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.

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