to Switzerland. My supervisor had accepted me, and I had also interviewed with a second faculty member of the department to ensure that I wasn’t pulling one over on the first interviewer. The head of the PhD program had already signed my acceptance letter and sent it to the university admissions office. (It was the only time in this entire process that someone from one part of the university would directly send a relevant document to another part of the university.)
From the U.S., I first had to pay a 100 franc fee to apply to the university. I also sent them, certified international mail, the following:
2. Copy of a my passport
3. A copy of my high school diploma, certified by a U.S. notary
4. A copy of my bachelors diploma from Dartmouth, likewise certified by a U.S. notary, who found this process bewildering
5. My Dartmouth transcript is in a sealed envelope stamped with the seal of the registrar’s offic
6. A transcript from my masters coursework at Université Montpellier II in France. This was the physical piece of paper that was sent to me by UM2 – I sent them the only copy – but it was later rejected by the University of Zurich for not being “official” enough.
7. A description, including the number of credits, the goals of the course, the homework and projects and lengths and methods of the exams, of every course I took during my masters degree at three separate universities. I assembled this myself from different parts of the various universities’ websites.
8. A description of my masters program including contacts for the program administrator and the coordinators at each individual university.
9. My masters thesis from Uppsala University on a CD (a CD! They wanted it on a CD!).
I also had two of the universities send them materials directly: Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich mailed them an official transcript, and Uppsala University mailed them an official transcript as well as an official copy of my masters diploma.
It took me more than an entire working day to find, assemble, notarize, etc this packet of documents.
After this, I spent a good two weeks in jeopardy because documents from France were insufficiently official. Also, I did a dual-degree program and I had only yet received my diploma from Uppsala. France takes over a year to print diplomas after a student has finished their degree; it was simply impossible to get one. Despite the fact that I did, in fact, have my Uppsala diploma, I was told I could not enroll until I also had the diploma from France because it was the only way to prove I had finished my work there. It was an impasse: Switzerland required France’s information; France declared it completely impossible.
Luckily, my masters program coordinators talked directly to the admissions office and this was eventually solved, although not without a lot of time and stress.
I also had to submit two or three documents signed by both me and my supervisor, which I obviously could not do until I arrive in Zurich. After I had arrived and submitted those forms, it still took them weeks to process my applications. A month or so after I started work at Eawag, I finally received an email that I had been accepted by the university. Yay!
All I had to do, the email told me, was come to the admissions office with the enclosed letter and my original diplomas.
Wait…. what? Yes. Even though I had gone to considerable inconvenience to have certified copies of everything made, this was only sufficient for acceptance, not enrollment. They had to see the actual originals. Gee, I wish someone had told me that before, because I hadn’t brought my high school diploma with me from the U.S. (“why would I need my high school diploma?” I had thought naively).
I was in the unusual position of having graduated from an Ivy League college, finished a masters degree from a university ranked in the top 100 in the world, and now I was not being accepted to start a PhD unless I could prove I had completed high school.
(I warned my friend Lore, who just starting this whole process and will arrive and start her PhD in January, about the original-documents requirement. Her reaction: “Omg, thank you for telling me… This is a huge pain in the ass.” Yes it is. She is from Mexico and reports that a high school diploma is not a thing that exists where she is from.)
I negotiated that I could continue the enrollment process if I swore, cross my heart and hope to die, that I would bring the original diploma back with me after Christmas. I still had to go to the admissions office in person though.
…. but then I couldn’t get my student card or official enrollment letter for the semester, which I also had to do in person, until I had paid my semester fees. So I went home, paid the bill online, and then went back to the same university building two days later. (I work 30-40 minutes away, each way, by public transportation, at a federal research institute in Dübendorf.)
Finally, I was through at the main university and I could focus on enrolling as a doctoral student at the Faculty of Natural Sciences, which somehow is a completely separate and not integrated process (?). I did their online application form. Several days went by.
And then it was Tuesday. I arrived at work and opened my email. This is what I found.
“Dear Ms Little
You have submitted your online registration for the Doctorate Studies. Please complete the enclosed form “Registration for Doctorate Studies”, which must be signed by you and the responsible professor with right to supervise dissertation work (rP). Return the completed form along with all the required documents at the Office of the Dean of Studies within the next day.
- Copy of your Diploma / Master Degree
– Copy of recognition confirmation for non-Swiss degree
– Copy of PersID/Passport
– Copy of Acceptance letter for the chosen Phd Program
Important: The name on the certificate and the thesis must agree with the matriculation data. Only the matriculation data of the University is relevant in this case. Changes/additions are only possible while you are matriculated regularly at the University.
If you have any questions please feel free to contact us.
With kind regards
The office of the Dean of Studies
It’s hard to specific part of the letter which reduced me to tears. Maybe it was that every document requested was either something I had already submitted to the university (copy of masters diploma, CV, copy of passport, admission letter to PhD program), a document from the university itself, which the MNF is part of, or a document from my PhD program, which is a part of the MNF. Really? They can’t talk to each other? Proof that I am accepted by the main university does not mean that the main university checked those same documents and approved them? Do different arms of the university distrust each other that much?
Maybe it was that the enclosed form had to be signed by my supervisor, who was away for the week at a conference.
Or maybe it was that after stringing me along for several months, including several days by this specific department, they requested everything to be done “within the next day”. With kind regards, screw you.
I’m a rules follower. I am not trying to make trouble. At repeated points in this process, I looked up on the university’s website what I would need to do or submit, and nowhere, anywhere, could I find an overview of this entire process. There’s literally no place where all of these documents and steps are listed. Even the most prepared and organized applicant would find it virtually impossible to prepare for the process.
The feeling of not being in control of your own situation – I need to take a class in January and, of course, cannot sign up for it until I am officially enrolled as a student – is incredibly frustrating and debilitating. It goes on and on and on.
I’m still not enrolled in the faculty. I’m hopeful that next week when my supervisor is back, I can submit everything (in person, of course, the only way accepted). Who know what other steps await me or how long it will take them to approve my application.
I’d really like, sometime, to have a week where I can focus on science for an entire week. You know, the thing I’m here to do.
I have thought for some time that while this blog is nice, it’s not exactly professional… so I made myself a real website, for myself as a scientist. You can check it out here, and it’s also now linked in the sidebar.
If you read this blog mainly for photos, travel description, and accounts of ill-advised athletic adventures, you might be interested to read about my research and what my “real” job is all about!
Every time I talk to my mother (hi mom!) she asks me something like, “so what is your usual day like?” I’m the first one in my family to go to a research-based graduate program in the sciences – my cousin Jess is in med school and my uncles got PhDs in history and economics, but the routine of those lives are very different. There’s a certain amount of mystery and allure about what happens when you are a graduate student, besides of course my mother’s general curiosity about what I’m doing with my life. I’m not going to class, so what is it that I’m doing?
But there’s not a real answer. Days both fly by and drag past. There isn’t really so much to distinguish them from one another at this point – I haven’t started fieldwork or labwork for real. The main thing is that Fridays are filled with group meetings, department meetings, and seminars. Sometimes other days are, too. Those days it can feel like you get nothing done and are running around from one thing to the next all day. Other days it can feel like you get nothing done and are just reading all day. No matter what kind of day it is, it’s hard to measure progress or have any tangible outcome of what you’ve done.
For me, the biggest change is to have a community, a structure, obligations, meetings. For more than the last year, I worked pretty independently. In Davos at SLF, we were a tiny department and had a short meeting once a week. That was it, other than checking in with co-workers whenever it was convenient just by popping my head into their office, or taking out my earbuds and striking up a conversation across my desk.
In Sweden, my supervisor was on paternity leave and only came into the office a few days a week. I didn’t have a real office – he offered me a place in the computer lab – so I worked in the library, which was a considerably nicer place, or from home. I checked in with him in his office a few times a week, but other than that it was up to me to make my own schedule.
No matter where you are in academia, there’s some flexibility in scheduling. People keep their own hours. Night owls hunch over their computers deep into the night; early birds cycle to work and have pumped out a few pages of writing or analysis before the rest of us even arrive. I don’t have to keep a timesheet, clock in and out, or tell anyone my schedule.
But compared to Davos and Gotland, it’s jarring to be back in an environment where people more or less arrive at 8 and leave at 5, taking a regular lunch break all together in the cafeteria. Where there are meetings and seminars and journal clubs that you will be shamed if you don’t go to. Where if you decide to leave early and spend the rest of the afternoon reading that book from the comfort of your sofa at home, probably there was some important obligation that you will have totally forgotten about and subsequently miss.
This is, of course, real life. I don’t dislike it. In fact, I do like it. I like our coffee breaks, our lunches, having other people. I can chat with the postdocs; I can turn my chair around and ask my fellow PhD student, Roman, how to go through the maze-like University matriculation process. Once a week I have a scheduled meeting with my supervisor Florian. We spend an hour or two talking about my project, ranging from experimental details to theory.
On Thursday, the ECO department had its annual Christmas party. A few wonderful people dressed the old teaching lab up with streamers, a disco ball, and other decoration. The department purchased more beer and wine than the 60 of us could possibly drink; they hired a pizza truck to park outside (I was initially alarmed to see an actual firewood-fired pizza oven in the back of a truck, because it just seems dangerous, but on second thought it’s no more crazy than a usual food truck) and make us pizzas to order. The rest of us brought salads and desserts; three student’s DJ’ed and everyone, from students to lab techs to the administrative staff, danced. It was great fun. It’s really nice to be part of a department with such a sense of community.
The hardest thing is that I have to try to get my daily run in before work, which is challenging when it doesn’t get light until after 7. I struggle to pry myself out of bed. But I shouldn’t complain. Millions of people manage to go running in the dark before work, why is it so hard for me?
The second hardest thing is that these meetings with Florian never have a concrete outcome. Embarking on a PhD in Switzerland is different than in the U.S. because I only have three years to finish. That means that right off the bat, there is a certain sense of urgency to figure out what I’m doing and get started. But at the same time, mistakes can’t be made. Things have to be carefully planned, connected to theory. We have to make sure we have good questions that we are answering, that we’re not just collecting data willy-nilly. It’s a fine balance between making decisions and taking more time.
It can feel frustrating, but I think that is what a PhD, and indeed research itself, is all about. Still though, it is easy to feel jealous of Roman, who is six months ahead of me and already busy with labwork, PCR’s, and weeklong trips to other labs to learn new techniques. I’m still figuring out what it is I have to learn and it can feel like everyone around me is leaving me behind as they move on with their projects.
None of that really answers the question of what I do all day. What I do all day is very different than what I will be doing in three months; in some ways it isn’t very representative of what PhD life is like.
But maybe it answers what I feel all day. I feel giddy if I make a GIS map; I feel sleepy if I read too many chapters of a book on ecological theory; I feel excited when I listen to a seminar about some cool research someone in my department is doing; I feel overwhelmed when I think about how to try to link all the pieces of my project together. I feel responsible for some important, long-term decision when I go to buy hip-waders for my stream work, even though actually this is probably the least-important decision I will make in the whole project.
And this combination of excitement, stress, and confusion is probably what will characterize my life for the next three years. One of the best things I am doing now is looking at the people around me and trying to glean information about how they manage their days, their projects, their home lives, their expectations. Luckily, I have a great set of mentors to learn from.
Do you think your Christmas tree is nice? Do you think it’s special? Well, the train station in Zurich would like to squash your pride like so many tiny ants. Their Christmas tree is drenched in Swarovski crystals. Yeah, that’s right. It’s also 15 meters tall, or almost 50 feet. That’s 50 feet worth of crystals.
It was a surreal sight as I hustled through the station at 8 a.m. on Sunday on my way to go skiing.
And it reminded me: in the U.S. we have Thanksgiving, and most Christmas decorations don’t go up until after that because, after all, then what would we do with the Thanksgiving decorations? No such problem in Switzerland.
“I swear every year they put it up one day earlier,” grumbled my friend Timothée, who is French. “By the time we are professors it will go up the day after Halloween.”
By now I’m a pro at traveling and moving. Over the last two years I lived in four different countries; at this point I’m up to 16 months straight where I haven’t stayed in one country for a whole month, whether it means a “permanent” move or a conference or vacation.
When I left the U.S. on Halloween to move to Zurich, things were easy. Packing went more smoothly than it ever has in the past. The travel was no problem; at JFK I talked my way into the U.S. Airways Lounge by charming the front desk lady. There, I enjoyed free breakfast and stocked up on snacks for my trip. I even managed to actually sleep on the overnight flight.
Moving in and settling down, I thought, would be just as easy. Paperwork? I’ve done that before. Bureaucratic rules? Check. Learning where the nearest grocery store is? Yeah, I’ve done that. (Not to mention, I now have an iPhone so I can actually get directions and maps on the fly, which is huge.)
After all, I have been looking forward to this so much: coming to Zurich, working in an amazing institute, living in one place for three years. Making myself a home and finding a community. Traveling with a backpack, instead of a duffel bag and a ski bag each weighing 50 pounds. Having a kitchen; having a living room. Having a bedroom that is separate from those rooms. Having a yard! Having plants. Being able to get into a routine, to have habits like going for a run in the morning. Having space to plan in.
I’m certainly well on my way to those goals.
But surprisingly, the moving-in and settling-down part is proving harder than I had expected. Way harder. And I don’t mean that it’s a stuggle: most things were checked off my list in the first day. I have a phone number, a bank account, a train pass, some furniture. The main things remaining are university registration (all my documents are in but the University of Zurich inexplicably takes up to three months to process it?) and, once that’s complete, insurance. And the migration board. Switzerland lets you in as long as you have a visa, but then waits to offer you an appointment to get a residence permit – so for weeks, potentially, you’re living with no Swiss-issued permission or ID. Which prevents you from checking a whole bunch of other things off your list.
What’s hard is that every day when I come home from work, I’m exhausted. Totally, completely done with the world. As I recently wrote in an e-mail to one friend, ” I get home and I melt into a puddle of useless sofa-glop.” (At least I have a sofa.)
The things that I want to do in my evenings don’t get done. I don’t go for that jog or do that circuit workout. I don’t read that paper or work on that manuscript left over from my masters degree. I don’t even reply to e-mails from my friends – the act of typing out my thoughts is too much. I don’t write the article for FasterSkier.
Probably, I peruse the internet and, in a haze, read some pop culture news that doesn’t even absorb into my brain.
Why this is so, I can’t seem to explain.
There’s been a lot of discussion in academic circles recently about how we all complain about how busy and stressed we are, but that’s only because we choose to see ourselves as busy and stressed. There have been some fabulous rebuttals, my favorite of which comes from Timothée Poisot:
“the raw volume of things we have to do increases over time; so does our productivity, but with a delay. We are essentially in a Red-Queen dynamics with ourselves: more work to do means that we have to develop a new coping strategy, in the form of more productive habits. Then when we feel comfortable, we take on more work, and become overworked again.”
(If you’re not familiar with the Red Queen hypothesis, here‘s a nice explanation of how a chapter in Through The Looking Glass is related to evolutionary theory.)
Looking back over the last few years, I totally see this in my life. That’s why I think it’s such a great explanation. I’ve gone from producing 50 to 75 to over 100 race reports (of increasingly better quality) for FasterSkier every winter, while simultaneously holding better and more serious jobs – hell, I did a masters degree which involved writing my own grants and administering a field season. I never feel totally comfortable, but as I pile on more things, they always seem to get done with no more stress than the previous, slightly-smaller workload.
Do things get lost in the lurch? Yeah. Personal relationships. But I still have good epistolary (ok, e-mail) relationships with some great friends, and things always fall back into place when I see them. I still wish I was better though, and wish I was closer to some of the people I care most about. And I wish I had more time to exercise – that for sure gets lost. I’m in the worst shape of my life since high school, but on the other hand, I’m still certainly in better shape than most people. It’s just my personality and life experience that keep me saying that this isn’t good enough.
Business, and busy-ness, marches onward, to both ever-new heights and exactly the same height.
What I can’t reason my way around is my sudden crash once I moved to Zurich. If anything, I’m less “busy” than I have been: the grind of the PhD has barely started. I’m still reading papers and trying to feel my way out. I will start seminars and journal clubs for the first time this week; up until now I got out of many of the demands of my position by virtue of being “new” and “still settling in”. Compared to my classmates all around me, life is a breeze.
So perhaps it comes down to this. For the last two years, I have known that every move is more or less temporary. That I need to make friends, but maybe not worry about them too much because I’ll just leave them soon. That the main thing I need to do is keep myself happy from day to day. (And in the course of being happy, of course, you end up making friends who are much more than temporary.)
Now, there’s a lot more pressure. I have to find the things that can keep me happy for the next three years. I have to make better, lasting relationships. If I go for a run, I’m thinking, oh yes, this is how my morning run will be! Which means, wait, what if I don’t like that morning run?
Which is silly, of course.
Yesterday I went for a hike with my friend Timothée (not the same as the guy who wrote the blog post). I randomly picked a place on the map where there were nice-looking mountains (at least according to contour lines) that wasn’t too far from Zurich. We took the train for an hour and set out.
It turned out to be up, for 3000+ feet straight. No breaks, no little flats or downhills as you head for the next ridge. It took impossibly long (well, just 1 1/2 hours with some breaks to look at chamois and sketchy cable cars) to reach the point I had marked on the map as where we could decide which of several routes to take onward. Sweating profusely and out of breath, I’d look at my watch and realize that it had only been ten minutes since the last time I looked at my watch, thinking, we must be getting somewhere by now.
Of course, we eventually got somewhere – somewhere with beautiful views. It was rewarding and I was thrilled to be in the mountains. All of the things that you remember when hiking as soon as the part that sucks stops.
And that’s a little bit like what starting in Zurich is like. It’s uphill and I am more and more exhausted, and I keep thinking, somewhere up ahead is a trail that traverses across the side of the mountain. Sometime it won’t be uphill anymore. It must be right around the next corner.
The bottom line is that moving takes a lot more out of you than you expect. Over the next few months, things will get easier. Routines will develop without me consciously thinking, “oh yes, this is a routine which is developing.” Days will become a blur of office, seminars, meetings, lunch with the lab group, German class, presentations. Weekends will be for skiing and reporting. I won’t notice so much the weird starkness of settling in before you are settled in.
And I will get back to being busy as a student, as a writer, as a crazy-ass human being. You know, like usual. For some reason, that doesn’t exhaust me.
I moved to Zurich! But I won’t tell you about that yet (I don’t know how to describe it yet, myself – still processing). But before I moved to Zurich, I went to three weddings this fall. Whoa.
I have hit the age (27) when all of a sudden weddings are EVERYWHERE. Already this year, I had missed a boatload: my friends Sean and Sarah in Vermont; my friends Courtney and Warren in Colorado. Also this fall was my friends Andrea and Brian, but it was at the same time as one of the other weddings. My college friend Sarah also got married this summer.
Out of the three weddings, I was a bridesmaid in two. I was excited, but I also approached the first wedding with trepidation. I wasn’t really sure what all of this is about.
But as it turns out, weddings are just about friends. And I had a phenomenal, wonderful time hanging out with my middle school friends when one of them, Thomas, got married to Becca. Photos from Becca’s uncle Mark:
Becca and Thomas were so generous with their time – we spent a lot of happy hours together, along with some friends we hadn’t seen in a very long time. The top photo from this post is me and Harker, the best man, hanging out with Thomas and remembering things from years ago, when Thomas and Becca first started dating. The whole weekend was also an amazing opportunity to catch up with Eric, Lily, and Geoff, among others, who I hadn’t seen in years. They are all doing amazing things, from designing toys to building their own houses and protecting Lake Champlain. We turned out okay, we kids.
Then, a brief break, and on to wedding number two: my friends Lauren and Daniel. We went to Maine and did the whole deal at a YMCA Camp on a lake. Photos from Tori Lee Jackson Photography:
The other great things about Lauren’s wedding is that it was almost entirely do-it-yourself. We set up the tables and chairs, made the rehearsal dinner food, made the bouquets. That last part was tough for me, as I have no previous flower-arranging experience and little artistic talent.
Lauren was a teammate of mine at Craftsbury when we were ski racing. Longtime readers of this blog probably remember her, in fact. Her husband, Daniel, is great – and I remember when Lauren told me about him for the very first time, back when we were in Craftsbury. I’m so happy to see them together and it was such a joy to be part of their weekend. Again, they were so generous with their time, and with their idea of the camp: it meant that everyone could stay there for the weekend, there was plenty of space for the kids to play (and adults, too). There were campfires at night and horseshoes during the day; some guests took canoes out on the lake. A photo from Nina Murray, another bridesmaid, of us ladies hanging out and getting ready:
Finally: on to Houston! My cousin Harrison got married. He’s the first Little of our generation to get married, so it’s a pretty big deal (I have not yet succumbed to the pressure… and also I failed as the oldest cousin). And it was a joy to have the whole family together for a happy reason, unlike a funeral.
I also really enjoyed Houston. There were plenty of beautiful parks and outdoor areas to explore, and my aunt and uncle have a really beautiful little place in a nice neighborhood. We spent a lot of time sitting out on their back patio overlooking their pool.
I spent most of my time palling around with my cousins Jess and Emily. It was Emily’s 21st birthday the night of the wedding. We’ll leave it at that.
This is not Emily, it’s Jess:
And then, that was it. I flew home and soon moved to Zurich.
One thing that I’m really happy about is that these weddings gave me an opportunity to catch up with friends and family from all the different spheres of my life. I’m going to be away for a long time: I got to have a nice goodbye tour.
And while I don’t plan on getting married anytime soon (despite my cousins’ request that I do get married, and have the wedding in Zurich, so they all have an excuse to go to Switzerland), it’s cool to see my friends and cousins settling down. I’m looking forward to that day myself – sans wedding. In fact, three years in Zurich counts as settling down, to me.