top of page

More than 50 female doctoral students met with Joël Mesot and members of the Executive Board on January 25th to share testimonies about the challenges they face in their day-to-day activities and to recommend measures for preventing, monitoring, and holding individuals accountable for inappropriate and disrespectful behavior at ETH.

An event organized by 500 Women Scientists Zurich last November used stories shared by female doctoral candidates on an anonymous padlet as the basis for a series of cartoons highlighting that sexism, harassment, and micro-aggressions are still common at ETH.

Concerns raised

The event with the Executive Board on January 25th opened with short welcome statements by Darcy Molnar, coordinator of 500 WS Zurich, and Joël Mesot. These were followed by testimonies that had been prepared in advance by four ETH doctoral candidates. Each testimony highlighted personal experiences at ETH and gave clear recommendations for actions ETH could take to improve the working environment for all. The first doctoral student concluded that abuses will continue unless ETH ensures that there are dire consequences for those who mistreat students and that ETH’s reputation is at risk if actions are not taken. The second individual highlighted that there is no reward for moral integrity in the system at ETH and urged the Board to give high priority to the correct monitoring of unethical behavior. She ended her statement with the following message to the Board “Consistently, highly questionable situations are known but kept behind closed doors. You have the position and power to change this system. A system that currently tolerates discrimination and harassment due to inaction and undefined consequences.” The president of WiNS (The Society for Women in Natural Sciences at ETH) gave a third testimony and underlined that WiNS would be happy to support ETH in developing a new strategy for equality, inclusion, and diversity (EDI). WiNS has prepared an open letter outlining suggested infrastructural changes to create a more nurturing workspace for everyone. The letter has been endorsed by WiNS, 500WS Zurich, LIMES, TWIST Basel, and staff associations of the physics and biology departments. The fourth testimony mentioned that according to ETH, any form of bullying, harassment, discrimination, or threats and violence will not be tolerated and can result in disciplinary actions (see ETH Code of Conduct). And yet, it is unclear exactly what those disciplinary actions are and which actions will be applied to each situation. She ended with the

statement, “You need to realize that the current system forces us, victims of harassment and bullying, to give up on our lifelong dreams of doing impactful research just to have our basic rights not infringed! To alleviate this, we urge you to have those disciplinary measures clearly defined and explicit, to help us, those going through these situations, to have more hope and courage to put ourselves out there non-anonymously.”

Discussion with the ETH Board

After the testimonies, Joël Mesot thanked the speakers for their courage. He then outlined ETH's activities in the last years, including leadership programs, bias training, Respect campaigns, and promoting female representation. He also confirmed that contrary to some years ago, ETH now collects data on doctoral candidates’ reasons for dropping out of their programs.

A doctoral student spoke up to emphasize that more monitoring is needed and that the measures ETH is taking should be made more visible and transparent. The need for anonymous reporting was also identified. Due to the strongly hierarchical system in academia, where doctoral students’ professional futures are dependent on their supervisor’s approval, students often remain silent when faced with micro-aggressions or harassment. An anonymous reporting system, such as the one established by Cambridge University, should be adopted to free individuals experiencing harassment from the burden associated with formal reporting. Julia Dannath, VP of Personnel Development and Leadership, stated that ETH is developing an anonymous initiative that should be ready for use by March or April.

In Summary

The meeting with the Executive Board highlighted that much work still remains to be done to improve the work environment for all doctoral candidates at ETH. The concerns raised by the doctoral students at the meeting were echoed in a recent NZZ article titled “Die ETH und ihre Frauen: warum sich der Alltag im Labor nicht an die Diversity-Pläne der Schulleitung hält.” The negative experiences faced by doctoral candidates interfere with their education, their ability to contribute to research at ETH Zurich, and their professional development. Such instances of discrimination and harassment have been identified by the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences as violations of scientific integrity for which there is no room at ETH Zurich.

In 2012 I reached the end of my undergraduate degree and I started applying for PhD positions in theoretical physics. That PhD journey did not go as I had expected but now in 2021 I have managed to become a doctor of mathematics!

During the last nine years I’ve done a MSc, attended classes at five universities in two countries, enrolled as a PhD student three times and had the chance to work with four different supervisors. Getting to study in these varied environments with lots of different people taught me how important human relationships - in particular the student-supervisor relationship - are for getting through our studies.

A PhD is a huge part of our lives for 3-5 years and sets the course for our careers. Having a supervisor who is understanding and supportive helps with productivity, creativity, independence, networking and mental health - during the PhD and sometimes long afterwards. So, given the chance, we should make sure a potential supervisor is going to be a great fit, right?

One great way to start is to interview our interviewers when we apply for PhD positions. In many areas asking questions about pay, duties and the work environment at interviews is normal and even expected.

However, in a (small, non-scientific) survey of people who had started PhDs, I found that

  • <25% of participants asked about pay or conference funding

  • <15% of participants asked about workload, work hours or duties

  • <25% of participants clearly stated their supervision needs and <25% got a clear statement about their supervisor’s expectations

  • around 33% of participants asked the current PhD students and postdocs about life in their potential group

during their PhD interview. Around 66% said that they had focussed on showcasing their knowledge to impress their potential boss. Of course this is also very important, but the experience shouldn‘t be so one-way!

I think interviewing potential bosses is difficult for us as MSc and PhD students for several reasons:

  1. We are often still young and inexperienced at the start of our PhD

  2. We are used to being students, who often have little control and are under pressure to impress professors rather than building a two-way relationship.

  3. We’re not always told that it is an option!

Here are some examples of the kind of questions we can very reasonably ask in interviews to get an idea of what the PhD experience will be like:

  • How often and for how long do you meet with students?

  • Do you have regular student progress updates or evaluations?

  • How many hours a week do your students generally work?

  • What is the group dynamic like? Do you go for lunch together?

  • What are your expectations for publications? How do you support students writing their first paper(s)?

  • Is there any soft skills training available?

  • How concrete is the project plan? Is there room for me to apply my own ideas?

  • What is the monthly pay? How long is the funding secured for?

  • Is there funding to go to conferences and summer schools?

  • Does the group/department participate in any diversity or equality action?

Exactly which questions need to be asked and what makes a good answer is of course very personal. Before an interview or meeting, try to make a list of your experiences, needs and priorities, and evaluate your goals for achieving a good work-life balance.

What is the goal of these questions? Well, almost every PhD student will face obstacles, but there are some common problems which I think can be caused or influenced by the student-supervisor relationship.

Lack of contact

I’ve talked to a lot of PhD students who spend little or virtually no time with an active supervisor. Some of us thrive when left alone but for many it is a huge cause of stress, uncertainty and wasted time. Whether or not they are your “official” supervisor, it is important to have regular contact with someone who can guide and advise you.

Inability to recognise and nurture your strengths

There are many qualities that make a good PhD student: persistence, creativity, attention to detail, big picture thinking, a passion for teaching, coding skills, focus, presentation skills…and each one of us possesses a unique mix of them.

Whether it’s’ because they don’t have time to get to know their students or because they only value particular qualities (such as exam grades or publications), some supervisors sadly overlook their student’s skills and value. This lack of recognition or being forced to work in a way that doesn’t suit us can lead to demotivation, frustration and low self-esteem.

Conversely, a supervisor who sees your individual strengths and weaknesses can value what you have to offer and give specific support where you need it.

Different views on equality and discrimination

Colleagues who don’t believe in the problems of inequality and harassment in the academic world can be very frustrating to talk to, and in the worst case might stop us taking action when serious problems arise or even commit harassment.

On the flipside, colleagues and supervisors who support the cause can be great allies both in everyday life and when it comes to organising events or training.

Even problems which aren’t directly related to supervision (such as teaching duties or contract issues) can be much easier to deal with if you can talk to them your and count on them to be on your side.

So if you can: work out your priorities, ask lots of questions and go into the PhD knowing you can get the guidance you need to succeed!

Acknowledgements & notes

I’d like to thank the many people who taught, supervised and encouraged me during my undergraduate and postgraduate studies. They were all dedicated, interesting and open people who taught me a lot!

Even if you feel like you don’t have a choice of supervisor or if you’re continuing with someone you already know (as ~33% of our respondents did), I still think that analysing your needs and having a professional but open discussion about them with your supervisor can really help to make the most of the PhD experience.

I’m not trying to class professors as GOOD or BAD supervisors, just encourage students to make choices that suit them best. Not the best supervisor for me does not imply a bad supervisor or a bad person.

For some insight into the idea of interviewing your interviewer in the business world, check out these interview tips from Glassdoor, Indeed and The Balance Careers.

Dr. Lucia Rotheray


bottom of page