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I started my PhD studentship in a very prestigious university in Switzerland in Summer 2023. Initially, it was all good, however, later things started to go wrong.

Switzerland has been way too cold for me. Extremely cold. I did not think cold would be as bad, but this winter - I have barely survived. I tried to take up as much "work from home", and attend all meetings online. Unfortunately that led to a loss in productivity. My advisor is still happy with my work, but I could do so much more. Plus I have had no social life as I couldn't go out.

I've been miserable. Now that it's summer, I have about 4 months before everything starts going wrong again. I was thinking to try for a PhD in a university in a hotter climate but its quite hard to find a mix of good salary, good university, good advisor with convergence of interests as much as I have currently.

I don't want my advisor to think that I might leave the program soon, unless I've made up my mind and have some plan on what to do next. Plus other PhD programs and even employers will have serious questions about me leaving a PhD program midway. What are my options? How do I decide what to do and how do I prepare for the future?

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    Why is it that you "still can't go out"? Is there some medical issue at play here?
    – cag51
    Commented Apr 30 at 22:14
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    What sort of clothing are you wearing at 10C and below? Colder weather definitely takes some getting used to but if you haven't experienced it I think it's more likely you're not dressing correctly for the weather. You may need to dress more warmly then people around who are more used to it. Do you wear a hat? Gloves?
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Apr 30 at 22:59
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    @jacinto Hiding from the cold will make acclimatisation slower and harder. Also: make sure you get enough vitamin D. Commented May 1 at 16:06
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    Electrically heated gloves, jackets and vests exist nowadays, can be ordered on most online stores, and may help a lot if a regular long coat isn't enough. I'd argue there's simply no reason to feel cold nowadays if you don't want to. Commented May 1 at 19:36
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    Beware that colder countries in Europe are better prepared for winter than south European countries. If you dress properly, winters are better in Scandinavia than in warmer countries because when you are at home you can just wear t-shirts due to good insulation, heating and lower energy prices. If you moved to my home town in Brazil you would need to use heavy clothing indoors, temperatures go bellow 0C and there is no heating. Portugal has a similar issue. So if you decide to move to a warmer country, be careful.
    – The Doctor
    Commented May 2 at 14:21

8 Answers 8

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I think the question is asking for academic advice, not personal advice.

In my opinion, in the long run it is better for you to finish your PhD quickly rather than switching to another university. Delays to finishing your degree are very expensive.

You can look for other places you can work during the coldest part of the year. Maybe there is a research institution in a tropical or southern hemisphere region you can visit inexpensively. A reasonable advisor will think getting international experience is a good thing and can help you plan a trip that will advance your career.

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    thank you for this! yes, this is certainly something I can try. I can also use up all of my vacation days during the winter.
    – Jacinto
    Commented May 2 at 3:25
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I do not mean to minimize the challenges you report, but I do not think cold weather in itself is sufficient reason to rearrange your plans.

Three suggestions.

  • Consider practical solutions. Do you have warm enough clothing? If you've never lived in a cold climate, you might not know what to buy. Do as the locals do.
  • Consider medical explanations. While I do not want to try to diagnose you, the obvious explanation is seasonal affective disorder.
  • Consider other sources of unhappiness. Again, I do not want to play internet psychiatrist, but I do wonder if your complaints about the weather might be displaced from another source.

If you're convinced that none of the above are relevant, then my advice is that this is something to get through. Go to the office every day, even when it's cold. Personally, I do not like getting up early, or flying in cramped economy seats, or taking certain mandatory trainings. But we must sometimes do things we'd rather not. If everything in your life is perfect except for the weather, I rather doubt that you'll find a more perfect situation elsewhere, and it's likely that transferring schools will delay your progress.

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    "Do as the locals do." My temperature perception is very different from average. In my experience, this is absolutely the wrong way to dress for the weather. Perhaps the asker also has unusual temperature perception. Commented May 1 at 1:55
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    Descartes, if I remember correctly, could not get used to the cold when he moved to Sweden, similarly Fourier in France when he returned to Egypt. It might indeed be that OP can not get used to the weather in Switzerland. As European, I find most of lowland Switzerland reasonably moderate, much nicer in winter than Scandinvia (and, in fact, as I once found, Paris!), but someone from a warmer climate may not. Maybe study in Florida, South California, Australia? Commented May 1 at 3:18
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    At my old midwestern USA school, Freshman international students who had never seen snow shivered horribly in October, then someone explains what a Winter coat is and how to buy one, but all Winter outdoors they look as if they're always leaving a recent car crash; and the next Winter they've adapted. "Frozen equatorial Freshperson" was like a meme. Commented May 1 at 10:59
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    It might very well be that this does not apply as much to Switzerland as it does to Germany because even being neighboring countries, the geography and climate is quite different (at least compared to northern Germany). In Germany a lot of incoming students from warmer regions (South America, India, ...) struggle over the winter with Vitamin D deficiancy. Maybe supplementing Vitamin D can already go a long way.
    – ttnick
    Commented May 2 at 8:57
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    @Jacinto ttnick raised a really important point with Vitamin D. Deficency of this often induces depression, which can greatly amplify the resentment you feel towards the Swiss winter. If you think this may have happened, try supplements next winter and see if it helps.
    – Neinstein
    Commented May 2 at 13:34
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I grow up in Costa Rica and moved to Vancouver for my undergraduate degree. Those first winters killed me. Now I live in Germany and, even though I've learned to cope better with winter, I still find it depressing as hell. That's just the effect that the lack of sunlight has on you.

The best thing you can do is buy a sun lamp and find some form of exercise you enjoy that you can do during the winter. Good luck and remember that you're not alone!

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    Ah, I grew up in the Prairies of Canada, and Vancouver is like a tropical paradise by comparison...
    – nneonneo
    Commented May 3 at 17:47
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I live in cold climate and have a friend coming from a warm climate. He keeps complaining and at the same time wears thin jacket over a shirt when it is -10 C. Are you sure you are not making the same mistake? I wear a shirt, longsleeve, sweater and a proper winter coat. If it is windy, I add a scarf necessarily.

Also, if you modify your question based on what you wear, we could give better answers.

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Having completed a PhD in Switzerland myself, I sympathize with your complaints about the Swiss climate in the winter months, especially in fog holes such as Neuchâtel or Zürich. In addition to some of the excellent suggestions in the other responses, I would recommend exploring grants for mobility schemes to visit other institutions or project partners with more amenable climate. This might not be a permanent solution, but would allow you to continue your doctoral program in Switzerland (with all the prestige that entails) while escaping the cold, and improve your CV in the process.

If you are employed in a Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) project, you might be interested in looking into SNSF Mobility grants. Showing initiative by applying to grants is always a good idea. If you are employed by an international EU consortium project or doctoral network, then these often have funds set aside for secondments. In my experience, many professors in Switzerland also have quite comfortable funding, and might be able to fund such research visits on their own if the other options are not feasible and you can make a strong case for its scientific relevance.

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This is a very unusual question, you're in a field of study you enjoy, in a prestigious school in Switzerland and your supervisor is supportive. That's like the jackpot of postgraduate opportunities, yet you're fixated on the weather and even considering leaving because of it?

Have you actually tried to deal with the cold? Layering, wearing an appropriate coat, socks, hat, and gloves. All of these make a huge difference.

I don't think it is worth giving up such an incredible opportunity because of the weather but I wish you the best of luck regardless.

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If it's a matter of feeling cold there are a number of things that you can try. If it's the general perception of coldness then these may or may not help.

  • A Polypropylene "thermal" layer next to the skin can make an immense difference.
    Polyester (PE) may work about as well thermally, but PP wicks moisture vapour away from your skin better, so that you don't feel as clammy.

  • As many Polyester layers as it takes can be worn. Without appearing overdressed this could include a shirt, sweater and jacket. Each layer is a good insulator in its own right, and also traps a layer of stationary air to add to the insulating effect. You can get different weights of PE clothing - I'd imagine that Swiss stores offer a good range.

  • Warm feet help immensely. You can get specifically insulating socks in various materials. Similarly, footwear can be chosen to target warmth. Long ago silk socks were a thing - they may not now be readily available. They have the additional advantage of being thin, allowing them to be worn inside a second pair of other materials. A google search suggests that they are still available online.

  • Along with warm feet, a warm head also makes an immense difference. Even a light woolen hat works wonders, and there will no doubt be available hats that match current Swiss standards for acceptable dress.

  • Gloves also make a substantial difference. Silk gloves are thin and allow operation of most equipment and can be very inobvious. There are of course a wide range of other gloves available. I tend to favour fingerless gloves, but have reached an age where cosmetic appearance is not a major factor :-) .

  • By now you should be getting seriously warm. If that's not enough adding a scarf will help. This can be warn only around the neck or handing down ready for use or across the face en extremis.

  • If all else fails !!! :-)
    Long ago I rode motorcycles in inclement conditions, although not as cold as Switzerland. I bought a pocket warmer / hand warmer that used white gas (petrol without additives) and a platinum wire coil catalytic converter to produce a useful amount of heat. I hade this more useful by wedging the case door open somewhat to increase the air flow rate. I would tuck this under my belt before I put my outer protective jacket on. Super toasty.
    A web search using pocketr heater shows that many brands are still available - you'd want the refillable rtype and not the oe-times ones.
    You can now buy electrically heated rechargeable units. They are liable to have less energy per charge than fuel based ones but would be more convenient.
    The New York times tested 23 hand warmers and say that the Celestron is the best electrically heated one (and includes a torch and phone charger) and that the Zippo 12 hour refillable is the best fuel based one.

And, to answer the question - do try very hard to adapt to the cold.
The mix of good salary, good university, good advisor with convergence of interests plus the superb Swiss experience would be very hard to beat.
I recommend Lauterbrunnen - all year round, but certainly in warm weather. Schilthorn (shades of 007) but only if the weather is excellent.

enter image description here

Lake Geneva, ... and much much more.

enter image description here

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  • Excellent weather in Lauterbrunnen? When pigs can fly ;-)
    – gerrit
    Commented May 1 at 20:06
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    @gerrit it was lovely weather on the day that I took those two photos plus many more. Sadly I missed seeing the flying pigs. Trummelbachfalle was scary and awesomely fantastic. Commented May 2 at 2:03
  • @gerrit whoops - one photo. Other is of course not at Lauterbrunnen. Commented May 2 at 4:00
  • JHmmm. 2 days on, a downvote. I wonder what anyone would think this is not useful. Commented May 4 at 7:24
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I live in Zurich.

Although Zurich is in Switzerland, it's relatively far from the alps and therefore it doesn't get as cold in winter as other cities closer to the mountains.

Here are my recommendations to keep warm in winter.

  • Get some warm and waterproof shoes and nice warm socks. The easiest way to get cold is to get your feet wet, so your first objective is to make sure your feet keep dry no matter the weather

  • Invest in a good jacket. A good jacket will last you forever and will keep you warm and dry.

  • You can wear thermal leggings and thermal t-shirt under your regular clothes.

  • Cover your head with a good warm hat that also covers your ears, and put some good gloves in your hands.

  • In sport shops they sell chemical warm bags. They have a couple of chemical components that when in contact to each other they generate heat. And some of this bags are reusable. Have always one with you in case you did not take enough clothes.

Good clothes are a bit expensive, but if you are are smart you can get good clothes at good prices:

  • Some sport shops have outlets, where they sell clothes from previous seasons at big discounts, and they are equally effective as the new trendy season ones.

  • When the winter season ends, regular shops make big discounts for the items they didn't sell. That's a very good moment to buy winter clothes for the next year.

  • You can also buy second hand clothes, there are some shops that sell second hand clothes. In Switzerland we use the website www.tutti.ch to sell second hand stuff, including clothes. You can find very good deals there.

So to sum up: You can get good clothes without spending a fortune that will help you not feel cold in winter and will allow you to enjoy not only the city but the magnificent landscapes of this beautiful country.

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