2.1. Requirements for applying for and continuing a doctorate
The general academic requirement of ETH for acceptance onto a doctoral program is that you hold a Master’s degree from a university. Depending on where you obtained your master’s degree, there may be additional admission requirements. Depending on your grades and the background of your institution, the department will require you to attend and pass 1 to 6 courses (qualifying exams) within the first year. Those courses are a kind of entry exam and quality check, to make sure you comply with ETH standards. Your supervisor and the head of doctoral studies of your department will decide which courses those will be. If you start your doctorate in late 2021, there will be a change of this policy as a new doctoral ordinance will be implemented. In general, you cannot choose the course – the department will stipulate them.
If you can choose course, ensure you inform yourself about those available, and how difficult they are. You can find this out from other students within your (future) research group who have taken them before. Discuss courses with your supervisor and recommend some to them. Take note, once courses have been chosen, they cannot be changed and you should pass them on the first attempt. They are then confirmed in the admission letter from the Vice-Rector and you are notified accordingly. The examination fee of CHF 120 is added to your semester invoice. In the unfortunate event that you fail your first attempt, you can redo the exam with the permission of both the thesis supervisor and the lecturer of the course. If your second attempt is unsuccessful, you might need to petition an extraordinary exception from the head of your department together with your thesis supervisor.
Application to extend the deadline for taking qualifying examinations form (PDF, 83 KB). You may find more information on this in chapter 5 – Being a student – Qualifying Exams. For more information you can go to www.ethz.ch/en/doctorate/registration-admission.
2.2. How to find a doctoral position at ETH
Successfully completing a doctorate requires strong personal interest and commitment from your side, an environment that allows you to focus on your work, and a group and supervisor who will support you and share your scientific values. Two criteria are needed to start your search for a doctoral position: the research field and the supervisor. You may already have a clear idea of the research field you want to go into, but we advise you to keep an open mind and have a plan B in any case. If you do not know what you are interested in yet, then visit some groups and let them tell you about their research. Also, be mindful of possible interdisciplinary overlap of your preferred research field which may range over multiple departments/disciplines.
The colleagues you will work with have a major influence on the quality of your work and life. You will be dependent on each other and need their support and help during your often demanding research. You will also strongly depend on your supervisor. Don’t be discouraged by this statement, most of them are honestly trying to make an independent scientist out of you and it should only help you understand how important the relationship between supervisor and doctoral student is. Therefore, it is crucial that you pay attention to the character and personality as well as supervision and communication style of the supervisor of your choice.
A doctorate at ETH Zurich, on average, will last over 4-years of which you dedicate about 30% (capped at 500 hours in 4-years in some departments) to teaching duties (lab courses, exercise classes etc.). These teaching duties vary in each department and institute. Your future colleagues and administrative management can give more details on these duties.
2.3. External Thesis Project
Doctoral thesis projects are generally carried out under the direct supervision of an ETH professor. The location of the research facilities may either be an institute at ETH Zurich or at one of the research institutes within the ETH Domain, namely PSI (Paul Scherrer Institute), WSL (Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research), EMPA (Swiss Federal Institute of Materials Science & Technology) and EAWAG (Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology).
However, it is also possible to carry out your thesis project outside the ETH Domain. If some or all of the data included in your thesis is obtained outside of ETH, for example at a different university, a research institution or a commercial company, the thesis project must be declared “external”. External thesis projects are only approved under certain conditions. These conditions are described in the “Thesis project outside the ETH Domain” application form, which must be submitted together with an outline of your proposed thesis and your application for a doctorate [Thesis project outside the ETH Domain (PDF, 203 KB)].
Approval for short research visits outside of the ETH Domain is at the discretion of your thesis supervisor. In any case, your supervisor must have access to the facilities you have used and to your test material at all times. [www.ethz.ch/en/doctorate/external-thesis-project]
2.4. Searching for a Supervisor
The path towards becoming a doctoral student starts with finding the right supervisor. This is not only the first step; in many ways, it is the most important one. The supervisor is both your mentor (during these trying times of self-improvement and growth in the research field of choice) and your boss (while in employment). This leads to the duality that you have to learn from and listen to your superior. Between these two obligations exists a fine balance, to which you and your supervisor have to find common ground.
Browse the websites of groups and departments to find information about the different research groups. Don’t be shy to stop by and ask if someone can tell you about the work done in the group. It’s also wise to make use of semester projects or your master’s thesis to scout groups during your student days and ask your fellow students about their experiences. Of-course, you should know what field of research you are interested in or what kind of issues you want to tackle: Would you prefer to work mainly in a laboratory designing exciting, complex experiments or on a computer solving important theoretical problems? As soon as you have some idea of what you would like to do, you should start to look for research groups in that particular area to find a pool of possible groups to work in. Don’t be afraid to make a shortlist of different fields if your interests are spread broadly.
Next, you need to find out which group on the shortlist actually has a vacancy. Many are posted publicly, e.g. on institute billboards, group websites or on www.eth-gethired.ch. Be aware that some groups may not offer their positions publicly as some professors prefer students who show initiative and approach the group directly. So feel free to contact different groups and ask for information concerning a doctoral position. It’s always worth a try.
In some departments, individual professors offer and run interviews for doctoral positions, while in others positions are connected to a graduate school. In this case, the supervisor hires the doctoral candidate, but it is ETH as a university, that takes care of your employment and matriculation. In both cases, you apply for a doctoral position by contacting the supervisor of choice in the research field of choice. The departmental counselling helpdesks can further assist in answering questions about the background of professors on your shortlist. You can ask them about departmental culture and management style of the supervisor, and the can provide insights into your future colleagues. We provide an overview of the helpdesks on our AVETH counselling webpage: AVETH counselling webpage.
2.5. Initial Contact
When first contacting a potential supervisor, it is crucial you’re well informed about what their group is working on, what their biggest achievements are, and what their most recent publications are about. You will find most of this information on their group webpage and you can always send an email to members of the group to ask for more details.
For a formal approach, send or (if possible) bring a letter of motivation and two recommendation letters to the potential supervisor. Consider also bringing a copy of your thesis, because the supervisor needs to evaluate you and this could help you convince them you deserve consideration. It would also be advantageous if you already have an idea or proposal for a project or research direction. Normally, publicly-announced positions already give the basic description of a project. In this instance, you should gather information about the project. In either case, be well informed about the topic and read some papers about it. You may not understand most of it and you don’t have to at the start, so don’t worry, but begin by reading a review paper on the topic to familiarize yourself with the terms. You don’t have to understand everything, but always be honest about your level of knowledge and make sure that you have some insight (e.g. knowing about some important state-of-the-art approaches to the problem such as “the efficiency of a solar cell so far is… but Professor …’s group claims that it could be increased to… with this technique.”). Showing interest, initiative and motivation, as well as being well prepared, is always very appealing to a group leader. If they do not answer your initial email, wait a week and send a reminder email. Stay polite and patient since these professors have a very busy and hectic life, copying their administrative assistant into the email may help.
2.6. Job Interview
During the job interview, the supervisor wants to find out what type of person you are scientifically, academically and personally. It is in your best interest to also critically assess the supervisor and the group and whether you would like to work there. You would want to know what the management and communication style is of the supervisor. The interview is beneficial for both the supervisor and the doctoral candidate; it is a two-way process.
You should consider the following points when preparing for the job interview:
1. It is perfectly legitimate to ask in advance what kind of questions you will be asked during your interview.
2. You should be well read about the current research and scientific interest and recent publications by the group.
3. Leave enough time to prepare a nice presentation to reflect your scientific contribution and personality if requested.
4. If you are in contact with some members of the group, ask what to expect.
5. Prepare a list of questions you would like to ask.
6. Look your supervisor in the face when you talk and speak in a strong and clear voice. Dress in clean neutral clothing that is appropriate and safe for visiting labs.
7. The interview might be in English (even if the professor speaks your language), prepare accordingly.
8. Be honest, you don’t need to pour out your heart, but lying or neglecting important facts can be grounds for dismissal.
If you have followed all the recommendations, you are mostly ready for your interview. Of course, you also need to make sure that the working conditions and working atmosphere in the group are as you expect.
Do not forget to clarify the following topics:
1. Clarify who will be your direct supervisor and which colleagues you will work with on a daily basis
2. Clarify your research, projects, milestones and general timeline
3. Clarify your working area (lab/office) and additional lab duties
4. Clarify your teaching duties and their full extent (see chapter [Being a Teaching Assistant])
5. Inquire about the salary of the department/institute/group. How long is your salary guaranteed for? Does your professor require you to bring your own funding?
6. Ask about the mandatory entrance exams and if they apply to you
For networking purposes and the development of soft skills, check with your supervisor regarding access to doctoral networks, workshops and conferences
7. Clarify expected working hours and holiday periods.
Not all of the above need to be discussed in the first interview, but before signing the contract you should have a clear idea what you are getting yourself into.
2.7. Contract and Salary
Doctoral students are paid a fixed-rate salary based on the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) Grant salary levels, see table below for the different ETH salary rates for doctoral students (rates in CHF). At the first level of their career (first year), they receive a fixed starting salary. After one year, this salary is automatically increased by Human Resources (HR) in predefined stages for the second and third year. No further salary increases are specified from the fourth year onwards. Contracts for doctoral candidates are issued for one year and extended annually. HR activates the process of contract renewal three months before the end of your contract. You should contact your HR departmental manager if you have not heard about the new contract two months before the end of your current contract. Please note there is a general maximum time of employment of six years for positions with temporary contracts at ETH. All contracts of doctoral students should not be less than 100% and should not be less than one annual year.
Table 1. Overview of the fixed salary rates for Doctoral students at ETHZ
Doctoral student fixed rate salary (data as of August 2020)
The contract sets your salary in one of the 5 levels which is defined by the culture within the department or institute (or sometimes the professor). There are five different salary levels (see table above). The lowest one is called “standard” but is by no means the standard salary level at ETH Zurich. Salary negotiations are rare, but not impossible to achieve because there are exceptions based on project description, funding and grants. The standard working hours for full-time employees are 41 hours per week, and you are entitled to five weeks of annual holiday. For foreign students, the salaries may seem high, but keep in mind that so is the cost of living is Zurich. In Switzerland no national minimum wage exists, on a cantonal level, the minimum wage in the canton Neuchâtel is around CHF 20/hour, so doctoral students won’t go hungry, but won’t get rich from their salary.
For detailed questions concerning contracts at ETH see the websites below or contact the HR department or the doctoral administration office directly. You should feel welcomed to contact AVETH counselling team if you are experiencing difficulty with your contract.
Check with the potential supervisor and co-workers whether your proposed research project is realistic in terms of the resources available and the given timeframe. Check which kind of expertise is available in the group to get an impression of how the group will be able to support you and where you may need external support. If you find that little help can be found within the group on your specific topic, make sure your supervisor feels comfortable with you seeking help outside (collaborations).
Do not take the decision to take a position too lightly and make sure you are not only looking for a potential supervisor but also one that you want to work with for the next few years, the same is true for the group members. Always take your time to visit the group, chat with the members, and go for lunch with them to see if you feel comfortable. The final application can be rather informal via email (including a résumé and references). To be on the safe side, simply ask the group or department’s secretary about the formal steps.
The terms and conditions of a doctorate (but not the contract) vary hugely and are quite flexible. Collaborations with industry or other institutions are common, as are interdisciplinary projects. Sometimes the group may have no funding available for an additional doctoral position. In this case, you can suggest to your potential supervisor to apply for funding from different national or European research funds. Such issues should be discussed in detail with your supervisor. You also need to define the topic of your research and the requirements for finishing your doctoral studies. Take notes when discussing this, they will help you formulate a research plan within the first 15-months. Hand in the research plan in time; its purpose is to protect you from erratic topic changes and it is an official document outlining the professional requirements to finish your project and so protects you from endless and pointless research. The research plan is not set in stone and is more of a guideline than a static plan.
Finally, even if you have chosen your supervisor and group carefully, complications can occur. Do not let them escalate by not talking about them, communication is essential within a group to avoid tensions. Whenever you feel you cannot talk about or solve a problem, you can always contact the AVETH counselling team.
If you wish to change the supervisor for your thesis project, in principle you only need the agreement of the new supervisor. Just submit a signed copy of the form or application for changing the supervisor for your thesis project (PDF, 145 KB) to the Doctoral Administration Office.
If you wish to change department – you will be enrolled in the new department as soon as the doctoral administration receives your application to change departments. In the case of graduates from foreign universities, the new department must decide whether to admit them. In both cases, a copy of the application form for Changing Department (PDF, 37 KB) signed by the supervisor, must be submitted to the Doctoral Administration Office.
A last word of encouragement: ETH has a very low dropout rate for doctoral students; most not only finish but are also quite happy here. It is a great university in a beautiful town with fantastic people all around you. Enjoy it!