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Imperial College VS ETH Zurich (MSc Physics)

  1. Apr 3, 2014 #1
    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!
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 13, 2014 #2
    First of all, congratulations with being accepted to two great programmes!

    I am not necessarily more knowledgeable than you about the programmes or the cities, but since I was applying for masters abroad last year I know a little how it is to be in such a position.

    Here are some things you might consider:
    • Firstly, I think there is no notable difference in reputation - both are world-class institutions which have excellent reputations. Imperial might be a bit better known in general, but for physics in particular both have a very good reputation for I think.
    • Have you looked at the course guides? Are there particular courses which either institution has which are not offered by the other? Anything particularly interesting?
    • Have you considered doing a PhD after completing your masters? If so, would you consider doing a PhD at either Imperial or ETH Zurich? It might be easier to contact potential supervisors while you are studying at their institution if you have plans to do a PhD with them. Also, a PhD in Britain is not a paid position and you have to find your own funding. Usually you are automatically considered for several funding sources when you apply, but bear in mind that only British students and EU students who have resided in the UK for at least three years are considered for full funding (tuition + living allowance). I am not sure about the situation Switzerland, though I believe a PhD is a paid position there.
    • Have you visited either of the places, possibly even visited the departments and talked to students? London and Zurich are quite different cities, so you might consider where you'd rather be. London is a megapolis with over 8 million people, definitely has more to offer in terms of culture, entertainment and so on. On the other hand, Zurich is a more typical European city with arguably slightly better living conditions (less noise, cars, pollution), and it's near the mountains. I don't know about the level of English of Swiss people, but consider that there are many international students in Zurich (the same is true for London of course).
    • Also consider the possibility of learning/improving German if you go to ETH. If learning other languages is not important to you, you don't need to consider this of course. If you ever want to do undergraduate teaching as a PhD student, you'll need to know a fair amount of German though.

    I hope this helps and good luck with making a decision!
  4. Jun 20, 2016 #3
    I did one of these master courses at Imperial, and was really disappointed by the low quality of tuition and lack of any planning. Most courses fail to meet basic standards; course schedule changes every week, lectures are delivered so poor, and in most cases there is even no lecture notes. These master courses at Imperial are a kind of marketing to make good money for the college. They recruit hundreds of students in these courses every year based on their reputation.

    The main reason behind doing a master is to increase your chances of finding a good PhD which opens the door to scientific research for you. A master from Imperial will not have any effect on your future PhD applications as the timing of their programs does not match any PhD application deadline. And worse, they are so unwilling to provide academic references for you that you will need to get back to your old referees in your undergraduate university.

    Choose your master program regardless of reputation of the uni before spending too much money, time and effort on a disappointing program.
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