Friedrich in Zurich

This blog entry may have a slightly different feel to it than the others, as I travelled to study at Zurich University with my friend Wicus Coetzee. Having a friend traveling with made the preparations far easier as only one person had to book flight tickets, only one person needed to inquire about housing and only one person has to deal with the bank to secure foreign currency.

While dealing with banks and booking flights was relatively easy, securing housing before departure was somewhat more difficult. This was made worse by Visa requirements that require you to have an address. Luckily, both Wicus and I found accommodation in a WOKO – which is basically a private student residence. If you are to come to Switzerland, this is the only real affordable type of residence at around 545 CHF a month. Also know that you will very likely end up paying rent for the entire duration of your contract as finding someone to sub-let your room for only a month or two is fairly difficult. We also had to register for our courses before we left South Africa. Classes are split into lectures and seminars and registering for lectures is easy as they are usually very large and have plenty of spaces. Registering for seminars, however, was more complicated and usually involved sending an email to the lecturer with your CV and motivation. After finding housing and getting our proof of registration from the university, the process of getting a Visa was simple and we were excited to finally leave the scorching summer for the promised snow.

We boarded Quatar airlines on 01/02/14 for what would turn out to be 24 hours of travel. As my first international flight, the experience was not as bad as I expected. We arrived on Sunday the 2nd in Switzerland. There was no snow in the streets and it was not as cold as expected. Although I was slightly disappointed, this did make our travel from the airport to our rooms somewhat easier. This is also where a little bit of knowledge on my part would have helped, as we had to get train tickets to Altstetten, where our rooms were, from the airport. Luckily, Wicus figured out what we had to and we were off to Altstetten Station. On arrival at the station, we used the map supplied to us by the WOKO main office to get to our residence. We walked pass it a few times, so in the future I’ll definitely use google street view to see what the place looks like first.

Sunday evening came and we were both dead hungry, luckily we remembered to bring 200 CHF with us to Switzerland. This turned out to be a very good idea as we would receive our first stipend around Thursday. We bought some food and rested, the next day we would start with our German intensive course.

Our travel to our first class could have been easier if we had more intricate knowledge of the Swiss public transport system, specifically that the automated ticket terminals only accepts coins. This was problematic as we only had enough coins to buy a day ticket at around 9 CHF. Luckily, a Swedish student of architecture helped us out and we got to our German course on time. While the German intensive course was fun, academically I would not recommend it for anyone who does not plan to continue with German later in the year. Swiss German is very different from the High German taught, which makes understanding and communicating with Swiss nationals quite difficult. Socially, the classes are highly recommended as you get to meet students from all over the world in a setting where the lingua franca is English.

After every day in the intensive course, Wicus and I would explore Zurich and do our administration. First on our list was getting sim cards for our phones. Both of us bought sim cards from Lebara for around 20 CHF which came with 15 CHF airtime. The internet is reasonable at 15CHF a gigabyte on mobile. The internet in our residence was free, however. The next thing was finding cheap places to shop. We found that we got the most for our money at Migros and Coop when buying fresh food like Meat, fruits and sometimes vegetables, but that Denner was relatively inexpensive for things such as Beer, Wine and packaged goods. I found clothing to be relatively expensive in Switzerland, but the quality and variety makes up for it. In terms of travel, both of us bought a month ticket on the public transport system at 60 CHF each. This is inexpensive as the public trams go everywhere in Zurich, and you can buy 24 hour extension tickets to the surrounding area at around 4.20 CHF.

After two weeks of the intensive German course, during the weekend before classes started, Wicus and I went skiing. It was amazing. Falling, as it turns out, is not as painful as was expected. Ski trips are around 200 CHF in total, which is quite a bit of money. It is highly recommended though and even more so for beginners.

On Monday the 17th our classes officially started, administration and registration, did not allow much time for studying however. In the first two weeks, we had to look for health insurance, register as foreigners in Switzerland, register for taxes and get I had to get a bank account.

Registering as a foreigner in Switzerland was relatively painless. The Swiss bureaucracy was very speedy, although registration did cost around 100+ CHF, so be sure to take some money. Finding health insurance was more difficult, however, as you had to schedule a meeting with the company. Eventually we found a company called CSS and got health insurance with a 100 CHF deductible for 86 CHF a month. Registering for a bank account was quite an involved process; I suggest going with Post-Finance as they offer very good packages for students. They also allow you to get a credit card, with 0 credit on it, for online purchases. This is very useful as many high-end electronic equipment such as tablets are far cheaper in Switzerland.

All in all the first Month in Switzerland was awesome. I could have done without all of the admin, but it was necessary and it becomes less. The weather is amazing, it is cold, but there is no wind, meaning a t-shirt and jacket is more than enough. The University is beautiful and the lectures are very interesting to say the least. So far it is highly recommended.

Half Way through:

Time has certainly flown by in Switzerland. If it is not course work that keeps me busy, it is all the opportunities to socialise with the people in our residence or on campus. This entry comes at quite a busy time, as our exams are right around the corner. To make reading the blog slightly easier, I have broken down the entries into 3 parts. The first part discusses the subjects I am taking and their similarities and differences to subjects at Stellenbosch, if you are not an economics student please feel free to skip it. The second section deals with the differences in academic approach while the third section deals with cultural aspects of the exchange.

  1. Subjects

I am taking 5 subjects: Real Economics and Financial Markets, Computational Economics and Finance, Analysis of Micro-Data, Causal Analysis and Neuroeconomics.

1.1. Real Economics and Financial Markets

As I understand it, Real Economics and Financial Markets will not be given again at Zurich University, so I will not be going through it in detail. The course is similar to the Dynamic theory course at Stellenbosch, the main difference is that it only covers one very extensive model in detail. This model is the brain-child of Prof. Falkinger and attempts to include the financial market in the standard DSGE framework.

1.2. Computational Economics and Finance

Computational Economics and Finance is by far the most difficult course I have ever taken. As its name implies, computational economics deals with numerical computations applied to economic problems. The aim of the subject is to introduce students to numerical methods, specifically how to apply numerical analysis techniques to solve complex problems in game theory, industrial organisation, macroeconomics and econometrics. While the course is most certainly interesting and will likely be extremely useful, bi-weekly tutorials take up almost all available time as one needs to be extremely familiar with Matlab and Mathematica. In this subject there is no exam and only tutorials and assignments. This will give most students the incentive to only work on this subject and not pay attention to their other subjects. I highly recommend this course for students who want to know more about what, for example, Stata does when it does regressions. I do not recommend this course for students who want to be better at economic theory or who want to have an extremely active social life.

1.3. Analysis of Microdata

Analysis of Microdata is also quite a difficult course. The subject deals with econometric techniques to get around problems often faced when dealing with micro data, such as how to deal with missing data, corner solutions, sample selection models as well as multinomial and ordered response models. The course is quite a bit more mathematical than the course back home, furthermore the exam can count 100% of the marks, I will go on about this in section 2. The course will not be difficult for students that had statistics or are fond of econometrics. This course is highly recommended for students in Development Economics, Labour Economics and Economics of Education.

1.4. Neuroeconomics

I took Neuroeconomics because it seemed interesting. The course is an introduction course aimed at making economics students aware of the neuroscience techniques that can address questions in behavioural economics. The course starts with methodologies in Neuroeconomics, discussing the advantages and disadvantages of different ways to measure brain activity. Focus then turns to how the brain learns, specifically looking at reward learning. The next topic covered is valuation in goal directed choice, which is basically choices where values are assigned to stimuli. The next topics covered are integrating costs and benefits into choice making as well as emotions. I enjoy taking the course and will recommend this for anyone seeking an interesting subject.

1.5. Causal Analysis

Causal analysis was a seminar running for 3 weeks at the beginning of the semester after which we had two weeks off and then the final session. The course deals with the strengths and weaknesses of different econometric approaches in determining causality. Topics covered were experimental vs structural approaches, different sources of selection bias and different methodologies ranging from randomisation, regression control approaches to quasi-experimental approaches. The biggest advantage of the course was the assignment where a paper of your choosing had to be analysed. This was one of the better ways to get acquainted with the course material. I will recommend this subject to anyone coming to Zurich University to Study Economics.

  1. Academic Approach

This section is slightly more general again and will apply to almost anyone studying at UZH independent of the course. The Swiss system seems to have no semester tests or continuous assessment. This means that the exams at the end of the semester counts 100% of the total mark. This is very different to Stellenbosch University and is very difficult to get used to, as even now I know I am far behind on my other subjects. Subjects here are also graded from 1 to 6 with iterations of 0.25.

Econometric and Mathematical courses are in general far more theoretical than in Stellenbosch, with the tutorials usually being a bit removed from the lectures. Classes are also far bigger than those at Stellenbosch, so that almost all classes feel like undergraduate classes. This also took some time getting used to.

The academic atmosphere is in general very similar to Stellenbosch, except that there is no open-door policy with the lecturers here.

  1. Cultural Adjustment

Except for the language barrier, I find the cultural adjustment quite easy. Traffic signs, instruction manuals and ingredient lists are in general only written in German, French and Italian, which gets problematic at times and the Swiss people working at stores often feel that their English is inadequate despite being fine speakers. People in general seem to be more distant on the street or in commuting, but are very friendly once you start talking to them. In the residence, however, the lingua franca is English and most people have a reasonably good understanding thereof.

The residence I am staying at has people from all over the world and so far I do not experience great cultural differences between the groups more than differences within the groups. Most people are very friendly and are really fun to hang out with. They are in general very knowledgeable and interesting conversations are everywhere to be found. In this context, I would definitely recommend staying in a residence with other internationals.

Back in South Africa:

I will break down this blog entry into 3 parts. First I will discuss the check-out process and logistical arrangements. The second part will be about the over-all experience and the third part will be about settling back into life in South Africa. I will end with some final thoughts and thank you notes.

  1. Leaving Switzerland

In terms of University Check-out there is no difficulty whatsoever. Blog entries are also required for the University of Zurich, but these needed to be in a long time ago. The persons at the international office send you all relevant information, so you do not really have to worry about anything.

Check-out from the house was by far the most difficult aspect, although it was still relatively simple. I found a subtenant, so I had to ensure that my room was in order. This involved cleaning the room, replacing all lost or broken dishes and ensuring that no damage was done to the room. Arrangements such as inspection and so forth also had to be made.

The check-out process from Switzerland was relatively painless. To leave the country you have to cancel your residence permit and insurance. The administration of this cost me around 30 CHF and takes about a day.

Wicus and I already booked our return ticket with our departure ticket, so no additional arrangements were required. Our trip to the airport was quite a journey as we were returning with far more luggage than we had arrived with. Luckily, our friend Matthew lent us an extra set of hands at the airport. After we checked in at the airport is was smooth sailing.

  1. Overall Experience and Lessons Learnt

The overall experience was amazing. Still now, being back in South Africa, the entire exchange feels unreal.

Academically, the semester was one of my most rewarding semesters to date. While the course work was difficult I now have a far better understanding in how assumptions shape results, how to think about formal economic theory and how to set up problems. I feel that I am a far more capable researcher, specifically with regards to microeconomic empirical work and computational economics. Academically, the main lesson learnt was to not bite of more than I can chew. While in Switzerland I was also busy preparing conference papers and so forth, this meant that my academic life and social life did suffer a bit. Another lesson was to figure out new Software beforehand, especially if you are doing programming courses.

Socially and culturally, the semester was awesome. I now have at least one friend in almost every European and American country. Just being able to interact with persons from all of those countries was a truly wonderful experience. Talking about other persons’ countries and their opinion of it really opens your eyes to so many different aspects that you can immediately enquire about. The main lesson learnt to me was to pay more attention to the social side of life.

  1. Settling back into South Africa

Upon coming back to South Africa, I also moved back to my parent’s house in Strand. This is completely new to me as I was living in Stellenbosch since my first year, which was around five years ago. I am settling in nicely, however.

Wicus and I arrived two-weeks after the semester had started. I am also registered for a course, and so I basically hit the ground running. I do not recommend this to others, rather come back three days early and get some sleep. Re-acclimating to Stellenbosch is quite easy, everything goes on as though nothing ever changed.

  1. Thank you notes

I want to thank Huba Boshoff and her team for making this exchange possible, they made the administrative part of this trip extremely easy. I also want to thank Andrea Orbann and her team at the University of Zurich, they were always available for us and always directed us to where we needed to go both with regards to the University and with regards to Switzerland.

I also want to thank Olga Meier-Popa and Marcia Lyner-Cleophas, at the Disability Office of the University of Zurich and the University of Stellenbosch respectively, without their very friendly and speedy service I would not have been able to successfully write my exams.

  1. Final Thoughts

If you are reading this with the idea to go on exchange, do it. Just do it. It is not difficult, you can figure out everything as you go along. Everyone at the international department makes it extremely easy for you.

This was one of the greatest experiences of my life, if you do this, this will almost surely be in your top ten.

Just do it!