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What's it like to work in Swiss academia?
August 28, 2011 2:09 AM   Subscribe

How does working in a Swiss university compare with working in British or American academia? And thoughts on living and working in Switzerland more generally.

Academia-specific questions:

Relative to a British university, is the weight of bureaucracy more or less pressing on the individual academic's shoulders? Is there an equivalent to the dread REF? Relative to an American university, is the tenure review process humane or brutal, and are you allowed to give marks other than 'A'?

Is there a decent amount of research funding available, at the level of the university and in the form of external (eg, government) research grants? Is there an 'autonomous' intellectual life, so to speak, or does each part of Switzerland feel like a provincial backwater of the larger neighbouring countries (Z├╝rich to Germany, Geneva to France, etc)? What about the students, and teaching load?

More generally:

The salary is high, of course, but is this offset by the cost of living in Switzerland, and/or high taxes or social security? I know that Switzerland is extraordinarily expensive to live in, but I have no idea what the income tax brackets look like. I also know that some people who work in Switzerland prefer to live across the border, where their money goes further: assuming that this is feasible, what are the advantages (eg, cheaper rents) and disadvantages (eg, complicated tax affairs)?

Finally, does the government try to help residents who speak one of the country's official languages to learn the others?

Your responses to any of these questions would be much appreciated. Thanks!
posted by lapsangsouchong to Work & Money (4 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to look into long term residency issues.
posted by biffa at 2:51 AM on August 28, 2011

I'm taking a Doctorate at a Swiss University and teaching part time at a few Universities here in London. I can't comment on all your questions, but can provide a few data points:

1) Bureaucracy: compared to my experience in the UK the Swiss schools move faster. There are less people in the decision making process and, consistent with the stereotype, the process is incredibly well organised and structured. Of course this is from the student perspective but it will have some applicability on the other side.

2) Grading: grades of less than A are most definitely handed out. FWIW, its the same in the UK where there is pressure on us not to hand out A grades.

3) Pay: I'm a long term American ex-pat living in London and know lots of ex-pats in Switzerland. Make sure you get paid in Swiss Francs, either in whole or in part; lots of employers offer relatively high salaries in Dollars or Euros. While we've seen recently exceptional strength in the Franc compared to other currencies, and the Swiss Central Bank has moved in to correct, you really don't want to speculate on exchange rates.

4) Taxes: this is potentially a big issue and there is no indication of your nationality, but each Canton will levy different taxes, so where you live will influence this. You can get high level information on Swiss taxes here, and a calculator is available here.

5) Finally if you are American you may have problems opening a bank account; even here in London several banks will no longer accept business from Americans due to the onerous paperwork and reporting required by the IRS.
posted by Mutant at 5:53 AM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a British citizen, working in a British university (but have worked in a US university in the past). The job would certainly be paid in Swiss francs.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 6:49 AM on August 28, 2011

Hi there

I worked in Geneva as a postdoc for three years. The main difficulty is finding an apartment- which is incredibly difficult unless you already know people there who can help you. My wife and I were able to rent a place just over the border in france with a private landlord. In that situation I was paid my salary in swiss francs and paid my rent in euros, which got progressively cheaper! However it was a hassle having to transfer my rent every month. (There are methods to transfer between branches of banks in the same group but I didn't learn about that until I was about to leave).

Bureaucratically, my university took care of the tax, so that meant I paid swiss tax rates, which are much lower than french, but I also had to pay french council tax, which isn't too bad. In general it wasn't too onerous, though sometimes my deficiencies in French made it hard. You just have to write a letter every year to confirm your tax status. Child benefit was also a bit of a hassle but in the end I got it from both countries.

You also have to find medical insurance which is a major hassle (as an academic, you will be able to use the company 'Swisscare' which caters to students mostly and is much, much cheaper-however you won't get dental on that, so make sure you see a dentist every time you are in the UK if you go that route- private dentists are v expensive both sides of the border). Importing a car from UK can also be a big hassle.

Yes Switzerland is expensive but your salary will take care of that. Some people did their grocery shopping in France as it is cheaper, but I didn't notice too much difference. Petrol is much cheaper in Switzerland as well.

On the academic side I'm not sure about the pressures on a permanent lecturer, but I know that it can be pretty bureaucratic. I don't recall there being a country-wide research ratings exercise, but of course it is still just as important for your institution. There are also very good opportunities for funding, but as a senior academic you would mostly be supervising other people getting paid and not really get it yourself (you are still expected to contribute reearch though). The main body for funding is the Swiss National Science Foundation, and they have been very good to me in general. There are also various other smaller funding bodies.

I would say if you have managed to land a permanent position in Switzerland, and you can speak the language then you are very lucky and should hold on to it. It's a difficult system to break into, and once you are there it will be easier for you to find other positions. The quality of life is generally higher than the UK with better restaurants, climate (hot in summer! cold in winter!), public transport, landscape, safety, cafe culture etc... Plus everyone is crazy about skiing and mountains etc. Also as an academic you get more respect than you would in the UK. There's also plenty going on in terms of conferences and academic collaborations-though that can depend on where you are as well.

You should ask your university if you want sponsoring to learn another language. I got a little of this but not much.

If you are moving to Geneva then I can give you more specific information. Memail me if you like!
posted by leibniz at 12:36 PM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

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