Professorship in Switzerland
Aiming for a Swiss professorship
Professors in Switzerland enjoy high salaries and excellent career prospects at institutions such as ETH Zurich. What is the academic career path for a researcher in Switzerland?
Careers as a professor in Switzerland
A New Scientist article described Switzerland as “career paradise” for scientists. Competitive salaries, heavy investment in research, an international environment and high standards of living are just some of the factors that attract scientists from all over the world.
While there are many scientific career opportunities in Switzerland, the goal of becoming a full professor can be difficult to achieve. The salary, security and prestige of the position means that competition is fierce. Scientists must have an outstanding record of research and teaching to be considered for the role, and are often recruited based on their performance as associate professor.
How to become a professor in Switzerland
There are several academic stages to becoming a professor in Switzerland, and it takes many years of teaching and research to reach this position. The process differs in German-speaking Switzerland and French-speaking Switzerland.
In German-speaking Switzerland, after obtaining their PhD – a process which takes six years in Switzerland – the researcher then becomes a postdoctoral researcher, specialising in a particular field. Habilitation is usually a prerequisite for career advancement in German-language universities in Switzerland. This is a period of intense research and teaching over a period of several years, considered almost equivalent to a second thesis. Although it is generally a requirement for professorship, habilitation is considered less important in natural and life sciences.
Once habilitation has been achieved, usually subsequent to publication of significant research, the researcher is then promoted to assistant professor (Assistenzprofessor), a position which can be either tenure track or non-tenure track. After six years, a successful tenure track assistant professor can be promoted to the role of associate professor (außerordentlicher Professor). The university might then promote the researcher to full professor status after two to six years.
In French-speaking Switzerland, researchers post-PhD can obtain the fixed term position of maître-assistant or the permanent position of maître d’enseignement et de recherche (MER), both of which involve teaching and research. The first professorial role is assistant professor (professeur assistant), which allows the researcher to teach and carry out independent research for four to six years. Assistant professors with tenure track who have successful evaluations may then be promoted to associate professor (professeur associé).
Associate professors are appointed for a six-year period, which can then be renewed. The most senior level in French-speaking Swiss universities is full professor (professeur ordinaire), which is similar to the American position of endowed chair. Like associate professors, full professors are appointed for six years, and the appointment can be renewed.
Professorships are appointed by the university. The Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) also offers an equivalent to professorships through the Eccellenza Professorial Fellowships programme. Candidates for professorship in Switzerland must have a PhD, a strong record of research, and usually teaching experience at university level, but they do not need to have previous work experience at the university in order to be considered for the position.
Many scientists and researchers in Switzerland are not Swiss nationals; at the University of Zurich (Universität Zürich, UZH), more than 50 per cent of professors are international. English is the lingua franca of scientific research. Speaking the local language (German, French, Italian or Romansh) is not normally a requirement during the application stage, but it is considered an advantage.
Assistant professors in Switzerland
To become an assistant professor in Switzerland, researchers are usually required to have post-PhD experience in teaching and research, and in the case of German-speaking universities, may need to complete the habilitation. The aim of assistant professorship is for the researcher to acquire further skills and experience, carry out independent research, and in some cases advance to full professorship.
Non-tenured assistant professorship tends to be a fixed term employment of four to six years; after this period, the researcher will pursue an associate professorship at another institution. Tenure track assistant professorships, on the other hand, generally lead to associate professorships within the same institute.
Recipients of SNSF Eccellenza Professorial Fellowships or European Research Council Starting Grants are sometimes eligible for assistant professorship without tenure track. The funding from the SNSF covers the researcher’s salary.
Assistant professorships are generally given to young researchers. The policy at the Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich, ETH Zürich) is that the assistant professor should be no older than 35 at the time of appointment.
Visiting professors in Switzerland
There are numerous opportunities for foreign academics to work in Switzerland as visiting professors. The position is short term and usually involves teaching, research, and active participation in the local scientific community.
Visiting professors at ETH Zurich or the Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, EPFL) are invited by a professor from the university. They are appointed for a period of three to twelve months (ETH) or one to nine months (EPFL). Salaries are in line with other professorial salaries in Switzerland.
The Graduate Institute Geneva, which specialises in international affairs, offers visiting fellowships to researchers at different stages in their career. Candidates can be nominated or apply independently, and fellowships are for two to twelve months.
International scientific cooperation is also facilitated by the SNSF, who provide funding for scientific events and research visits to Switzerland for one to six months through the Scientific Exchanges scheme.
Visiting professors must register their residence in Switzerland. Nationals from EU or EFTA countries should register within 14 days of their arrival in Switzerland. Non-EU/EFTA nationals must obtain a visa before coming to Switzerland.
Salaries as a professor in Switzerland
Salaries are decided by each canton (province) and tend to be paid in 12 or 13 instalments over the year. According to Swiss law, employees with children under the age of 16 are entitled to child allowance.
Professors in Switzerland earn the highest salaries in the world. Full professors at Swiss universities earn an average monthly salary of €15,000 – twice as much as their German counterparts – and even PhD candidates enjoy excellent salaries. Doctoral students and scientific assistants at the prestigious ETH Zurich, for example, can earn up to €70,000 after three years. Salaries for assistant professors start at €132,000 and they can earn up to €190,000. Associate professors make €160,000-€218,000 a year, while full professors make €186,000-€245,000.
ETH Zurich is considered one of the most desirable employers for scientists, but salaries are also high at other universities in Switzerland. Full professors at the University of Lausanne (Université de Lausanne) can expect to earn up to €187,000 with chair appointment.
Gross annual salaries of full professors from around the world (2018)
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While the high salaries in Switzerland make it an attractive place to work, especially for scientists and researchers, anyone pursuing a career in Switzerland should also keep in mind the high cost of living. The gender pay gap is also larger in Switzerland than in other European countries. However, recent initiatives to close the pay gap have been recognised by the United Nations, and there are signs of improvement.