About the Author

Scott O'Neal

Scott O’Neal is a native of Indiana and earned his B.S. in genetics and microbiology, with a minor in Spanish, from Purdue University in 1999. After graduating, he worked in Purdue’s Department of Entomology and then at the Indiana Animal Disease Diagnostic Lab. In 2002, he moved to Richmond, Virginia in order to continue his education. Scott took a job at Virginia Commonwealth University and worked full time in a research laboratory in the Department of Physiology during the day while taking classes at night. He earned his M.S. in forensic science in 2003 and then put his education on hold to pursue his passion for the Olympic sport of fencing.More about Scott ...

…I quickly grew accustomed to hearing the same answers and receiving the same shocked looks when I described some of the work habits that I previously mentioned. What was described to me in one way or another is a culture that believes in the value of a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Time and again, I was told that lunchtime is not for working, one should not be taking work home at night, and vacations are definitely meant to be taken.Scott

The definition of a non-traditional student may vary, depending on the person defining it, but the most common criteria used to identify a non-traditional status are age and enrollment status. The National Center for Education Statistics presents a list of criteria that can identify a student as non-traditional, such as delaying enrollment, being a part-time student, working full time, having a family, etc. I self-identify as non-traditional because I am ten to fifteen years older than my peers and I have a family, consequently I think that I have a somewhat different perspective on graduate school as compared to many of my peers. After working in academic research for more than a decade, during which time I became a husband as well as a father, the concept of a “work/life balance” is something that I have pondered extensively. So naturally, when presented with the opportunity to explore higher education in another country and tasked with writing about a topic that I find interesting, I chose to explore the Swiss approach to balancing personal life and working life and then compare these observations with my own experience in the United States. Given my scientific background and training that has focused on quantitative analysis, such a qualitative assessment has proven to be an interesting challenge for me. Regardless, the simple act of comparing two different cultural approaches has been thought-provoking and has given me greater insight into the cultural pressures that have led to many of my own decisions throughout my life. What I am presenting here is my attempt to summarize the observations that I have made and subsequent thoughts about the idea of work/life balance and being a non-traditional student in the United States versus Switzerland.

For more than fifteen years now I have worked in various science fields at several large universities, beginning as an undergraduate research assistant and working my way up to a position as a lab manager, prior to my return to graduate school. I am familiar with the pressures of the academic lifestyle, as well as the work habits. I have worked through more than a few lunches, worked twelve or even sixteen hour days, worked on weekends, come into the lab in the middle of the night to collect data, and gone years at a time without taking a full week of vacation. Despite that, I have often counted myself fortunate not to be working in a lab where the students work in shifts day and night like factory workers. I have never slept on a cot in the lab because I did not have enough time to go home and sleep, and I have seldom missed spending a major holiday with my family due to work. Such work habits are not strictly limited to research or academia: workers in many fields put in extra hours without extra pay, work through lunch, and respond to work-related messages at all hours. Regardless, none of those work habits are particularly compatible with my current lifestyle, nor do they appear to be a common part of the Swiss lifestyle, based on my observations.

Switzerland has few non-traditional students

Throughout my travels with the Global Perspectives group, I repeatedly spoke to the people that I met about their experience with maintaining a balanced lifestyle. I quickly grew accustomed to hearing the same answers and receiving the same shocked looks when I described some of the work habits that I previously mentioned. What was described to me in one way or another is a culture that believes in the value of a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Time and again, I was told that lunchtime is not for working, one should not be taking work home at night, and vacations are definitely meant to be taken. In reading about work/life balance in Switzerland, I find that others have made similar observations. Of course, this should probably not be surprising given that this is also a culture that provides healthcare for all of its citizens, defrays most of the cost of higher education, and views hiking in the Alps as a national pastime. The more people that I spoke with about this subject, the more I began to understand the reputation that the Swiss have for valuing work/life balance. At some point, I could not help but wonder what my experience as a non-traditional student would be like if I were living in Switzerland, rather than the United States. I soon discovered that this does not seem to be a particularly common practice for Swiss students. In fact, the only non-traditional students (in terms of age) that I met were all from countries other than Switzerland. At every institution that I visited, I asked students and professors how common they think it is for students to delay their education and return to school at an older age, and the responses were almost all the same: the Swiss appear to be less inclined to deviate from the standard educational progression, and much less likely to interrupt their schooling for an extended period of time, than students in the United States. There are any number of factors that might contribute to this, but surely the most important is simply the difference in the cost of higher education between these two countries.

Cost of higher education

In the United States, the growing cost of higher education is prohibitive for many people and can result in students delaying education for a few years to work and save money, or attending school part-time while working. This is a significant consideration, given that the majority of college students can no longer be described as recent high school graduates, around 18 to 22 years of age, who attend school full time. The cost of higher education is even more prohibitive for those students who have started families or are single parents. When children are added to the equation, the cost of childcare can easily consume the largest portion of a family budget. Of course, all of this must also be viewed in the context of American culture, where adolescents are encouraged to seek out independence from their parents at the age of eighteen and there is a social stigma attached to living with your parents. Much like in United States, the cost of childcare in Switzerland is prohibitively high, but this is balanced by the lower cost of tuition, as well as a culture in which it is socially acceptable for students to continue living with their parents while pursuing their degrees. There seems to be little motivation for Swiss students to delay school, and many practical reasons for them to progress rapidly through the system. With a relatively high standard of living and low unemployment rate, combined with the low cost of education, lifetime earning potential is certainly much higher for those who progress quickly through school and move into a career.

Two different approaches

For someone in my position, returning to school after starting a family, my sense is that following such a path in Switzerland is neither easier nor more difficult than in the United States, but rather it presents a different set of challenges. One of the hallmarks of universities in the United States is the abundance of student services, many of which are not found in Swiss schools. While there are often a variety of financial aid options available for non-traditional students in the Unites States, as well as loans to offset the cost of education, these seem unnecessary in Switzerland, or at least not nearly as important as in the United States. On the other hand, the cost of living is high in Switzerland, as compared to the United States, especially in the cities where many of the larger schools are found.7,8 There, it would prove quite challenging to support a family on the income of a student. Furthermore, in both countries there exists a demand for quality, affordable child care, which can prove a serious roadblock to non-traditional students in either setting. As such, it is difficult to say whether it is easier or more difficult to be a non-traditional student in Switzerland, as compared to the United States. In terms of finding a balanced lifestyle, however, I find it a challenge to make a compelling argument in favor of the United States. I find the prevailing culture in Switzerland to be one of respect for family and for personal time, and this seems to be supported by both employees and employers alike. Swiss workers in all professions seem justified in their expectation that they will earn a decent income, have plenty of paid vacation time and holidays, and have access to health care.

Final thoughts

Naturally, Switzerland has its problems as well. Much like the United States, there is a large income gap between the highest and lowest paid workers, and like the rest of Europe, Switzerland must decide how it will respond to the growing refugee crisis as displaced people flee war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa in search of better lives in more prosperous countries. So I bear in mind that, while it is tempting to make value judgements based on my limited experience, it is important to remember that we all have our own challenges. I am reminded of a common idiom that I would often hear as a child: “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” The implication is that things will always appear better on the other side of the fence, regardless of which side you find yourself. Still, even bearing that in mind, I cannot help but admire the beautiful, vibrant color of the Swiss grass.