These Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) have been compiled by current and previous students of the Neural Systems and Computation (NSC) MSc program. They are meant to provide additional information and useful tips, not only about the NSC program, but also practical questions like moving to Switzerland, housing, and tips what to do in Zurich. Please note that the information provided here is informal and unofficial, and refer to our other webpages for official guidelines.
What is a mentor?
During your application you have to choose two preferred mentors, and when you are accepted to the program you will be assigned to one of them. The role of a mentor is to help you drawing up your individual curriculum, and to give you further advice during your studies. Your mentor does not have to be the supervisor of your Master’s thesis. You can find the list of potential mentors, listed under professors and group leaders, here: Mentors
How do I find out which mentor I should choose?
Following the links on Mentors takes you to the webpages of the potential mentors, where you can find out about their research interests. Contacting current NSC students is also a good source of information to find the right match to your background and interests.
Can I start in the Spring semester?
Yes, that is possible.
When is the application deadline?
Please notice that the application deadlines have changed in 2016!
If you’d like to start in the Fall semester: 15th of January of the same year
If you’d like to start in the Spring semester: 15th of August of the previous year
Do I have to have my Bachelor’s degree finished before I can apply?
You can apply before you have completed your degree, but if you are accepted, then you need to have your degree before you can register with the University. If you don’t hold a Bachelor’s degree at the time of application, please provide in the application documents the expected end-of-studies date.
Do I need an English or German language certificate such as TOEFL, IELTS, CAE, DSH, TestDaF, Goethe, … or SAT / GRE tests for my application?
No, your proficiency in English will be assessed from your written documents and in a personal interview. It is not necessary to know German to apply to our program. We do not request scores from standardized tests like SAT or GRE.
Can I write my application in German?
No, the whole program is in English, and it is necessary to evaluate your proficiency in English from your written documents.
Who should be my reference contacts? Should I list employers or family members?
We prefer academic referees who can tell us about your performance during your undergraduate studies and your suitability for this program.
Do I need to send letters of recommendation with my application? How are references contacted?
You do not have to send letters of recommendations with your application. After the first evaluation of your application we will contact your reference contacts by email.
Do I have to pay an application fee?
No, you don’t.
What information should I provide in the financial statement?
The financial statement is an informal statement that should clarify for us how you plan to cover the expenses during your time in Zurich. We request this because for foreigners the Swiss authorities will request proof that you can afford your studies later. So even if you are accepted by the program, you might be denied your residence permit for Switzerland if the authorities find your financial situation insufficient. The program has no influence over this decision, but we need to see that you are aware of this. You can find below more details about the expected costs of living in Zurich and tuition fees. Please make an estimate of how much money you expect to need (total sum), and explain how you can cover these expenses for at least 1,5 to 2 years required to complete the MSc. If you are relying on scholarships that have not yet been granted to you, please explain this in your statement, and explain what the alternative source of funding is if your grant application does not pass. Please be aware that if you should be admitted to the program, the Swiss authorities might require a more formal statement and more information, but this is handled independently of our program. Swiss students do not have to submit a financial statement.
Can you give an overview of the application and matriculation process?
Begin by submitting your application by the listed deadline on the website. If you submit for a Fall semester start, the deadline is on January 15th, for a Spring semester start it is August 15th. The admission committee should reach a decision by mid-April (for the January application deadline) / mid-November (for the August application deadline), possibly after conducting an interview with you (using Skype or in-person where available).
If you are accepted by the admission committee, the committee will let you know and forward its recommendation to the Office of Student Affairs of the University of Zurich, which will get in touch with you and request to fill out the “Application for Matriculation” form. You must then fill out this form and pay the application fee; you will need to present your original documents (you will receive a list of required documents) in person. If you need to obtain a visa, you should apply for a visa in parallel to this process. The Swiss “Migrationsamt”, which handles visa applications, requests that you have been accepted as a student when applying; though you may not possess the final acceptance letter yet, simply present to them the recommendation letter you received by the admission committee.
You will matriculate in person when you arrive in Zurich, the University of Zurich will provide some additional documentation. You will receive a computer account and email address after the welcome event for new Neural Systems and Computation (NSC) students.
Can I apply for the ETH excellence scholarship?
As a candidate for NSC, unfortunately you cannot, because the leading house for this program is the University of Zurich, and NSC students are not eligible for the ETH scholarship. The University of Zurich does not have an equivalent scholarship.
Are there any scholarships from my home country to fund studies in Switzerland?
Neither the NSC program nor the University of Zurich can provide funding for MSc students (exceptions are fast-track students), so we recommend looking for funding opportunities in your home country. Here we have compiled an (incomplete) list of countries for which we are aware of funding opportunities, and provide links and comments from our current and previous students. If you would like to share your experience with other funding sources, please contact us:
- Institution: Endeavour Masters Scholarship/Research Fellowship
- Link: https://aei.gov.au/scholarships-and-fellowships/pages/default.aspx
- Notes: Australian citizens are eligible for a living stipend and tuition coverage, for the duration of their masters or PhD. Foreign citizens interested in a six month fellowship (this can serve as an NSC short thesis, or a semester project, if you plan ahead), can apply for the fellowship. Fellowships must be conducted in Australia (for foreign applicants).
- Institution: Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada: Alexander Graham Bell Canada Graduate Scholarships and NSERC Postgraduate Scholarships
- Link: http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/Students-Etudiants/PG-CS/BellandPostgrad-BelletSuperieures_eng.asp
- Notes: Application deadline October 15th. You must have obtained a first-class average (a grade of “A-”) in each of the last two completed years of study (full-time equivalent).
- Institution: Fonds de recherché du Québec
- Link : http://www.fqrnt.gouv.qc.ca/en/bourses/index.htm
- Notes: Application deadline October 3rd. You must have been living in Quebec for at least one year, and be a current resident of Quebec. At least 3.55 average or the equivalent for the undergraduate degree.
- Institution: Citadel Capital Scholarship Foundation, Cairo
- Link: http://www.citadelscholarships.org/
- Notes: You have to be already accepted at the university and program, this might become an issue if the admission decision of the program/university falls on a date after the scholarship’s deadline. Applications are submitted and screened, followed by an interview in front of a panel who decide on granting the scholarship or not. The scholarship consists of full tuition coverage and a predefined stipend for expenses.
- Institution: German National Academic Foundation (Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes)
- Link: http://www.studienstiftung.de/
- Notes: The selection process is competitive, but everyone who studies in Germany or has the German citizenship can apply. For a masters in Zurich scholars can apply for an additional study abroad scholarship that is paid on top of the basic scholarship.
- Institution: Fulbright Program
- Link: http://eca.state.gov/fulbright
- Notes: If you know you’ll apply far ahead of time, you can get your first year of studies paid for through the US Fulbright scholarship program. That application deadline is October, 4 months before the application deadline of the program. It is quite a long way ahead to plan but will cover your living expenses for one year. It is unclear how the Fulbright program may handle applications when you have not yet been accepted to the NSC program, but to the best of our knowledge, that is the only scholarship available to US students through Swiss universities.
Information for New Incoming Students
What courses should I take?
The program offers you a lot of flexibility. The NSC program website lists the credit requirements you must fulfill. For the elective core modules, you have to select two categories, and obtain at least 9 credit points (CPs) in each of them. Each category gives you the choice to select at least 2 of the courses to reach the required credit minimum. However, nearly half of your credits will be from elective modules, and many courses at the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich can be accepted into these requirements if cleared with the NSC program coordinator first.
You should first discuss your curriculum with your assigned mentor. Additionally, discussing course recommendations with other master students is advised. Most students do not sign up for courses before the welcome meeting for new NSC students, and course registration will remain open for several weeks after courses start. A course load totaling 30 CPs is considered a full schedule. Of course, some courses require a lot of work while others have rather light workloads, and the number of credits a course is worth is not always a good indicator of that.
Where is the building that houses the Institute of Neuroinformatics?
Bau 55 can be difficult to find, and it can be easy to feel lost around the Irchel campus. From the main station take Tram Number 10 towards Seebach to “Universität Irchel” (about 10 min) or Trams Number 7 or 14 towards Seebach to the “Milchbuck” stop (Tram line map). Follow the arrow “Universität”, and you will end up on the broad walkway. There is an information desk inside building 23 on the right-hand side when you enter. Our building is Bau 55, left of the broad walkway and the entrance to the institute is on the left on the ground floor, just as you enter the building.
An overhead map and an animated GIF showing the path can be found on Prof. Tobi Delbruck’s web page: http://www.ini.uzh.ch/~tobi/contact.php
How can I find out about available project or thesis topics?
In general the best way is to just approach professors, postdocs, or their PhD students and talk to them. You will hear a lot about the ongoing research in lab meetings or group meetings. You can find some information about general topic areas on the websites of each group leader.
The Translational Neuromodeling Unit has a frequently updated website where MSc projects are advertised:
The Institute of Neuroinformatics also has a website for student projects, but it is currently empty:
Moving to Switzerland
How much German or Swiss German should we know before arriving?
Zurich is a very international city with many English speakers. French and Italian (and Romansh) are also official languages of Switzerland, so you will find most official documents offered also in these languages. The dominant language spoken in the participating institutes is also English, even in casual conversations, and you will not have to learn German to complete your studies. Most of the lectures relevant as elective modules are offered in English, notice however that some lectures at the University of Zurich or ETH Zurich are only offered in German.
However, knowing German and Swiss German will enrich your experience here and make it easier to integrate into the culture. Additionally, freely available German courses are available for students: http://www.sprachenzentrum.uzh.ch/
When should I arrive?
Many students arrive in early August; this will give you 6 weeks or so to look for housing and to settle in before the start of the semester. You can come earlier if you are extra worried about housing, as August is one of the most competitive months due to the influx of international students, though early September is fine if you have already obtained a Woko room (http://www.woko.ch/en/) or a flat in Zurich.
What should I know about living in Switzerland?
When you first arrive, you may be shocked by the cost of living in Switzerland. It is a very expensive place to live, and many activities you may be used to (including restaurants, clubs, and movies) may cost too much to continue to regularly do without additional income.
However, most other NSC students feel the impact on their wallets as well, and many social activities take this into account. Lower-cost events like at-home movie and TV nights together, barbecues, hikes through nature, bike rides, swims, football, some types of travel (see the “Gleis 7” pass below), and house parties are popular ways to relax without spending too much money.
How high are the tuition fees and the living expenses?
Switzerland is a very expensive country, but the tuition fees are relatively low compared to e.g. the USA or UK. You have to pay the tuition fees and contributions at the University of Zurich (UZH), which amount to approximately 1500 CHF per year. The most recent information about tuition fees can be found here: http://www.uzh.ch/studies/application/generalinformation/fees_en.html
Regarding the costs of living in Switzerland, UZH maintains a website with guidelines: http://www.uzh.ch/studies/studentlife/finances_en.html
ETH Zurich maintains its own website: https://www.ethz.ch/en/the-eth-zurich/welcome-center/services-and-downloads/cost-of-living.html
The expected minimum costs of living are around 2000-2250 CHF per month (including tuition fees), but depend very much on the individual student. Especially the costs of housing are very variable.
When you fill out your financial statement for the application, make sure to explain how you can cover these costs for approx. 1.5-2 years.
Do you have advice on the visa process?
Begin early after you have been accepted into the University. Not all the requirements may be able to be fulfilled – for example, having your money in a Swiss bank account, or being fully matriculated at the University (which requires being there personally). It is much better to start early and do a couple of rounds of back-and-forth than to wait too long.
Do I need a Swiss bank account before I arrive?
It is very difficult to acquire a Swiss bank account before you live in Switzerland. If you need to prove sufficient funds for your visa, students in the past have used Chase, HSBC, Citibank, and other major international banks. Any bank on this list should work: http://www.finma.ch/institute/pdf_e/ebeh.pdf
Is part-time work available?
Yes, though it should not be relied upon and most students do not work. A good place to look for job offers is the UZH Marktplatz (http://www.marktplatz.uzh.ch/jobs/). Students in the past have moved furniture, babysat children, cooked in cafes, bartended, and helped out labs at the INI for extra money. Typically, these jobs all pay between 20 – 30 CHF per hour.
Housing in Zurich
What is the process for applying to flats in Zurich? What can I expect?
Housing in Zurich is notoriously difficult to find for students; expect to go to at least one apartment viewing where 30 people are applying for a single spot. Ask students who have been through this process before for advice.
The first suggestion is to go through the Woko office (http://www.woko.ch/en/default.asp), at least for your first semester. They reserve a set of rooms for international students, so you can secure a room at one of the Woko locations if you apply early enough.
If you want to move directly into a flat, the following websites may be useful:
● http://www.marktplatz.uzh.ch/wohnungen/ – an internal housing marketplace for UZH/ETH students
● http://www.students.ch/wohnen/ – a Switzerland-wide student network
● http://www.flatrooms.com/en/wgzimmer.html?wc_language=en – an aggregate of Woko and advertised flats
● www.wgzimmer.ch – a large site for all housemate searches
● www.roominho.ch – a new website for flat shares, available in English, German, French, and Italian
What neighborhood should I live in?
The most important point is that you live in Zone 110 of Zurich public transport ZVV (http://www.zvv.ch/en/), the transit zone corresponding to Zurich main city. If you live outside of this zone, your options for coming home late are greatly diminished, and you will pay much more money on transit costs just to go to school or see friends. Students tend to live in the Oerlikon / Schwamendingen area of the city (to the north), which is convenient for the Irchel campus (where INI is located) as well.
While I am looking for housing, where should I stay?
This may be difficult to do for low cost. Reach out to all of your contacts and see if there are spare couches to crash on, post to the Facebook group for current students, and see if you can use Couchsurfing. Students in the past have also obtained temporary sublets through the UZH Marktplatz while they look for housing. Lastly, hostels and hotels do exist but their costs can add up significantly over the multi-week process it may take to find housing in Zurich.
How much time should I budget for the housing search?
If you are a foreign student, and you do not receive a Woko apartment, six weeks is around the upper limit of time it takes a student to find their first apartment. Generally, the process will take between 2 and 6 weeks of earnest searching, though it will feel like it takes forever.
What should I do after arriving in Zurich?
If you are coming in from the airport, you will likely come in on the trains of Swiss Federal Railways SBB (http://www.sbb.ch/en/home.html). You should buy a ticket from Flughafen (airport) to Zürich HB (Hauptbahnhof, main train station), and it should cost you around 8 Francs for a one-way ticket. You typically will not be eligible for the discounts yet, though you should consider buying a Halbtax half-fare card (http://www.sbb.ch/en/travelcards-and-tickets/railpasses/half-fare-travelcard.html) as early as possible. This will save a lot of money on public transit in Zurich and trains around Switzerland.
Stop by the Institute of Neuroinformatics (INI) as early as possible. This really cannot be emphasized enough; most of us felt apprehensive about going to the INI before the welcome meeting, but it would have been hugely helpful if we had. Most NSC students stay through the summer and we can be found in the first big office full of monitors and long desks inside the INI. Announce you are a new master student, and we will be happy to welcome you, give you advice, and connect you with social activities!
You can buy prepaid phones without an address or a residence permit. This will greatly facilitate your social life and the housing search.
With your phone, a temporary place to stay, and new friends in Zurich, you should be doing well!
What are some useful things to know about in Zurich?
- There are five major grocery stores that you will encounter in Zurich. Roughly sorted by price, from most expensive to least, they are: Coop (pronounced “cope”), Migros (“MEE-groh”), Denner, Lidl, and Aldi. The last two are dramatically less expensive, but also much rarer, and are found primarily in Oerlikon and the outskirts of Zurich. There are international food stores specializing in Mexican, Indian, and Asian cooking ingredients as well.
- You can drink in public and on transit in Switzerland.
- Many Zurich-related questions can be addressed in English at http://www.englishforum.ch/
- Travel for under-25 year olds – the so-called “Gleis7” allows free transit after 7 PM anywhere within Switzerland, and is definitely a must-have. Besides greatly facilitating travel within Switzerland (especially if you are willing to couchsurf, you can often travel entirely for free), it also allows cheap travel to neighboring countries (including the relatively affordable mall in Konstanz), especially Italy; when done correctly, one can fly from the Ryanair airport in Bergamo (Milan) to almost any destination in Europe.
- Free bikes can be rented near the Hauptbahnhof.
- Phones – different carriers have different deals, but it may make sense to ask around. For those getting an Abo (contract) instead of a prepaid phone, check with roommates and friends, many offer free calls to other users on the same network.
- This handbook for international students is quite useful: http://www.rektorat.ethz.ch/students/immigration/handbook.pdf
Are there sports teams and clubs?
There is indeed an INI football team which you can join. The university offers various opportunities to do a variety of sports like rowing, mountain climbing, and yoga (see http://portal.asvz.ethz.ch for more information). In general, doing social activities like group sports or singing is something you will need to seek out yourself since these activities often are community-based, not school-based as you might be used to. However, this can be a great way to integrate into Swiss society as well!
Useful Links and Web Resources
I am about to finish my MSc studies, where can I find information about PhD opportunities?
You will frequently hear about open PhD positions in the INI lab meeting, see job advertisements on the wall near the INI entrance, or receive emails through the INI mailing list. Another good source of information are mailing lists, which are fantastic for finding out about PhDs opportunities, hearing calls for open jobs, special journal issues, and finding out about interesting papers in the community.
Of particular relevance for NSC students are the comp-neuro and Connectionists mailing lists:
- Comp-neuro – generealized computational neuroscience: http://www.neuroinf.org/mailman/listinfo/comp-neuro
- Connectionists – generalized neuroinformatics talk: https://mailman.srv.cs.cmu.edu/mailman/listinfo/connectionists
The following are more specialized mailing lists and communities:
- Reinforcement Learning: https://groups.google.com/forum/?fromgroups#!forum/rl-list
- Deep Learning: https://plus.google.com/communities/112866381580457264725
- Neuromorphic Engineering: https://plus.google.com/communities/106429639703340584547
- Computer Vision: http://visionscience.com/mailman/listinfo/visionlist
- European Robotics: https://lists.iais.fraunhofer.de/sympa/info/euron-dist
- Machine Learning:
- Artificial Life: http://lists.idyll.org/listinfo/alife-announce
- Genetic Programming: http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/genetic_programming/
The European Society for Neuroscience (FENS) also maintains a searchable job database at http://www.fens.org/jobs/search.html
Are there any useful online courses that I should watch?
The following is a list of online courses for different disciplines that were recommended by our students. You might find them useful to watch either before you start or to catch up with some material during your studies. Please understand that these courses are in no relation to the NSC program, and should not replace attending lectures offered at UZH or ETH. In particular, no credit can be given for successfully completing any of the courses.
- Fundamentals of Neuroscience by Prof. David Cox (Harvard)
- Understanding the Brain: The Neurobiology of everyday life by Prof. Peggy Mason (Univ. of Chicago)
- Medical Neuroscience by Prof. Leonard E. White (Duke University)
- Synapses, Neurons, and the Brain by Prof. Idan Segev (Hebrew Univ. Jerusalem)
- Visual Perception and the Brain by Prof. Dale Purves (Duke University)
- Neuronal Dynamics – Computational Neuroscience of Single Neurons by Prof. Wulfram Gerstner (EPFL Lausanne)
- Computational Neuroscience by Prof. Rajesh Rao and Prof. Adrienne Fairhall (Univ. of Washington)
- Exploring Neural Data by Prof. Monica Linden (Brown University)
- Machine Learning by Prof. Andrew Ng (Stanford)
- Neural Networks for Machine Learning by Prof. Geoffrey Hinton (Univ. of Toronto)
- Probabilistic Graphical Models by Prof. Daphne Koller (Stanford)
- Bioinformatics Algorithms (I) by Prof. Pavel Pevzner (UCSD)
- Lecture Series on Chaos, Fractals and Dynamical Systems by Prof. S. Banerjee (IIT Kharagpur)
- Lectures on Linear Algebra by Prof. G. Strang (MIT)
- Lectures on Differential Equations by Prof. A. Mattuck (MIT)
- Linear Algebra: Foundations to Frontiers by Dr. Maggie Myers and Prof. Robert van de Geijn (Univ. of Texas)
- Calculus One by Prof. Jim Fowler (Ohio State Univ.)
- Mathematicalmonk Youtube Channel
- MOS Transistors by Prof. Yannis Tsividis (Columbia Univ.)
- Introduction to Neuroeconomics: how the brain makes decisions by Prof. Vasily Klucharev (Higher School of Economics, Moscow)