We are nearing the end of November. For most of us this means that the Christmas mood is slowly finding way into our minds. And if you are so lucky to orient yourself still mainly by academic calendar, this also means that you are well into the second half of your autumn semester. The initial enthusiasm may be well extinguished by the sheer amount of workload. Things that were supposed to be fun are becoming an annoying routine and you are starting to wonder if you are interested in what you are supposed to learn in the first place.

This doesn’t feel good so you rack your brains for possible solutions. The ones you come up with seem all too radical – taking a year off, changing course of your studies or even dropping out altogether so you do nothing, foolishly hoping that next semester things will change.

Freedom to Explore

Of course, this may not be the way you feel about your studies, but more often than not, it will be. This is how I usually felt and this is also one of the main reasons why I decided to give a studying at ETH a try. I wanted a change and this one appeared radical enough. Now you probably wish to hear that studying here is completely unlike to what I just described, that the courses are huge fun and hands-on and that lectures really help you to understand the topic. But this is not true. My studies here don’t differ too much from my studies back home. Except for one thing. And funnily enough, this one thing is nothing that couldn’t be adopted by practically any of you at any university. What I am talking about is the freedom I have in what I decide to study.

Most of us will go through higher studies being told which courses we have to take and in which semester to do so. Many pages could be probably written about whether this is a good or bad thing and I am by now means a qualified person to do that. I just know how it felt in my case. It mainly sucked. In the age of personalized education, when the internet abounds with online courses about thousands of topics, I felt I had no decisive power over what my curriculum will look like. It was only thanks to seeing things from different perspective that I realized that this feeling was erroneous.

At ETH my study program is surprisingly flexible. Take a look at it:

Curriculum of Master in Mechanical Engineering Program at ETh.

Yep it is right. It doesn’t have a single fixed course in it. Where will you do your project or an industrial internship? Up to you to decide. Do you want to write your thesis at a university abroad? Just do it. How long is your program going to be? Anything you wish as long as it doesn’t exceed 3 years. Which courses will you compose your program of? Any you and your tutor mutually agree upon. In which order you take those? The one that suits your preferences and schedule. And I personally totally enjoy this gamut of choices, the feeling of ownership of my studies. Never mind some sub-optimal choices that I will inevitably make, these would arise in in any case.

From Being a Passenger to Becoming a Driver

I dare to guess that the described freedom is somewhat attractive to you. And now here comes my point: You can have it. And there is no need for radical solutions to achieve it. Although it may seem there is a sharp contrast between studying at ETH and your university, most of this contrast can be smeared away by pure change of perspective. The only difference lies in what people tend to do. And your opportunity is in doing something bit different.

Let me give you an example, my former university: Brno University of Technology, has roughly the same amount of students as ETH has. It offers hundreds of courses and hundreds of square meters of labs and workshops. The situation will look quite a like for any other university. And you know what? You can take advantage of those opportunities. Are you in civil engineering but it’s been some time you are wondering whether you would enjoy coding? There are various ways how to find out and signing up for a course at your university is one of the easiest ones. You get the structure, you get the support, you get to know other like-minded people and you get the necessary motivational boost from assignments and exams. And it is for free. I mean, how is it possible that we mostly totally overlook it?

What really matters?

Of course, we like to see hurdles even where there are none and so you immediately see problems with this proposal. You won’t have time for your usual study duties and you will just do a poor job coding compared to people who gathered experience in it over several semesters. But this is totally irrelevant. You may fail few of your usual courses (let’s face it, you probably won’t). So what, you can sign up for them next year. Your grades will suffer. So what, no one really cares (except you perhaps). You will not ace the additional course you signed up for. So what, that was not your goal in the first place. Your goal was finding out what is it that you enjoy. This experience will move you fast forward on this track. Besides, from my personal experience, I know that that if you will find the topic really intriguing than you will manage to catch up.

“Your goal was finding out what is it that you enjoy. This experience will move you fast forward on this track.”

And the same logic applies also for practical lab and project work. Do your studies feel too little hands-on? That’s what I often complained about and that’s you probably complain about quite often. The chances are that you have already realized that this is no solution to your problem. Take this as reminder and try something different this time - join a lab or local student’s workshop. Look for a part time job. Does the offer of thesis topics at your faculty seem dull? Than take a look someplace else, be it a different faculty, university or a company. Not only will you then find a project that interests you but you will get to tackle it in an unusual setting. This will be challenging but there will be people to support you, people you otherwise wouldn’t even meet. And it is from them, you can learn the most. There are opportunities out there and your best bet is probing many and absorbing all the new experiences before you settle for something that suits you.

The take-away

By writing this post I wanted to point out to you my main positive impression from being a student at ETH, namely the freedom in organizing my master studies. It turns out that it is nothing that you yourself couldn’t make a use of. In your case it boils down to exploring paths seldom taken and taking advantage what your current environment has to offer. Thus I encourage you to take more ownership of your studies. You will inevitable face some hurdles but more often than not you will surmount them just fine. And in doing so you will grow as a person, make new friends and have a blast at the same time.

Note: The view I offer here can by no means be complete. However, its usefulness lies exactly in this fact. Being new at ETH I can easily spot out differences between how studies are approached here and in the Czech Republic. I encourage you to take a critical approach when considering my opinions, because it is in this way, that you can make some use of them for your particular case. Furthermore, in this post I focused on just one of the initial impressions I have from being a student at ETH. Of course, there is more and some of them are also negative. I will focus on some of these in upcoming posts. Stay tuned!