PhD at EPFL, in Europe

Every December a lot of prospective students reach out to faculty regarding PhD programs. This is the time where we review the students and assess their skills and potential along many dimensions such as past research, research ideas, engineering capabilities, and systems experience. These discussions along with the submission of the student (consisting of grades, CV, and research statement) then culminate in one of several reviews of different faculty in preparation for the EDIC admission meeting. At the admission meeting, candidates are discussed and eligible candidates are split into fellowship candidates and admissible candidates.

Notifications go out to students soon after the admission meeting and the tables turn, now it’s the students’ turn to ask questions. Many students have several offers and now have to choose where they want to spend the next 5-6 years of their lives. This decision is not simple and depends on many dimensions such as group dynamics, university ranking, location, work/life balance and your additional personal constraints.

A PhD forms a long term professional relationship

After deciding to do a PhD, the one key decision is in which group/with which adviser you do your PhD. In order to get the most out of your PhD it is critical to be in a comfortable and supportive environment. You will spend the majority of your time over the next couple of years with your colleagues in the group and will interact with your advisor frequently. The PhD relationship will last well beyond your PhD. If you choose to stay in academia, your adviser will continue to write letters on your behalf at least until you complete your tenure track position. Even if you decide to work at a company, your PhD adviser will frequently be available as a mentor and will continue to advise you. Figure out if you’ll be able to work together by asking questions about the work environment, advising style, and group relationships. Interview both the adviser and the group. In my group, I try to talk to potential candidates several times: both before the committee makes the decision but also after they get an offer to allow them to decide if my group is a good fit. After receiving an offer, use this opportunity to connect, network, and to ask questions. Maybe even ask to be part of one of the group meetings.

In addition to questions on research topics in a group and advising style, students often worry about the cost of living, language requirements, or course requirements. Let me try to compare EPFL to US universities. Note that I have spent from 2012 to 2018 in the US system both at UC Berkeley (the expensive bay area) and Purdue University (the cheaper midwest), and can therefore compare the range of options. As a baseline, I’ll compare to Purdue University.

Salary and fixed costs

The yearly salary at EPFL ranges from 52,400 CHF in the first year to 55,400 CHF in the fourth and later years. In addition to your salary, EPFL pays social insurance, unemployment insurance, and retirement funds of around 9000 CHF per year. At Purdue, the yearly salary is around 19,000 US$. At the given incomes, the taxes in both countries are around 10%. Studying at a university often involves some form of additional fees. At EPFL you may pay 200-300 CHF per year to access the university sport facilities, while at Purdue different university fees for PhD students sum up to around 2,000 $USD. Both in Switzerland and in the US, health insurance is mandatory and comes at around 3,600 CHF per year for Switzerland and 600 $USD per year for the US (in the US, the employer pays a large chunk of healthcare costs as benefits). Both in Switzerland and in the US, your largest fixed cost will be housing. A room in a shared apartment (you have a private room with shared kitchen and bathroom) will be between 700 CHF and 1,000 CHF, while a study (your own private apartment with a bedroom and a common area) will be around 800 CHF to 1,200 CHF per month. Of course, you’ll find apartments that are much more expensive too, e.g., if you prefer lake view. In the US, you generally pay 100-300 less per month for your apartment. Fiber internet is around 50 CHF per month and a mobile phone plan is around 20-30 CHF per month. Public transport is around 80 CHF per month.

Yearly budget EPFL (CHF) Purdue (US$)
Salary 52,400 19,000
Taxes 10% (5,240) 10% (1,900)
Housing 12,000 9,600
Health insurance 3,600 600
University fees 0-200 2,000
Fiber and mobile 840 840
Public transport 960  
Car (insurance, devaluation, gas)   1,000
Free budget (food, leisure, travel) 29,560 3,060

The huge difference in salary between the US and Switzerland results in a key advantage: you do not have to do internships but you can. So instead of having to hunt for an internship each summer (which will delay your PhD as you may have to take purely engineering-focused internships) you can pick and choose what kind of internships you want to do during your PhD. I encourage my students to at least intern once during the PhD but internships are not mandatory. A research-oriented internship during your PhD allows you to compare academic to industry research and to check out potential employers (or helps you decide that you want to stay in academia).

Compared to the US, you are considered an employee and therefore also get 4 weeks of paid holiday throughout the year. Taking these holidays to relax is essential to succeeding at your PhD. I continuously encourage my students to take the necessary time off and to push towards a sustainable work/life balance.

Day to day life

A big difference between the US and Switzerland is eating out. In Switzerland, eating out is a rarer occasion, often with friends while in the US it is much more common to grab a bite somewhere. When eating out, a single course costs between 20 and 30 CHF, drinks not included. In the US, you can often eat below 10 US$. In Switzerland, many students cook dinner themselves and on weekends invite friends over to offset the higher restaurant costs. A meal at one of the many EPFL cafeterias is around 10 CHF.

Compared to the US, public transport is very well built and the vast majority of students do not own a car. You can take trains and buses almost anywhere. Transport prices are high but reasonable. Taxis and Ubers are rarely used. It is also common to bike to work (and around).

Lausanne is in the French speaking part of Switzerland but English is generally very well spoken. Switzerland is a country with four national languages, so linguistic diversity is very commonplace. In fact, Lausanne as the Olympic capital has more than 40% foreigners that bring an urban and highly European flair to the city. With around 200,000 inhabitants, Lausanne is the fourth largest city in Switzerland and is comparable (i.e., as urban as) a city in the US of around 1-2 million inhabitants. There is no need to learn French during your PhD but language courses are a great way to mingle with locals and to appreciate the culture. Language tandems (two students wanting to learn opposite languages) are a great way to meet many different and interesting people. In addition to EPFL’s free language courses, my group will pay for French language courses you want to take, but they are of course not mandatory. The language in the group is English.

The EPFL campus is situated right outside of Lausanne, close to lake Geneva. Atypical for European universities, EPFL follows the design of US-style campuses where different university buildings are not distributed across the city but are close to each other, allowing students between fields to interact liberally. Lausanne is a city with a very high quality of life. As the olympic capital, it offers lots of opportunities for leisure activities. The Lavaux region offers ample hiking opportunities in the vineyards, the mountains are close for more hiking and skiing, and the beach along the lake offers opportunities for BBQ and water sports.

PhD research and EDIC requirements

As a PhD student, you will predominantly focus on your research and be involved in research projects of your peers. The PhD culminates with a thesis that serves as a proof that you can conduct independent academic research. Usually, a thesis consists of 3-4 publications at scientific conferences that drill deep into a specific topic.

In addition to the scientific work (which is the core goal), you will have to fulfill several other requirements. At EDIC, you have to pass a depth course in your first year with a grade of more than 5 (out of 6). There’s a list of available courses and my students generally pick one of the systems courses along with some other courses. In total, students need to achieve 30 ECTS credits (30 ECTS credits is considered a full time semester load for a bachelor or master student who only takes classes) throughout their PhD, generally in the first 2 years. Compared to US programs, the course load at EPFL is extremely light and usually consists of 3 classes (18 ECTS credits) and 2 semester projects (12 ECTS credits; projects are usually part of the PhD research). The EPFL course load for PhD students is much lower than at many US universities where students usually have to take several semesters worth of classes.

At the end of your first year, you must have passed the depth course and completed two semester projects. Afterwards, you must pass the candidacy exam which asks you to select, analyze, and discuss three research papers in your research area in front of a faculty committee. This candidacy exam tests if you’re fit for PhD level research.

In addition to your research duties, you will be a teaching assistant throughout most of your PhD (except for the first, last, and 8th semester of your PhD). Teaching is well integrated into research at EPFL and bachelor and master education allows you to learn interacting with a group of 20-30 bright students and help them with their class work. Classes are often in your area of research, allowing you to recruit students for bachelor and master projects/theses that will then help you on your research projects. At EPFL, bachelor and master students have to conduct research projects as part of their education. These students are often a great source of help for your projects and allow you to practice your advising skills.

EPFL labs are generally very well funded and any hardware that you need for your research, e.g., access to a cluster, compute resources, or special hardware is paid for along with trips to conferences for networking. The funding decisions lie within the powers of the group leaders. My rule of thumb is that first author students attend the conference to present the paper. For all other students we decide based on need and opportunity. I generally equip my PhD students with desktops and laptops based on their computing needs.

Fellowship versus Admissible

The EDIC doctoral school distinguishes between fellowship candidates (their first year is being paid by the school and they can choose up to two labs to do semester projects in) and admissible candidates (they are hired directly by a lab and do the semester projects in these labs). A fellowship is a recognition of often excellent prior research work or excellent grades. In general, labs at EPFL are very well funded and the number of PhD students is usually restricted by the bandwidth of the faculty and not the admissible/fellowship status of the student. The HexHive lab is well financed through EPFL’s base funding as well as generous funding from different funding agencies and several industry partners.

No matter if you received a fellowship or admissible evaluation, you should reach out to the faculty that you are interested in working with and try to talk to them about potential research projects and if they are a good fit for you. If you’re admissible, you should just start a little earlier.

Interactions in the HexHive lab

All research labs are different, we folks in the HexHive lab are extremely collaborative. I’m using several tiers of interactions. We have a group Slack with open channels for all projects and discussions. Students can ask questions at any time or join ongoing discussions. Once a day, we each write a quick summary about the status of our project and if we’re stuck (this serves as a quick daily scrum opportunity for me to check in if needed). At least once a week, we discuss each student’s project in depth for at least 30 minutes. In addition, one student will present her or his project (or crazy idea) in front of the full group for general feedback. Each project has a student lead with 1-2 other students joining in and being responsible for their parts. 80% of your research time you will spend on your project and 20% you will focus on other projects, broadening your scope. In addition, we have frequent social gatherings, a weekly group lunch, and often hang out for coffee or informal interactions. I also encourage students to reach out whenever they have questions.

Further reading

This is of course not the only blog post about getting started on a PhD in Europe. I highly recommend Andreas Zeller’s post on doing a PhD in Germany; Switzerland is of course famous for its amazing cheese instead of sausages. In addition you may find the information about doing a PhD in Switzerland useful along with details of the EDIC program.