holidays at home.

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I’m sitting in the airport waiting to head back to Zurich. It was a whirlwind trip home for the holidays – since I got to spend “so long” (really, six weeks) at home this fall and since I just barely started my new job/PhD, I felt like I couldn’t justify demanding a really long Christmas break. So I was in the United States for just one week. Two and a half days traveling with the Ford Sayre ski team as a coach to the first Eastern Cup competitions of the season at the Rikert Touring Center outside of Middlebury, Vermont, and the rest of the time at home in Lyme, New Hampshire.

Leaving is always incredibly hard for me because I have such a tangible sense of home at Highbridge Farm, and in New England in general. I went to Middlebury almost immediately after arriving, and our little team stayed in a giant rambling old farmhouse in Rochester, Vermont, down the hill from the Snow Bowl. It was a part of the state that had never even occurred to me – up on a hill away from the valley, out of sight of the road I usually drive when I go in that direction. But it was in so many ways exactly Vermont and reminded me of why I was so happy to be back in New England for the holidays.

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And the NENSA Eastern Cup always reminds me, too. It’s the same community that I skied in all the way through high school, college, and my semi-professional “career”. It was really fun to see all my old friends, especially since so many of us are coaching now! A highlight was standing out on the side of trail during Sunday’s 15 k mass start with my old teammate Lauren Jacobs, her cheering for the Maine Winter Sports Center skiers, and me for the Ford Sayre athletes. And of course both of us cheered for a lot of other people too.

glueckIt was also nice to watch Adam Glueck, a 15-year-old I coached quite a bit when I was home this fall, get on skis for his first races of the season. Adam was third in the interval-start 5 k on Saturday and then skied a very smart race on Sunday but lost a group sprint in the 5 k mass start and finished fourth. It was also fun to reconnect with skiers I’ve coached at previous opening weekends, like Sara Spencer, Erik Lindahl, and Colin Pogue, and meet some of Ford Sayre’s wonderful new athletes. They all have such great attitudes, focused on having fun and learning and having a good time more than anything else. I think they will be great lifelong athletes.

It was a a beautiful weekend for ski racing, and especially after the grim winter we’ve had in central Europe so far, I was soooooo happy to be able to do some skiing!

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And, then, lunches with friends, dinner with my grandfather on Christmas eve, and Christmas dinner with just my parents at home. I love spending time in our farmhouse and I could stay there, probably forever. Well, probably not. That’s why I don’t live there now. But I’m always so content to stay there.

On Christmas, after opening presents, we went on a nice walk all around our property, up to the top of the hill and then down to the brook on the other side. After the nice weather of the weekend, it had rained hard and most of the snow had melted. The brook was running higher than I have ever seen it before – the place we usually walk across on stones was probably a foot under water, the current was running strong and fast, and I imagined how the beaver dams at the outlet would possibly deal with this. It has been an unusual year weather-wise, but even so, I never regret the opportunity to walk around our land and note what’s going on. I wish I was a better naturalist.

My mom took these few photos:

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When we got inside we read books we had received as gifts, and cooked up a giant ham that our friend Tim had given us (live in New Hampshire or Vermont and need an excavator? Call Northwoods Excavating!). Mom made maple-glazed parsnips from Nigel Slater’s Tender, we ate lots more veggies from Cedar Circle Farm, paused for our annual Christmas game of Parcheesi which my mom narrowly won over a late surge from Bravo the dog (we take turns playing for him to make it a four-person game), and culminated with a Shaker Lemon Pie.

And that’s it, I guess. It’s strange to leave and not have any idea when the next time I’ll be home might be. It might very well be next year at Christmas – and if so, I’ll make sure that after an entire year away, I have more time to spend in my favorite place.

kafka’s trial in zurich.

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:

1. CV

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.

Thank you.

Required Documents:

– Copy of your Diploma / Master Degree
– Copy of recognition confirmation for non-Swiss degree
– CV
– 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
Promotion”

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.

new website!

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!

beginnings.

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?

Apparently I'm a professional now. Headshot for the institute website www.eawag.ch.

Apparently I’m a professional now. Headshot for the institute website http://www.eawag.ch.

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.