Blog: Applied Geophysics, Zurich Semester

IMG_20160414_164643Since 2006 the IDEA League universities have been offering a joint master’s programme. The Joint Master’s in Applied Geophysics is a two-year joint degree programme offered by three of Europe’s leading science and technology institutions: Delft University of Technology, ETH Zurich and RWTH Aachen University.

Mahfuj Ali, class of 2017, wrote a blog about his experiences as an first-year Applied Geophysics student.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not represent the views of the IDEA League nor of its affiliated programmes.

It’s August 2016 and I’ve arguably just completed my best semester yet, for the last five months I have been studying at ETH Zurich doing the second semester of my Masters and the first year of it has come to an end. Banking, skiing in the Alps, cheese fondue and cows with bells are probably the typical things people think of when they hear of Switzerland, but hiking, swimming in the rivers and lakes, BBQs and sunshine is how I will remember Switzerland.


I am currently enrolled onto the Joint Masters course in Applied Geophysics with thirty other students from all over the world, the course is two years long with everyone starting off in TU Delft in the Netherlands from September 2015 to January 2016. We then move to ETH Zurich in Switzerland in February and finish in June for our second semester before breaking up for the summer holidays. Finally we meet up again for our third semester in RWTH Aachen in Germany from October 2016 to February 2017. From March to July 2017 we have the opportunity to complete our Master Thesis project at one of the three previous institutions or at a company before graduating in late August 2017. Our group all move around together for the first three semesters and we are extremely diverse with over fourteen nationalities in a group of thirty students.

First impression

IMG-20160306-WA0011-2After we finished our exams in Delft, it was very sad that we were going to leave this amazing country behind. The Netherlands had a great food, bikes, canals and a vibrant atmosphere, but we were also excited to travel to a new city and settle in. We had already bonded closely in Delft, so moving to a new city was not scary at all and everyone was eager to see what Zurich and Switzerland in general had to offer. We were greeted with negative temperatures, wind and the occasional snow, but, fortunately Zurich itself is a beautiful city with lovely architecture, excellent organisation and a high level of public trust. We had a couple of weeks free before lectures started, so some of us went away on holiday while other stayed in Zurich exploring the surroundings.



I completed my bachelors degree in Physics back in England at the University of Surrey so I had a bit of a shock when I started in Delft as the study culture, social and sports life were very different. However, I was not expecting much difference between Delft and Zurich. TU Delft had many links with industry particularly the large oil companies such as Shell, naturally much of the research focus was on hydrocarbon exploration and this was also reflected in the modules we took such as ‘Petroleum Geology’ and ‘Geological Interpretation’ which focused on reflection seismology techniques used in the oil industry. We also had compulsory core modules introducing the basics of geophysics, mathematics and programming.

ETH Zurich is ranked first in continental Europe, 9th in the world overall and 1st for Earth Sciences globally so we already had high expectations. The main difference was that ETH’s funding came more from the state than industry and its research focus tailored towards environmental solutions and monitoring which was a huge insight into other career paths other than oil. During the first half of the semester we had intensive modules like ‘Numerical Modelling’ with weekly coursework involving Matlab programming followed by exams, however the second half was more relaxed for most people if they chose not to take the secondary mathematical courses such as ‘Numerical Modelling 2’ or ‘Inverse Theory 2’ etc… One module ‘Case Studies’ was particularly interesting as it taught me geophysicists were not only hired for hydrocarbon exploration, but also for geothermal energy, CO2 storage, landslide monitoring, groundwater detection and geological surveying for bedrock and glaciers etc… We also spent three months processing seismic data to prepare us for the fieldwork in June.

IMG_20160613_140131For the first two weeks of June we had to be at university by 6am, grab various geophysical equipment and drive to the survey site. At Baden, which was an hour away, there were two mini sites where we were trying to determine the depth of the bedrock layer around 50-150m below the surface. At Kloten near Zurich airport, which was half an hour away, we were trying to find the remains of an old Roman villa by identifying walls, fire pits and pathways etc… We were supervised by PhD students, but the designing and collecting of the data was ultimately left down to our decision, we worked in groups of four. The weather consisted of heavy rain for the duration of the fieldwork and even lightning on some days, consequently this meant walking around in mud for five hours with the possibility of catching ticks. For the last two weeks of June when the sun returned and temperatures reached above 25 degrees celsius we were stuck in the computer laboratories processing our data and writing our reports. The final report included our own interpretation of the data and it was nice to know our data was actually going to be used by Swisstopo within their database.

Social life

The biggest fear we had of Zurich was the cost of living, especially the rent prices, we were extremely lucky when we found a block of flats that are going to be demolished in September and had very cheap rent, moreover, fourteen of us were all going to be in the same building. While most of the partying was done at home, we still enjoyed student nights out at venues on Thursdays and a few other bars in town to celebrate big events like birthdays and end of exams. The ERFA organisation within the Department of Earth Sciences also hosted many social events, unfortunately I didn’t get to enjoy the Ski weekend in February, but I still had a great time at all the other events including the department party ‘Geofest’, raclette night and a BBQ in the middle of a forest.

The great thing about Switzerland is you are bordered by five other countries with easy access using a car, this is something I never got to experience as an island nation in the UK. A few of us managed to go on a road trip to Italy one time and a short trip to Germany, many others also went to France, Liechtenstein and Austria. The Swiss people have a really admirable respect for the surrounding nature, its location on the Alps means that everywhere you go there is beautiful scenery. Aside from occasional walks up to Uetliberg (peak of Zurich) we also had the opportunity to do many hikes to mountains which were a couples hours drive away, the views were breathtaking and there was a huge sense of achievement once you reach the top. Within the city of Zurich there are always free events happening: open air festivals, extreme sports shows, exhibitions and of course the Züri Fäscht which occurs once every three years and attracts more than two million people over three days.

Zurich and Switzerland

IMG-20160708-WA0033With all the banks, insurance companies and other large institutions headquartered in Zurich you get the impression that Switzerland as a whole is a very wealthy nation, which is true to a large extent. The cost of living is high, but so is the average wage for a professional worker so in the end there is more disposable income than compared to London for example. Swiss people are also very respectful of the law and the judicial system, there is a mutual level of public trust where everyone expects everyone to follow the rules and you’ll get called out by someone on the street if you’re doing something that you shouldn’t be doing. The fact is that I have never felt more safe in a city than in Zurich, there are safeguards in place to help the disadvantaged and the government institutions seem fully competent. Switzerland is not in the EU either so they have slightly different ways of running things and bit more paperwork to fill out when it comes to bureaucracy, but my own country just decided to leave the UK so maybe it will be no different back home now. The people of Zurich are open minded and welcome new cultures, I found that the diversity of its inhabitants really brings the city to life and there is always something new to try.


If I were to sum up my semester in Zurich into one sentence I would say that academically the work was very hard, socially I had an insane amount of fun and environmentally Switzerland is such a beautiful country with so much to discover. Now most of us have gone abroad to do internships and go travelling, but there are still quite of few of us left in Zurich either working or doing research projects at ETH Zürich which is equally exciting. While it is sad to say goodbye to all my friends for the summer, I know that I will see them again in Aachen in October. Moreover, I am looking forward to our first weekend there when we have a retreat to a RWTH Aachen cabin by the lakeside so it will be a really fun atmosphere to catch up with everyone and kick start our next semester.

31cbca7Mahfuj Ali
Student Applied Geophysics
TU Delft

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