This post is part of a series on what goes into getting a PhD around the world. In this post, Nicole Ponta discusses getting a PhD in Switzerland.

Nicole Ponta
Nicole Ponta

Where are you getting your PhD?

I am doing my PhD at ETH Zurich, in the group of Forest Management and Development under the supervision of Dr Claude Garcia. ETH is considered the best university in continental Europe. Whether you care or not in these rankings, it is a great place to study and conduct your research. The location definitely contributes to make ETH a very attractive place. I struggle to find another place that has the same quality of life as Zurich. Just imagine a regular working day in summer: you leave the office at 6 pm, bike 5 minutes downtown and jump into the river for a swim. Besides being just wonderful, it’s for free, not like the beer or dinner that comes after the swim… Zurich is indeed extremely expensive but, unless your passion is eating out every day, there are always ways of enjoying life without having to count every Swiss franc.

Zurich is so idyllic that sometimes you will miss (or I miss) is a bit of imperfection, spontaneity and the ugly bars that serve the best coffee.

How long does a typical PhD take where you are located?

According to the main funding schemes, a PhD at ETH should take 3 years. Actually, depending on the field, PhDs last on average 4 years and I am no exception as I count on defending halfway through the fourth year. This is especially true when PhDs involve fieldwork in remote locations and all the uncertainties that come with it. Because of this, the system is trying to catch up and most PhDs are granted a fourth year—proven that they have been advancing and are on track to finish. This decision is generally taken by the professorships to which PhDs are assigned, as funding will depend on them.

Tell us about the process of completing your degree (e.g.; must you sit in front of a panel? Is it a formal defense or more casual? Is your thesis examined by reviewers?). How “important” or “weighted” is your defense for your graduation?

To complete the degree, a PhD candidate needs to defend the thesis in front of an examination committee. This happens about 2 months after submitting the thesis, to give the time to the examiners to review it first. The committee is composed of the PhD supervisor/s, the chairperson (a professor from the department who has a mainly formal role) and at least one external co-examiner chosen by the PhD candidate and supervisors. The defense is public and is made of three parts: a 20 minutes presentation from the candidate, a set of questions from the panel and questions from the audience. The overall duration is not fixed but it lasts on average a couple of hours. Generally, it is not too formal and—although the examination part can be tough—its weight is small compared to the overall thesis work. Once the defense is over, the committee will approve—or not—the graduation of the candidate and can suggest reviews to the thesis, which need to be completed within 6 months after the doctoral graduation deadline.

Tell us about your research.

By background, I am a biologist with a focus on conservation genetics. But my scientific career had a clear turn when, moving from my Master to my PhD, I embraced a more holistic and social view on conservation. This turn was an eye-opener and—despite the transition effort—I never regretted it. Currently, the focus of my research is understanding the drivers of human behavior in tropical forest landscapes under socio-economic scenarios of uncertainties. In other words, I want to understand what people do and why they do it, now and under future scenarios. Why am I so interested in human behavior, values and aspirations? Because these are the key elements that drive change in a landscape, and we need to address them when we develop policies, incentives and so on. Interventions that acknowledge people’s needs and constraints will not only be more legitimate and equitable than classic top-down approaches, but will also be more effective.

Final Workshop - photo by Juan Carlos Huayllapuma
Final Workshop – photo by Juan Carlos Huayllapuma

In my PhD, I specifically look at indigenous hunters in the Colombian Amazon: what if hunters are provided with alternative sources of income and protein? What if trading wildmeat—currently illegal—becomes legal? To explore hunters’ individual and collective behavior, I use a variety of participatory tools—including role-playing games—that I design together with the hunters themselves, as well as with other relevant stakeholders, to ensure the integration of their values, beliefs and aspirations into my models. By involving stakeholders in the design phase, we jointly explore strategies, evaluate their impact on the system and develop alternative options depending on the scenario. Through this process, I aim not only at understanding change in tropical forests, but also fostering discussion while supporting collective decision-making and the adaptive capacity of those who need to cope with the change.

Aside from research, what else are you expected to do as part of your PhD?

Officially, the only requirement for completing a PhD aside from research, is obtaining at least 12 credits in courses. There are no mandatory courses and students can choose from what is offered at ETH and outside. Credits are calculated based on the number of hours dedicated to the course and—if the course is not within ETH—they need to be approved by your supervisor. In my institute, teaching is also not mandatory though PhD students are expected to help in courses. The help is generally not on a regular basis and in most cases is related to our own research. Personally, I have been presenting my case study in several courses and I have given lectures on the use of fauna and its impact on biodiversity and livelihood. But I have also helped mentoring students delivering course projects or facilitating group work during lectures.

What are some challenges you’d like to share associated with obtaining your PhD in Switzerland?

A PhD is a very subjective experience. What has been a challenge for me, might be a minor detail for somebody else, and vice versa. It has to do with our own experience, our way of perceiving and acting on the environment around us, on our personality and—as anything else in life—on chance. The institution we are based in, can ease the path towards the completion of the PhD but only up to a point, as ultimately, a PhD is about conducting your own research and your main source of support will be your supervisors and your colleagues. This said, ETH provides an excellent environment for PhD candidates. The requirements are few, the courses offered many, the infrastructures are outstanding, the salary is fair, the funding schemes multiple and—most importantly—the degree of freedom and flexibility is very high. Freedom though, has its downsides too. My PhD for example, was not part of any particular program and I was not obliged to have a PhD committee with regular meetings. This gave me a lot of freedom in terms of both research and training. At the same time, it meant that I did not have formal support and feedback from anybody else except my own supervisors. It was my responsibility—under the guidance of my supervisor—to find additional support, both within and outside ETH. This might be different in another department, institute or even group.

Nicole Ponta
Nicole Ponta

Personally, having done my master at ETH helped me a lot to navigate this universe. At the start of my PhD, I already had a network of contacts—professional and not—, I had an idea of the courses and opportunities offered and I knew what was expected from me as a student. I had also already dedicated quite some time integrating in the new city as well as new culture. I do not come from far, only 4-5 hours south-west of Zurich, in Italy, but the cultural change is remarkable. “Feeling at home” is a long maybe never-ending process, but I find it crucial for our wellbeing. Switzerland can be harsh but there is no better strategy than ignore stereotypes and have a curious mind and a positive attitude. You will not regret it. Outside the academic environment, language can also represent a barrier. I have the advantage that my mother tongue is one of the four official languages in Switzerland so I can deal with most administrative issues using Italian (or English). However, that does not help me in a day to day basis. On the other hand, the language skills of Swiss people are extremely high and if you, like me, are part of the academic bubble, you will not feel obliged to learn German—not to mention Swiss German—to enjoy your Zurich life. And yet, my biggest regret so far is not having dedicated enough time to learn German when I had the time. It is not necessary, but it will make your life easier and will definitely help making you feel at home.

What do you like about your PhD or the PhD process?

Recently a friend asked me if I would do my PhD again. At that time, I was particularly stressed. I would ask myself everyday why have I decided to embark in such a journey, whose meaning and objectives were vague or futile. Yet, after regaining rationality, I said yes, I would do it again. It is true that sometimes the goals of our research can be perceived as worthless, or unreachable. In my opinion, however, what matters is not the end of the journey but the journey itself. It is the experiences I gained over the years, what I have learned about the world and about myself and my own empowerment as a researcher and as a human being. The issue is that we acknowledge all of this only when the light starts to come through the end of the tunnel. At this point, I can appreciate the process that brought me here. What, amongst all, I value of my PhD, is that it has been an all-embracing, open to the unexpected and extremely uplifting experience. I rarely locked myself in the “my-research-bubble”. I was allowed and even encouraged to be continuously exposed to other projects, other people, other methods and other stories. The freedom that I mentioned earlier, which can sometimes represent a burden, has enabled me to create my own path and adapting while walking. I believe not many other positions offer similar conditions.

How do you do your PhD (lab, field, etc.)?

As I said before, my PhD is mainly about people and less about wildlife. Thus, I had to work directly with people. Not by just asking questions and extracting information but by involving them in the research process, identifying together the issues that were perceived as more pressing, and by co-developing strategies to cope with current and future scenarios. Participatory research is at the core of my project on sustainable management of wildlife.

The area where I have been working, the Ticoya indigenous territory in the most southern tip of Colombia, is relatively easy to reach. It takes about 2 hours by boat from Leticia, the closest airport. Because of this, it has become a quite popular tourist destination, especially since Colombia has started to be perceived as a safer country for travelers. Indeed, the whole region is undergoing profound changes in terms of demography, market opportunities and goods availability, with tourism playing an increasingly significant role. This transformation, however, hardly spreads beyond the main village frontier or the most privileged fragments of society, further widening the social gap and fueling an increasing neocolonial-neoliberal type of tourism.

For the past four years, I have been working with indigenous hunters in several communities within the Ticoya territory. I used role-playing games to engage with them, to capture the ecological, economic and social dynamics of the hunting system, to promote dialogue, facilitate shared learning and study the collective decision-making processes around hunting. To build the models, or games, I used semi-structured interviews, collective workshops and numerous narrative walks/hunts in the forest with local hunters. What all these methods have in common, is the trust that needs to be built between the researchers and the stakeholders, so that an honest and fruitful dialogue can be established. To produce trust, time is essential. The researcher needs to be physically present in order to know and be known, to question and be questioned, to understand and be understood. Though I spent extensive periods of time in Colombia, I felt time was never enough. Being a European woman entering the man-dominated universe of hunting—often at the margins of legality and rich of secretive practices—did not facilitate the process but also did not freeze it. It has to do—at least in part—with fostering trust, gaining legitimacy, avoiding false expectations, meeting local demands, being crystal-clear with our objectives and establishing a continuous flow of information.

Nicole Ponta
Nicole Ponta

Why did you want to get a PhD, what are you hoping to do with it and what did you not realize going in?

When I finished my Master, I was convinced I would never do a PhD. It lasted 6 months and then, I started to look for suitable projects. The main motivation was that I quickly got tired of doing what I was told to do. I have to say that I did not try very hard to find a position outside academia that would satisfy my eagerness of responsibility and creativity. But at that time, my network was relatively small and my chances of getting a position in Switzerland, without speaking German, were quite limited.

I think nobody can be fully aware of what it means to do a PhD. Especially because during the PhD, we profoundly change and become aware of what we previously were unaware of. This is what I did not realize going into my PhD: how much I would change my perspective on the world and how much I would learn of myself. On the other hand, I kind of imagined the pain in between one thing and the other, the feeling of worthlessness, the frustration… I cannot say whether these are inevitable ingredients of a PhD. In my own experience, they have appeared and have shaken me from time to time. And yet, I am here, more conscious of my virtues and even more of my limits, not particularly interested in getting a diploma but feeling privileged and grateful for the journey I could embark on. 

Read more posts in this series here. You can find Nicole here or on LinkedIn.