Just recently (two Saturdays ago to be precise), I was back in the UK to attend what would be my formal elevation to doctorhood: a graduation ceremony at the University of York. It brought to an end a long journey, and despite its odd timing – roughly one year after moving to ETH – I was very glad to have attended; a delightful day throughout, from the formalities and speeches to the eating and mingling.
Unrepentantly challenging the stereotypes of computer scientists, the ceremony organisers had us arriving by 8am to be fitted with our robes and bonnets. After the handshaking, near-continuous clapping, and some amusing words from our Chancellor, Greg Dyke, the informal parts of the day began: a lovely reception with the computer science department (bacon butties and Champagne aplenty), an outstanding lunch at Krakatoa, and some evening drinks in London (allegedly for a friend’s birthday, but the celebration was mine to appropriate!).
The majority of PhD students in Britain will graduate in a similar fashion to this, but the protocols followed in the rest of Europe certainly vary quite widely; many institutions not having a centralised ceremony at all (making the robes we wear all the more bemusing). And of course, the differences are not just in the styles and means of graduation; there are many surprising variations between aspects of the PhD programmes themselves.
In Britain, for example, it is not uncommon to commence a PhD immediately after a three-year bachelor’s degree; in Switzerland (and many other countries), a master’s degree is expected. In Britain, tuition fees are to be paid for each and every year of study (albeit often covered by scholarships or sponsorships); in Switzerland, you are hired as a research assistant with a contract, salary, and benefits. In Britain, there is often pressure to finish in as close to three years as possible; in Switzerland, there is time for diversions, side projects, and internships. And then there are the examinations. We in Britain favour the viva: a private, oral examination, that may last several hours, and comes with no guarantee of success. In Switzerland, a PhD defence is open to colleagues, comprises a presentation and several rounds of questioning, with a passing outcome usually presumed from the outset (so much so that the candidate is expected to organise an “apéro” beforehand!). Supervisors, whilst forbidden from partaking in British vivas, are actively examining in Swiss ones (and also have discretion over whether a candidate can defend at all – a serious issue for anyone to whom item (3) of this letter applies).
These observations admittedly arise from my experiences as a computer scientist at York and ETH, and there are many more general ones that can be made. But on the occasion of my graduation, I did find myself reflecting upon this set; just a little. On the one hand, I was certainly chuffed that the British system could facilitate a PhD so “efficiently”. And whilst I never had a contract or the benefits of being an employee, I was never obliged to teach either; it was entirely optional and came with an hourly rate. Yet, on the other hand, I’ve come to envy somewhat the extra time that my colleagues at ETH can exploit. It facilitates side projects, collaborations, internships; time to build a stronger, broader research portfolio, and time simply to learn more about our discipline. Perhaps the best of the best can do all this too within a three-year scholarship; but for me, I was always aware of this pressure, and found myself repeatedly resisting the temptation to diverge too far away from our research plans. If I did it all again (not anytime soon!), this’d be something that I’d want to change.