Hi! I’m Annabelle and I’m studying at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland for my fourth year of my MPhys Particle Physics with a Year Abroad degree. I’m currently about two thirds through the year, and it’s been a great experience.
Switzerland is a beautiful country. My bedroom window looks out onto the mountains which is a very pretty sight to wake up to each morning. It’s also a twenty minute tram ride into the centre of town, where you can take a walk along lake Geneva. The Jet d’eau (water jet) is quite impressive, and you can sometimes see it from the plane as it comes in to land. There are also some really pretty gardens near the lake too.
It is also a very efficient country. The public transport is amazing! There are frequent trams into the city centre and into CERN, and everything – trams, buses, trains – usually run on time. The tap water in Switzerland also tastes really good because it is of very high quality.
I’ve found working at CERN quite challenging though. I only have one project to work on – it’s a massive project, so I have plenty to do – but I miss having a few different modules to switch between. I often use report writing as a way of giving myself a productive break from the project. I also miss going to lectures – there are lectures you can attend at CERN, but most of them are aimed at a very high level, so I find it hard to grasp much of the content. It has been very nice meeting some of the PhD students at CERN though. A lot of them meet up for lunch every day, and it’s a great opportunity to discuss what you’re stuck on, or just to discuss random physics and other topics.
There are some challenges with living in Switzerland too. It is a very expensive country, but luckily my apartment is close to the French-Swiss border, so it’s a 20 minute walk to a French supermarket which is a lot cheaper. However, you do have to be careful, because there are limits on how much of certain items (such as milk and cheese) you can take over the border. I haven’t ever been stopped at the border, but if they check and you’re over the limit, you could get a fine.
The other challenge is that everything shuts quite early in the evenings and on Sundays, so you really have to plan when to go shopping. Also, there’s a general noise curfew from 10.00 pm to 7.00 am, meaning you’re not supposed to talk too loud or use the washing machine or a vacuum cleaner between these times. To start with, I was scared of making any noise during the noise curfew, but people are okay with a small level of noise, so you can boil the kettle past 10.00 pm!
The main challenge I’ve found, though, is living away from home. During the first three years of my degree, I commuted to university as I lived about half an hour away, so this is my first time living away from home – and it’s in a different country! Video calling my family every day has really helped though. I also video call friends a lot and I hang out with the other students from Southampton a lot too. Keeping busy also helps!
There are plenty of things to do in Switzerland in your free time: ice skating, bowling, skiing, shopping, walking around the lake, hiking, etc. There are also plenty of places to get crêpes, which are really good! There was a big Christmas market by the lake in December. It was very pretty and had a lot of really great food. There was also a festival of lights, which showcased different sculptures which featured lights, which was pretty cool.
It has snowed a couple of times since I’ve been here, and it’s proper snow. Even when it does snow here, everything still runs as normal, as there are plenty of snow ploughs which clear the roads and pavements.
I have also been fortunate enough to be able to visit some of the detectors at CERN. I’ve seen CMS, LHCb and ATLAS, which were all very cool. It was very motivating to see the detector that I’ve been simulating on a computer in real life.
I also took a day trip to see the nearby French town of Annecy, another extremely pretty town, with canals and a gorgeous lake.
I am learning a great deal of skills this year – like food shopping, cooking, laundry and fitting this all into a working week. This independence will really help in the future and has increased my confidence in myself. I really recommend studying abroad as it’s a great opportunity to become more confident and to explore a different country. I will definitely remember this year for the rest of my life.