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The Academic Career Path in Switzerland

5 min read · By Academic Positions

What's a Habilitation or a assistenzprofessor? What about a chargé de cours or maître-assistant? Swiss job titles and their accompanying responsibilities are slightly different from their American equivalents and there are two different career paths depending on whether the canton is German- or French-speaking. While there will be some differences university to university, here's a general overview of the most common Swiss academic job titles.

Below is the career path for German-speaking cantons.

PhD student/Assistent

A PhD student is employed as an Assistant while they complete their degree. The Swiss doctorate degree usually takes six years.  The dissertation project is usually tied to a professor’s research and students start working on their project immediately.

Postdoctoral Researcher/Fellow

After earning their doctorate, researchers go on to a postdoc. A postdoc is a continuation of the researcher’s training that allows them to further specialize in a particular field and learn new skills and techniques. It may require them to take on teaching responsibilities. Swiss postdocs last a maximum of six years.


Like Germany and Austria, the Habilitation is usually a prerequisite for being appointed a senior lecturer or professor in German-speaking Switzerland. The Habilitation is a period of independent research, teaching, and administrative responsibilities that culminates in writing a monograph that is almost a second doctoral thesis. However, it is becoming common to obtain the Habilitation after publishing significant, high impact publications. While completing the Habilitation, the researcher usually works as an Oberassistent (equivalent to a UK reader).


These assistant professor positions give young researchers--generally those under 35--the opportunity to gain further qualifications in preparation for an academic career. They carry out independent research with their own staff and equipment. These positions can be tenure track or non tenure track. Non tenured positions are typically for four to five years, whereas tenure track assistant professors who have received successful tenure evaluations can be promoted to associate professors after six years.

Associate Professor/Professor

In Switzerland, associate and full professor have many equal rights with a few administrative differences. Both are permanent, independent research and teaching positions. After at least two years (and no more than six) the department can initiate the application to promote the associate professor to a full professor.


This is the academic career path for French-speaking cantons.

PhD student

To do a doctorate in French-speaking Switzerland, you must first have a Master’s degree. Doctoral students do not do coursework; they start working on their thesis project immediately. The time it takes to earn a doctorat depends on the field, four to seven years is typical. Students are typically hired by their university as research assistants and paid a monthly salary.

Intermediate positions


This is a fixed term position that entails both teaching, research, and some administrative duties. The initial appointment is for two years and can be renewed once (or twice in exceptional cases.

Maître d’enseignement et de recherche (MER)

Maître d’enseignement et de recherche positions were established in the late 90s to strengthen departments by teaching and conducting research. These positions are rare and although they are permanent, they offer little mobility in terms of promotion. A MER can supervise doctoral theses, but since they are in an intermediate position, they depend on a professeur ordinaire or associé to do so.

There are two types of MER positions. A maître d’enseignement et de recherche de type 1 is a senior researcher with a PhD. They carry out research and technical tasks as well as some teaching activities. A maître d’enseignement et de recherche de type 2 focuses primarily on teaching and basic training. They have a lower research requirement than a MER type 1. 

Professorial corps

Professeur assistant

This position offers young academics a chance to develop their research independently. They are appointed for a predetermined number of years (often four to six). Some professeur assistant positions are tenure track, meaning that if they have successful evaluations after their initial contract ends they are given a permanent position as a professeur associé or professeur ordinaire.

Professeur associé

A professeur associé is equivalent to a full professor without an endowed chair. The appointment is initially for six years, but it is renewable.

Professeur ordinaire

Professeur ordinaire is the most senior academic position in Switzerland. It is roughly equivalent to an American endowed chair. In addition to research and teaching, these professors are expected to take on an academic leadership role in the department or faculty. The initial appointment is for six years with the option to renew.

Other Teaching Positions

Chargé de cours

A chargé de cours is a specialized teaching position, similar to an American lecturer. They are hired to teach on a specific subject and work under the supervision of a professor.

Privat docent

In German-speaking countries, privat docent is a title that usually indicates someone has completed the habilitation but is not a professor. The habilitation, often called a second doctorate, is common in German-speaking countries and German-speaking cantons, however it does not exist in French-speaking Switzerland. In French-speaking Switzerland, the title of private docent is conferred on someone with appropriate scientific qualifications to give optional teaching on a special topic determined in agreement with the faculty. They are hired on six-year, renewable contracts.

By Academic Positions  ·  Published 2018-02-02

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