Impressions on the US Higher Educational Landscape and comparison to the Swiss system

By Alexander Gröflin, Computer Science Ph.D. candidate University of Basel

Virginia Tech in Switzerland?

Riva San Vitale, south of Switzerland – just before Chiasso, lies quietly beside the Lake Lugano. Surprisingly, this is the place where an American higher education institution, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), operates teaching facilities, so that each year they can send students for specific trainings. Without the GPP programme I would be completely unaware that such exchange opportunity close by even exists. To me as an outsider to the American educational system it seems that US higher educational institutions are forced more and more often to offer their students a wide range of options for studying in the US and abroad without having any setback in their study plan. But of course such comes at a cost of student fees and charges that not every student is willing or – more likely – able to pay. It seems to be a fundamental part of the general mind-set of the US when it comes down to higher education. I might be mistaken, but to me it somehow feels that only cost-intensive Universities can be good Universities. Compared thereto community colleges are affordable institutions, yet, such a degree does not hold a key competitive advantage for its holder. Competitiveness seems to be the main goal of any higher education institution.

Nevertheless, this does not make students competitive creatures. Much more the opposite, the friendliness and openness of students I met both in Riva and Boston in terms of their academic work is overwhelming and, speaking for myself, I could really profit from such a diverse group of students. Furthermore, I was somehow impressed by the dedication Virginia Tech students outlined – they were very much committed on the tasks we were given, something I was used to when attending LSE in London. It still kept me wondering what motivation lies behind fellow students from Virginia Tech, if it is in any connection to the Anglo-American educational system or whether I just ended up in a “good” group. Whatever reason might be behind their dedication, the output of our group created in these days were vital for the final presentation at the Swiss Embassy in Washington DC and was highly appreciated by this audience. Not only the possibility itself of being able to present a research project at the Swiss Embassy was absolutely unique, also doing so with a great group makes a wonderful experience and memory.

During the GPP programme I could also get in touch with international academics of my field. My individual study question within the programme was directed towards the successful application of a post-doc position in the US. That is also the reason why I headed a few days earlier to Boston in order to obtain information directly from contacts I could establish from back home. When I learned that the GPP programme enables its participants to visit several US Universities in Boston, it was crystal clear to me to take such opportunity to visit fellow colleagues in my field of research at the MIT and get further insight into the life and tasks of post-docs in the US. Hereby I also want to thank Matthias Geering (University Basel) and Jonas Brunschwig (Swissnex) for their active help and involvement in opening doors at several research institutions in Boston.

 

 

Living in Boston, US

Compared to ancient week-long sea-crossings, Boston, Massachusetts, is nowadays a pleasant seven hour flight away from Switzerland. At first glance, buildings look as if they were moved over from UK and to me it almost felt like being back in my second home, London. Especially the old Victorian buildings along Commonwealth Avenue have a strong resemblance to some coastal cities in Europe. Because of well-established research institutions such as Harvard, MIT, Northwestern and Boston University, Boston acts as a hotspot for academics and researchers. 250’000 students are thought to be living in the wider Boston area, although renting costs are ridiculously high and wages, at least for students, Ph.D. candidates and post-docs are low. Prices have tripled in the past 10 years and a small room in a shared apartment for 1’000 US$ per month is considered as less expensive. That is why many live outside the city and have to rely on the T for their everyday commute. The T lines serve major destinations all around Boston and every tourist will be introduced to the hard US transportation infrastructure reality when it comes down to public transportation. Train compositions from the 70s are still in use whereas generally only minor refurbishments have been undertaken over the years and the arrivals of trains into stations are a loud reminder of past US manufacturing. However, the costs at 2.50 US$ are fairly priced no matter where you end your journey.

Top Higher Educational Institutions and their spleens

Top ranked universities such as MIT and Harvard have rigorous application procedures, including Ph.D. positions. At the same time, these are the institutions everybody wants to enrole. At MIT only 8.0% of all applications are admitted to courses (Switzer 2015). Furthermore, all undergraduates are required to pass a swimming exam (Technology review 2014). Harvard even tops that score with an acceptance rate of 5.2% of all applicants.

Another of the high entrance hurdles for top universities in Boston are the student fees. Depending on the faculty and major a postgraduate student has to pay a student fee of at least 20’000 US$ per year (Harvard 2017). Which is the reason why most US postgraduates have student loan debts amounting up to at least 100’000 US$ after their studies. Costs for some top ranked courses such as Business School are even higher. In comparison thereto, Swiss students and postgraduates are lucky to pursue their career without the need to take up a loan but profit from the low student fees. It may not be forgotten that there is a major difference between Swiss Universities and most of the US higher educational institutions, which is in direct correlation to the student fees. While in Switzerland Universities are public and therefore supported either by the Federal or Cantonal government, US higher educational institutions are mainly private, meaning they finance themselves through student fees, grants and donations.

Now, what about post-doc positions? Unlike Swiss universities, top US higher educational institutions usually do not advertise post-doc positions. It is very unlikely to get a post-doc position at a research institution in Boston without knowing someone who knows the applicant and its research. Paid post-doc positions are in high demand and often already have long internal hiring queues. Yet, for a Swiss national interested in doing a post-doc in the US, the easier way into such a position is the mobility post-doc grant from Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). By being granted funds for a research project from the SNSF, academics get advanced standing at US institutions and, due to them bringing financial support into a research group, are very quickly integrated into a research group. Direct applications without the support of additional funds to research groups are in very few cases successful. From my point of view it can be considered like playing the lottery, the probability of winning is very very low, although it is much more preferable to pursue the mobility post-doc grant from SNSF as a back-up to one’s application. So for newly awarded Ph.D. applicants it is a real struggle applying without own funds and even if you have been lucky to be granted something from the SNSF, after your funds exceed, you will most likely have to leave if no additional funding can be provided within due time.

Personal Reflection

Regarding all the above said and from a personal perspective, the Swiss education system – in comparison to the US higher education institutions – has a lot more benefits to offer. Especially speaking as a Ph.D. candidate who started off his professional career as a computer scientist in the apprenticeship system and only entered a higher educational institution at a later stage in life after having gained first working experiences, I very much prefer our dual educational system.

First, the costs in Switzerland are much more reasonable and bearable, no matter what social class you are from. Courses often provide the possibility to work part-time for a living or, even if not, student fees are at least in a range that most people can bear them when still living at home. Furthermore there is permeability to our system not known by any other educational system in the world. From a personal point of view, I was given a chance that I might not have been able to pursue in the same way, if I would be living in the US. I went from an apprenticeship to being a Ph.D. candidate at University of Basel. All in just a few years and without taking financial risks. Of course, its been a long way so far. But I had had the possibility to pursue such a career in the first place, whereas such an educational development would be very rare in the US. This became especially obvious to me when visiting the Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. In one way, a community college is the most affordable option of higher education to attend in the US. And, if one is lucky, it can be a ticket to a comprehensive College or University. However, this is the exceptional case. On the other hand, if someone in Switzerland completes his or her apprenticeship successfully, one can take a professional baccalaureate (Berufsmatur) with only doing one extra year of school, then take up studies at a University of Applied Sciences (Fachhochschule) and even go as far as entering into University for a Master or Ph.D. degree. Thanks to this open but still very high-level educational system, I was even able to attend a renowned University in the UK, the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), without the need of additional or special training.

In conclusion, I am very grateful to have received such a profound and diverse education here in Switzerland and appreciate the possibilities provided to me even more, now that I got a closer look inside the US higher educational institutions. Nevertheless, the more differences one discovers, the more important is the exchange with people educated under different circumstances to gain knowledge and generally profit from each other’s work and experience. Which is definitely something I could do over the course of the GPP programme and will continue to do so.

 

References

Harvard Visiting Tuition Fees. Harvard College, college.harvard.edu/admissions. Retrieved 2017-08-18.

Switzer, Jennifer. “1,467 students admitted to Class of 2019 – The Tech”. tech.mit.edu. Retrieved 2017-07-10.

Technologyreview. “MIT’s Wettest Test”, Nicole Morell, December 18, 2014, technologyreview.com. Retrieved 2017-07-16.