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Imperial College London vs ETH Zurich (MSc Physics)


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Good day everyone,


I'm in a position I am very thankful to be in, the terrible position of being able to choose between two great programs.


The first is the MSc in Physics at ETH Zürich , which is a 90 ECTS (European credit system) program that takes three semesters, or a year and a half. It is located in Zürich, Switserland.


The second is the MSc in Physics with Extended Research at Imperial College London, which is a 120 ECTS programme that takes 4 semesters ,or two years. It is located in London, UK.


Now, to begin with, it is important to note that I am personally most interested in what some would call applied physics. To me this term is too ambiguous, so I'll just describe what I mean. What I do not want to do is extremely abstract, somewhat applied-math like, theoretical physics. I find it an amazing field, but it's just not for me. What I want to do is something that is somewhat, either directly or indirectly, related to physics that might someday find an actual application. Think of semiconductors, or photonics, or quantum information. I'm not sure about whether I want to go for theory or experimental as of yet, so I'm trying to keep my options open. Even worse, I'm not even sure that I will want to pursue a PhD in Physics, which will most definitely depend on how much I enjoy my masters program. Other options, like patent attorneys or consultancy, terrible as they may sound, are also thing I would still consider if academics does not turn out to be my first choice.


Oh, also important, my native language is Dutch. I am fluent (or at least somewhat) in English (C1-C2 level), but my German is at maximum a B1, which means I can understand it a little and speak it rather poorly.


In any case, I've sort of made a list of pro's for the two:



  • Living in London, a global city
  • Not having a language barrier
  • 2 years long (the difference is only in the masters thesis: in each program you take 8 major courses, but ETH's master project is a semester shorter)
  • Better general reputation (for physics, I'd say their reputations are probably almost equal? Imperial is a university that offers a larger variety of study disciplines, so more people know about them outside of the physics world)
  • No conditional offer: at ETH I will have to take 1 extra course from their Bachelor program, which is just added to my course load. At Imperial I simply have to end up with a GPA of 3.8, which I will.

ETH Zürich:

  • Lower tuition fee (Zurich and London are both among the most expensive cities to live in in Europe, so that's going to be rough either way. But Zurichs tuition is about 5000 euro's (7000 dollars) cheaper per year, and is half a year shorter)
  • Offers a larger variety of Physics courses (the difference is huge: ETH offers about ~50+ courses to choose from, while Imperial offers around 20)
  • Has a more explicit focus on applied sciences (this I'm not 100% sure about)


Now, it is of course also important to look at the research departments that I would like to do my Masters thesis with, or even a PhD already. As of now, my interest is primarily quantum information processing, but this could change very easily. I'm doing my bachelor thesis in this field and I find it very interesting, but then again as an undergraduate student, what do I know?


In this field imperial has a Controlled Quantum Dynamics group that does things I find very interesting, and ETH has a Quantum Devices group. Looking at the other groups that they have, the list at ETH is quite a bit longer, which is positive for if I reconsider my interests.


Short version:

All in all I find it a very difficult decision. From a social perspective I find it more attractive to live in the UK, where everyone speaks English, rather than in a city where everyone knows some English, but is not comfortable with it and where they will talk to each other in a language I don't really understand. Both programs are in English, but from what I've read English is not spoken all that well in Zurich. The longer master thesis also makes london more attractive, as more practice is always good. Imperials general reputation is better, but for physics they are both excellent.

On the other hand, the tuition fee difference is very large, and money does play a role. I'll have a large student debt in either case though. Zürichs large amount of courses and a wide variety of departments is also very nice.


I apologize for the long post, and thank you for any advice whatsoever!

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So, you're also a Dutchie considering going to ETH? Nice. :) Where did you do your undergrad?

I am afraid I have little to contribute in this matter, since I am struggling with similar question. In another field, though: computer science. My other option is Oxford.

Edited by Kleene
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My undergraduate studies take place at the Amsterdam University College. What about you? And what are the factors you're considering? Do you find the language barrier to be a problem at all? I'm finding very mixed opinions on the matter.

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I am studying at Leiden University.


No, the language is not an issue for me. If anything, it is an advantage that I would learn fluent German in Zürich. I suppose you are not Dutch yourself? Most Dutch people understand German fairly well, since it is so similar. It is just speaking that is another cup of tea, but in no way I experience it as a barrier.


Just like you I am not sure about pursuing a PhD. At the moment I am pretty certain, but I reckon my ideas may change during the Master's. My considerations are learning (short-term) on the one hand and PhD/career prospects (long-term) on the other. Of course, there is the practical difficulty that it is virtual impossible to find housing in Zürich while in Oxford I am almost guaranteed housing. I have got a on it too.

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Hm I see! I am Dutch myself actually, so I do speak German reasonably well, or at least understand it. But studying at an international school myself (Amsterdam university college is fully taught in English and has 50% foreign students), I know that swiss students will just speak swiss-german with each other, when talking to one another. It's not because they are purposely rude or anything, it's just because it is your first language. That will mean that if you walk by them, you probably won't understand what they are saying. I agree that it will most definitely be very possible to interact with them, but I'm afraid that you could be a little left out now and then.

Moreover, you're probably aware of the gigantic difference between German and Swiss German, so learning German by just hearing others speak and such is a bit harder. Most of the people in Zurich do understand and speak German perfectly well though, so it will be enough to get around with. But, maybe you are right and I'm just making a much bigger problem out of it than it actually is!


About the housing, I'm not sure how big the issue is in Zürich. It'll be a little difficult, but it's more that houses are just expensive rather than unavailable, from what I can tell. It also depends on if you're ok with sharing a flat, or if you want your own studio, I guess. But guaranteed living at Oxford is pretty great, and you are also sure to be living with students, which is probably a nice bonus socially. Definitely a hard choice!

Edited by Verdict
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I share your concern about the social aspect of the course. You will probably end up hanging out with other international students rather than with Swiss students, since they will inevitably speak German all the time. Still, I would not be concerned with not being able to understand them. I have not experienced any trouble understanding Swiss-German before. But indeed it will impede social interaction no matter how you put it.


Have you checked ETH's housing website? Even if you have not accepted your offer yet, you can see some of the things available. Everything is extremely expensive (in Dutch terms anyway). If you want to pay less than 1000 CHF, you will probably end up outside of the city and commuting each day. This would not contribute to your social life either. The University Housing is very limited. Since students that require a visa to enter Switzerland have precedence over the rest of us, you probably should not count on getting it. Plus, you will probably go have to Zürich at the beginning of the summer to be there in person to secure housing. It seems hard to do this from a distance. It has been done before, of course, but since it is not University Housing you may not be entirely sure what you end up with. In short, I am not looking forward to going through this trouble.

Edited by Kleene
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Yeah, you make a good point. I have looked at the housing website, but it's hard to get a clear picture in my opinion. All you can really see is the city, how many pictures there are, and the price. For the other details I need a login, which I don't have yet. You are right tho, it is extremely expensive for Dutch standards, but London's housing is at least equally expensive. So for me that's not really that much of a criteria, it's a problem in both cases!

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