“All my flights were canceled in quick succession”

© 2020 EPFL

© 2020 EPFL

Phillip Huwiler began his PhD at EPFL's School of Engineering on 15 April. Here, he reflects on the challenges he faced in making the move from the United States to Switzerland.

“In December 2019, when I learned that EPFL was hiring me, I had no idea of the obstacle course that awaited me. I was working as an engineer in South Carolina, and my contract as a doctoral assistant at the Laboratory for Applied Mechanical Design at Microcity in Neuchâtel was due to start on 15 April. At the time, nobody in the US thought the coronavirus would spread across the globe – it was just something happening far away in China.

But then my outbound flight was canceled a few days before I was supposed to leave. All the other flights I booked were also canceled in quick succession. To make matters worse, I’d rented an apartment in Switzerland from a retired couple that was going to spend a few months traveling. They canceled their plans and withdrew the offer. I could have stayed where I was and started my PhD remotely. But I talked to my professor and we agreed that I should travel to Switzerland, which was several weeks ahead in terms of the spread of the virus, meaning the lab would probably reopen while the US was still under lockdown.

Nowhere to live

Luckily, I managed to book a flight to Switzerland. The plane was nearly empty, and there were several empty seats between passengers so we could socially distance. Because I had nowhere to live, my aunt and uncle let me stay with them temporarily at their place in Thurgau, on the other side of Switzerland.

I still haven’t set foot in the laboratory. So I’ve been spending my time reading through my literature and planning my classes. In the end, the retired couple agreed that I could move into their apartment once the lockdown was lifted. Things are finally looking up.”