Exchange report - Student at KI
View on the old town from Polyterrasse in front of the ETH main building. Definitely a must-see!
Home university: Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETH Zürich)
Study programme: Biomedicine
Exchange programme: Swiss-European Mobility Programme
Semester: Spring semester 2020/2021
Name: Maren Gerdes
Email address:


Even before starting my bachelors programme at KI, I had checked out the exchange opportunities, was amazed by the variety of prestigious partner universities, and set my mind on going on exchange for my thesis. 

Two years down the line I was still passionate about the idea. While I love Stockholm, I felt like it was time to experience something new, at least for a defined amount of time, also in terms of the research environment. It was just a few weeks before the first Covid cases were reported in Sweden and the world shut down when the exchange application for semester 6 in the biomedicine programme was due. Oblivious about how the upcoming pandemic would turn our lives upside down, I picked Toronto as my first choice – priorities back then: going to a place as far away as possible, doing clinically focussed research, experiencing a whole new continent and challenging myself. 

Little did I know. After a lot of back and forth, Toronto eventually cancelled all exchanges in late summer 2020. Still eager to go on exchange despite the pandemic, together with our International Coordinator, I was exploring alternatives and eventually got caught on ETH Zurich as my exchange destination. It was luckily still possible to apply for the spring semester and thanks to the great support of our International Coordinator, ETH Zurich agreed to accept my late nomination. I was thrilled to receive the chance to spend a semester at one of the best universities in the world in beautiful Switzerland! 

I have always experienced the communication with ETH to be very clear, quick, friendly, and professional. They provided me with all information necessary to fill in my application in their online portal, which is self-explanatory if you are conscious about the points that the ETH Student Exchange Office pointed out earlier (e.g. course codes). Once my application was approved, I immediately received important documents, such as my letter of acceptance, learning agreement and SEMP scholarship contract. 

I was not required to receive any vaccinations or any other medical check-ups and only needed a valid passport and European health insurance card (I am an EU citizen and cannot provide any information on what would be required from non-EU citizens).

Arrival and registration

I took the train to Zurich (from Germany where I stayed over Christmas) and arrived around 5 days prior to the start of the 6th semester. As our second course of the 5th semester was entirely online at that point, I could finish it from Zurich. I used the time to organise a SIM card and a Swiss pass. As for the SIM card, I decided to go with a prepaid card from Aldi mobile. Perhaps not the cheapest option but it worked without any problems, and you could order a SIM card without having a Swiss residence permit. As for public transport, in order to purchase pretty much any ticket that is more long term (such as a monthly ticket for public transport in Zurich), you will need a Swiss pass that is valid in all of Switzerland. You can easily register online, and the card will be sent to your address. I bought my first ZVV Monatsticket (monthly ticket) in the ZVV office at HB (Hauptbahnhof, central station) and they also helped me with uploading a picture from my phone for the Swiss pass (so you don’t actually need a physical picture). All following public transport and train tickets could then easily be purchased via the ZVV-Tickets app or the SBB Mobile app for longer journeys. I would also highly recommend you to consider obtaining the Halbtax ticket, which will allow you to buy many public transport and train tickets at half price.

On my first day in the lab, I also went to the Student Exchange Office in the ETH Hauptgebäude (main building) where I picked up my welcome package and the SEMP scholarship. The welcome package contains, among other things, a confirmation of matriculation and a letter which you need to apply for a Aufenthaltsbewilligung (L-Bewilligung, residence permit) at your closest Kreisbüro if you are staying in Switzerland for more than 90 days (also as an EU citizen!). This must be done within a short time after your arrival in Switzerland, so make sure to not miss the deadline. ETH will provide you with more information about this. It is now also necessary to get an extra appointment at the Migrationsamt (migration office) to have your picture taken, so it might take a while until you actually receive the (L-)Bewilligung. Also remember that health insurance is mandatory in Switzerland! You can apply for exemption if you hold a European health insurance card and ETH offers an information session about it in the spring and more very useful information on their website.

View on the alps from Lake Zurich.


Yes, it is true, Switzerland is expensive. Perhaps not so much for people living in Switzerland, as wages are high and taxes are low, but for anyone coming from abroad, prices can initially be quite alarming. Though, admittedly, Stockholm is – depending on where you are coming from – not cheap either, and the difference between Sweden and Switzerland is not as big as Germany and Switzerland for example. 

As with Stockholm, I would recommend anyone on a budget to keep track of their finances, make use of student discounts wherever possible and preferentially go to “cheaper” supermarkets such as Lidl and Aldi instead of Migros or Coop (comparable to Hemköp, ICA etc.). For orientation: I paid 495 CHF for accommodation per month, 29 CHF for my prepaid subscription, 62 CHF for my monthly public transport ticket and 350 CHF for food. In contrast to KI, ETH has many (more or less) great cafeterias and food options around campus. In my case, unfortunately only the Polyterrasse cafeteria was open at the main campus, but they offered a decent lunch for around 6 CHF. Keep in mind that, generally, a visit to the Kreisbüro will usually cost you some money. You will need to pay for the residence permit and if you need a confirmation for your deregistration before leaving Switzerland, you’ll have to pay again. 

Thanks to the Swiss-European Mobility Programme (SEMP), I received a scholarship of 1900 CHF. I did receive the money in cash, though, and in order to be able to use it to pay my Swiss rent, among other reasons, I decided to open a Swiss bank account. I went with PostFinance who offer a free account for students. You could fill in all information online and receive the documents via mail, but it was necessary to visit a PostFinance office to open the account. 

With the Swiss-European Mobility Programme (SEMP), you do not need to pay any tuition fees and you even get a ASVZ membership for free. They have an extensive offer of sports classes and gyms all over Zurich and are very popular. I was never able to use my membership due to the pandemic, but I would nevertheless highly recommend you to check out their offers.


I was lucky enough to have been offered housing via ETH. You can apply for accommodation until late autumn (you will receive more information with your admission confirmation) by filling in a simple form online, and, if rooms are available, will be matched to one of the WOKO buildings (comparable to SSSB in Stockholm) which are located all over the city. In early December, I received an offer for a room in a WG (shared apartment) with four tenants in Bülachhof 1-3 in Oerlikon. I accepted the offer and am overall happy with my decision. The building is part of a bigger area with student housing and Kindergartens, has a good location with good public transport connections (e.g. ca. 20 Minutes door-to-door to ETH main building by tram and 15 by foot to Bahnhof Oerlikon). In Oerlikon, several supermarkets and other shops (e.g. H&M) can be found for essential goods and a large park around Campus Irchel is also close by. As mentioned earlier, I paid 495 CHF per month which in my opinion is a fair price, as the accommodation standard was as high or higher than Sweden. In general, WOKO rooms vary between approximately 400-600 CHF for a room in a shared apartment. I do not have any experience with the private housing market, but rents tend to be higher. The drawback of ETH allocated accommodation is that you must sign a contract from 1st of February until the 31st of August. That meant that I had to find accommodation for the first two weeks (I used the WOKO website and ended up staying at Bahnhaldenstrasse in Seebach which was ok for two weeks) and a subtenant for July and August. You are also required to pay for a final cleaning of the room and apartment which also amounts to ca. 200 CHF.

My room at Bülachhof in Oerlikon.

Studies in general

I conducted my bachelor thesis project in a lab full-time, hence do not have any experience with courses at ETH. Read more about my (lab) experience below.

Courses during the exchange period

Courses corresponding to semester 6 at KI

I carried my 30 ECTS project out at the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering (D-MAVT). Despite it not being two of the preferred departments for the KI-ETH exchange (Pharmaceutical Sciences or Health Sciences and Technology), I did not encounter any problem with being in another department. I contacted my PI directly and once we agreed on the project, they quickly helped me with providing the documents needed for the application to ETH. When I arrived, the corona situation in Switzerland was still serious and the space situation for the lab quite restricted which led to me spending a lot of time at home doing literature research. It did get progressively better, though, and once I started with my experiments, I was allowed to spend more and more days in the lab. I unfortunately encountered several communication and organisation issues regarding my project which I am not going to elaborate on here. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed working with the other MSc, BSc and PhD students as well as post docs in the lab and they made any project hassle worthwhile. I was able to perform experiment not only at the ETH main campus, but also at other ETH affiliated research institutions across Switzerland which I thoroughly enjoyed, and I think was a unique experience. I also appreciated the multidisciplinary approach, as, although challenging, in my opinion leaving the “KI biology/medicine bubble” for a while really did really broaden my horizon.

Preparations for an important experiment which did not work out on the first try - but hey, that's science, right?.

Language and Culture

Switzerland is pretty unique in having four official languages. Zurich belongs to the German speaking part, but don’t be fooled – In Switzerland, Swiss German is the spoken language which differs severely from high German. Being German myself, I did not have any problems with navigating everyday life in terms of going grocery shopping, understanding administrative letters etc. And while everyone understood me, I must admit that to this date I do very much struggle with understanding Swiss German (it was more of a guessing game most of the time but worked out overall). If you can speak high German, there is no need to speak or learn Swiss German (although it is much appreciated by the locals) and it is always nice to make an effort to understand Swiss German (high German is considered a foreign language for the Swiss). In the lab group, we had very few Swiss members, so I mostly spoke high German or occasionally English. I think that you’ll get very far in Zurich with English as it is a multinational city but cannot speak from my own experience. ETH does offer German language courses, which you, however, have to pay for. They provide you with more information via email. For obvious reasons I did not attend the course though. 

In terms of culture, I did not experience a massive difference compared to Sweden or Germany and admittedly mainly interacted with non-Swiss people. From what I can say, though, the Swiss are very friendly, always happy to help and maybe a bit calmer and more guarded (especially when it comes to language). Be prepared for A LOT of bureaucracy though (you’ll understand what I mean once you are there:))! Oh and recycling! Did I mention recycling?

Leisure time and social activities

When I arrived, Switzerland was still severely affected by Covid-19. Restaurants and shops (apart from supermarkets etc.) were closed, strict rules for everyday life were applicable and in general people were pretty cautious. In that situation, it was not possible for ETH to arrange any physical welcome activities. Additionally, the semester in Switzerland only starts in February when I had already more or less settled in, and I didn’t join any digital welcome events due to a lack of time. Generally, I also tried to keep my social bubble small and defined and mainly interacted with the other members in my lab and my flat mates. I got pretty lucky with both groups and also spent most of my free time with them, where we e.g. went skiing, had a picnic by the lake, a pizza and game night etc. I must, however, admit that my free time was limited. It was common practice to be in the lab from 9-10 am until 6-7 pm but it did happen more than rarely that I came earlier and stayed late to finish my work (not a requirement from my supervisors, though, so do not feel obliged to do this!). Consequently, I spent most of my time with the other students in the lab who were super nice, open-minded, and welcoming. ESN Zurich arranged plenty of social activities throughout the semester which I did not join but are supposed to be very nice, so you might want to check it out. 

Zurich is a metropolitan city, a bit smaller than Stockholm, with a stunning location by Lake Zurich and surrounded by mountains. The historic old town is definitely worth a visit as well as the more hipster area around Industriequartier. I can also highly recommend a swim in the Limmat in the summer and a hike up to Uetliberg! Also, take the chance to explore the rest of the country! Switzland is smaller than you think and due to Zurich’s convenient location, it rarely takes more than 2-3 hours to reach any other cities. As it was difficult to cross boarders due to the pandemic and ever-changing testing and quarantine requirements, I took the opportunity to discover Switzerland and went to Bern, St. Gallen, Basel, Lausanne, Luzern, Zug and Lugarno during my stay and can recommend all cities. I also went on my first “real” hike in the mountains which was a clear highlight!

Kapellbrücke in Luzern, a lovely small city just an hour by train from Zurich.


Looking back, I am very happy I embarked on the adventure to go on exchange despite the pandemic. It has most definitely not always been easy to be socially isolated in a - at times – partially “locked-down” country and I struggled a lot with my project. In the end, I did, however, manage to hand in decent project report and gained skills and knowledge about a topic I would not have been able to work on at KI. I also expanded my professional network, explored a new country and culture, and grew as a person. Most importantly, I built new friendships with amazing people and collected invaluable memories. If you ever have the chance to go on exchange, do not hesitate and take that chance! The world is your oyster!

On my way back to Stockholm.