US academic researchers in Switzerland – for the money?

A friend shared this thought provoking PhD comic with me.

While I thought the comic did a great job of addressing a very depressing issue for academic scientists in the US (that of rapidly dwindling funding), what caught my eye was the brief interview with Shann Yu at EPFL (in Lausanne, CH).  I listened to the podcast of the interview (here).  He finished his PhD at Vanderbilt last October and was convinced by reports of further funding cuts to pursue a post-doc outside of the US.

I’m curious what Swiss academics think about the real possibility they will be inundated with US-trained scientists looking for post-docs and/or faculty positions as the funding environment continues to get worse in the US?  Is this already happening?


  1. Dear Ms. Cowan:

    Just writing in to clarify a few things (since I was the interviewee in that audio byte):

    We had a longer more extensive interview with PhDcomics and so not everything quite made the cut because it was only a 5 minute online post.

    While research funding was certainly a part of my decision to leave the US, the project was also a big factor. As scientists, we all like to align ourselves with projects that really motivate us to come in to lab everyday, in light of the inevitable failed experiments and the like, so I need to really clarify that this was probably a more important factor. The research funding aspect was very relevant in that it made an overseas move very attractive.

    As far as your great question on what Swiss academics are thinking right now – our institutes are already being inundated with the best of Europe, and my lab group represents 30 people from at least 15 different countries. Applications for fellowships, grants, and professorships are competitive, but not in an unreasonable fashion. Most people who move here from the US come in on Whitaker fellowships and the like, so thus far, there are still a lot of funds available for home-grown talent to work within this system!


    1. Author

      Dear Dr. Yu,
      Thank you for elaborating a bit on your career path decision and the PhD comics interview! I understand any major career choice is the sum of many factors, which for the sake of a sound byte or blog post is overly simplified. I believe for any devoted scientist the research/lab will always come first when looking for a position, but all other things being equal the funding climate poses an interesting and new factor to consider. Personally, the funding climate in the US, now with the sequester, is a growing factor in my own career plans.

      Since composing this post, I’ve had the chance to visit a number of institutions in Switzerland (unfortunately not EPFL) and I learned a little more about university funding. There was more variation that I initially anticipated. For example, in newer institutions like USI more of their budget is made up of competitive grant funds than at UZH. There is also talk of rising tuition or changing tuition for international students (which in most cases is the same as for Swiss residents) – demonstrating funding in Swiss universities is complex and in debate perhaps as much as in the US. You mention the Whitaker fellowship, and that’s something I don’t have a good grasp of – for international grad students and post-docs, how many come with some funding from their country of origin? I don’t even know how common it is for international students in the US to bring funding from their own country.

      I was also impressed by the integration between industry and academic research in Switzerland in places like FMI. This integration provides support and funding in academic labs that doesn’t seem as common in the US, and when it does occur is fraught with conflict concerns. Further, I was surprised to hear bluntly from some administrators that Swiss universities rely on “imported brains”. However, considering the talent they recruit, they are understandably proud of this. Also considering the quality of life Switzerland has to offer, it’s not surprising “brains” are attracted to positions at Swiss universities.

      Trying to answer the question of how the funding climates of two very different countries influences movement of scientists between them could be a PhD thesis in and of itself. I am simply glad to hear about your experience and learn more about the Swiss perspective. Thanks again for contributing to this dialogue!
      Kind regards,

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