Skip to main content

Piotr Szwabowicz

Preparation and First Impressions

As a preparation I refreshed my German language skills to benefit more from the introductory language course. I have also joined the Erasmus Bern Facebook group to be up-to-date with events that would take place after my arrival to Switzerland. I travelled to Bern from Poland by coach and therefore my journey was quite long and tiring. However, nice Swiss weather helped me maintain good mood and I quickly met many other Erasmus students, which really made me settle in.


Study Semester at University of Bern

University of Bern turned out to be a completely different academic institution than University of Warwick. Just on a side note, the first thing that I noticed was a bell ringing at the beginning and at the end of every class / lecture (at least in the main building), which made me feel a bit like in school again.

An important difference is, however, the structure of the studies – students are not enforced to take any courses in any given semester, they only have to complete them by the end of their studies. There are, of course, recommendations and they have to satisfy prerequisites for certain courses but in Bern students are given much more flexibility and freedom as to what they want to take and when, and when they will actually graduate than at Warwick. Now this has good and bad sides – an organised and disciplined student can use it as an advantage for their own benefit and structure their studies as they wish, while an undisciplined one can take ages to complete the university degree.

Another big difference lies in the grading system – in Switzerland students get notes in the scale from 1-6, where all the notes up to 3.5 are fail notes (did not really make that much sense to me to have that many failing notes). While all the good notes are equally valued as at Warwick, I found it generally more difficult to pass an exam there and it is a common issue for students to repeat at least one exam a year later (whereas at Warwick it is a rather rare occurrence). Exchange students were not treated in a special way.

In Bern I studied the following courses from corresponding institutes:


Institute

Course

ECTS Points

Institute of Mathematical Statistics and Actuarial Science

Stochastic Models in Finance and Actuarial Science

6

Mathematics of Life Insurance

6

Institute of Financial Management

Financing and Capital Structure

6

The Theory and Practice of Insurance

4.5

Institute of Economics

Econometrics II

4.5

Language School

Grammatik und Schreiben I (Grammar and Writing)

4

Konversationskurs I (Conversation course)

4

Integrationskurs für Austausch-Studierende (Integration course for exchange students)

2



Another thing that attracted my attention at the very beginning of the semester was that the statistical courses were taught in very small classes, even smaller than the final year courses at Warwick. There were up to 10 students in a class, which made them feel more personal and I found it easier to consult the lecturer or ask questions in case of any doubts or problems. They were generally well taught, especially Stochastic Models in Finance and Actuarial Science. Even though the courses were partly held in German (Stochastic Models were lectured in German, but there were online notes in English, while the situation for Mathematics of Life Insurance was exactly opposite), I have gained quite a good understanding of the subject matter. I felt that I benefited from them and they prepared me well for the final year of study.

The courses from Finance and Economics were similar to the corresponding courses at my home university. I believe that the modules in Econometrics, Financing and Capital Structure, and The Theory and Practice of Insurance will well complement my programme of study and I believe that I will find them useful this year, too.

When I was offered the internship at UBS in Zurich I was already 2 weeks through the second semester. Therefore I also started taking the following courses: Mathematics of Non-life Insurance, Econophysics, Advanced Valuation, Risk Management, Oberstufenkurs II (advanced level German course), and the continuation of other language courses: Grammatik und Schreiben II, Konversationskurs II.

Apart from the learning experience, I managed to find a part-time job at the university as an assistant at ARTORG Center for Biomedical Engineering Research, where I performed mostly secretarial tasks. From the beginning of January until the middle of March I was helping to run a newly-created institute by creating data bases regarding employees, floor plans for the building and updating the institute website.


Internship at UBS Zurich

This was the first “real” work experience that I have gained in my life. While I had had many part-time and vacation jobs in the past, it was during my intercalated year when I experienced how full-time working life would really look like.

I had my interview at the beginning of March and 2 days later got a phone call with an offer to begin working in Equities Product Controlling team on 21st March. I thought that it would be a great experience and it was a fairly quick decision to accept the offer. Also, it is worth noting here that I personally found it much easier to pass through this interview than the ones that I had had for jobs in London in the past. I found it much more practical, as well. The interview with HR composed of mainly going through the experiences on my CV while the one with my line manager was mostly a brain-teaser.

The first two weeks at UBS were an intensive learning experience. I had to get to know the bank systems, software, procedures and also people. Over the first week there was still the previous intern who showed me the main tasks that I would be responsible for:

  • Preparation of daily Profit and Loss account for Cash business
  • Preparing and sending daily reports about FX Exposure of the bank and the performance of shares
  • Processing invoices and updating database for Equity Fee Sharing process

These tasks, in particular the daily P&L procedure, turned out to be the main part of my every-day work. As the time progressed I was, however, given more various and ad-hoc responsibilities that included:

  • Preparation of the P&L for the month’s end ensuring that all the figures are reasonable
  • Manually Rebooking incorrectly booked transactions to other accounts
  • Contacting traders / trade support to correct mistakes on P&L
  • Preparing reconciliations for special control accounts to identify incorrectly booked transactions and correcting them in cooperation with Bank Operations
  • Preparing and sending out reports describing the performance of various operational units within the bank
  • Helping with many other special tasks performed only during month’s end closure
  • Answering ad-hoc questions / emails regarding Cash business within Equities Product Controlling
  • Preparing documentation for tasks that I was performing
  • Handing my tasks over to the new intern, teaching her things that I have learnt myself

Overall the internship was a great experience and I have learnt a lot about the way internal processes work in a bank and generally about the world of finance. Having been based in Finance division (middle office) I had direct exposure to cooperating areas – Trading, Operations, IT and I learnt a lot about the way they work, too. I had to work a lot of with large sets of data and this is where my statistical and mathematical skills came useful. I also greatly developed IT skills, particularly in MS Excel, which was the main software that we were using for processing data, but also in business-specific software, e.g. Business Objects, SAP Business Explorer.


Accommodation

Having already described the main parts of my experience, let me put here now some practical tips regarding going abroad, in particular to Switzerland. When moving from one place to another one of the most important things to have a place to live. It turned out not to be that easy in Switzerland. Most of places tend to be let for longer than half a year and some are even virtually reserved for native Swiss people only.

I didn't have problems finding accommodation for the first months of my stay. I applied relatively early and received an accommodation offer in student halls shortly after I had sent my application form. It was a great place to be in, considering that most of Erasmus students lived there.

Problems started when I had to search for an accommodation from January onwards when the student house mentioned above would get closed for renovation. Because of the issues mentioned in the first paragraph from this chapter it turned out to be quite tricky to find a place to live in Bern only for a short period of time. At the beginning of December I was, however, offered a place in another student house, even though the waiting list was long at the time when I signed up for it.

When I started my internship in Zurich, it was also time to look for an accommodation there. I went to look at a few rooms in shared flats and quickly realized that in Switzerland, and in Zurich in particular, there are more people looking for a place to stay than places offered. For each room there were at least a few other people viewing at the same time and the people currently living there commonly used group get-to-know-each-other sessions to select a potentially best candidate. It was therefore not an issue of finding something that suits you well but really an issue of finding anything reasonably priced. I ended up commuting from Bern during the first two months of my internship. Finally I managed to sublet a room in a dormitory from a student who was moving out of his place for the summer.


Social Life

I have tried to make the most of my time Switzerland. In the first semester I got involved in various social events organized by ESN (Erasmus Student Network) Bern – trips to Ticino, skiing trip, parties, and meals. Together with other Erasmus people we also organized independently a lot of spontaneous events, such as meetings in pubs, football sessions or weekend trips. Plus I regularly attended university basketball sessions, where I made a lot of Swiss friends.

All these things got a bit harder to take part in when I started working in Zurich. Having had to work 9-18 on average and commuting from Bern approximately 1 hour 40 minutes I did not have much time and lost the bond with Erasmus people in Bern. On the other hand, I was not so constraint by financial issues anymore and over this half a year organised a lot of trips in small groups. We went hiking in the mountains a few times, on cycling trips or simply to visit other Swiss cities. I also joined UBS Tennis Club and started playing for the team in Interclub Championships. This took up a few of my weekends, too, and was good fun.


Language

The German language courses were crucial for further integration and submergence into local culture. Although the language generally spoken on the street was Bernese German, which is an Alemannic dialect hard to understand even for native High-German speakers, everyone speaks also the standardised form of the German language. I found it important to improve my German at least to an extent allowing me to sort out basic things in a bank, post office or just to read local newspapers. Initially I had also planned to stay in Bern for the second semester, so a better knowledge of German would enable me to choose from a greater variety of courses, as some of them were taught only in German. By the end of the first semester I could have said that my aims with regards to language courses had been fully satisfied.

The work at UBS was carried out mostly in English and that was also the main business language in the office, as there were some people who did not even speak any German. However, as the time progressed I got more confident with my tasks and my language skills improved I started using more German in work environment. This ensured that I could still improve my language skills, despite not having taken any language courses any more. The Swiss dialect spoken in Zurich resembles standard High-German more than the dialect in Bern and I even picked it up a bit. By the end of my stay in Switzerland I could understand basic conversations held in Swiss German pretty well.


Financial Issues

The budget is something that definitely has to be kept in mind when going to Switzerland. The country is world-wide known to be expensive and I can confirm from my own experience that it is true. I estimated that I needed about 1000 CHF per month to cover my expenses there. Now this, of course, depends on individual needs, but should be a safe amount. First of all, I have found food extremely expensive in Switzerland. Just to give you some idea of food prices (which I found extremely expensive) for popular student meals:

- Döner Kebab 10 CHF

- Meal menu in McDonald’s 14 CHF

- Pizza from pizzeria 20-25 CHF

On the other hand, there are so called university "Mensas", which are places where students can eat a decent lunch for a relatively low price - it was 7 CHF in Bern. In comparison, at Warwick campus you can only have pretty much burger and chips of a disputable quality for that. The disadvantage of those is the limited opening hours - 11.30-14, which is not that great if someone is a late lunch eater (as me, for example). Just to add these "Mensas" are quite often present at workplaces, too. There was one at UBS, and to my surprise it was only slightly more expensive than the student one. Also, some things that are rather cheaper in Switzerland than in England – these are alcohol (at least in stores, because in pubs / clubs it is very expensive again - about 6-7 CHF per beer, 10-15 for standard drinks) and petrol.

As always, accommodation is a significant part of the expenses, too. Again, I haven't found it to be worse than at Warwick, though. The prices of the dormitories, in which I lived in Bern were 395 and 485 CHF per month. The accommodation in Zurich cost me 530 CHF per month. But then again, if you expect something more comfortable you would probably be looking in the price range 600-800 CHF per month. I was personally happy with the accommodation that I had, especially the one in Bern was good quality for the price.

If you manage to get a job in Switzerland, the prices are justified. The wages start from 20 CHF / hour for a standard student job. Now, this sounds amazing, but I must warn you that it can be really tricky to find a job as an international student in Switzerland, particularly if you are not very confident with your German. And even if you are, some of them may even require a knowledge of Swiss German. I was quite lucky and managed to get a part-time job in one of the institutes at the university. It was in December and ended the financial trouble that I was worrying about in the first semester. The half-year internship actually put me in a really decent financial situation before my last year at Warwick.


Summary

Overall I can rate my intercalated year as a superb experience: I got to compare the university system in Bern with the one at Warwick and studied some interesting courses (university exchange semester), gained plenty of valuable work experience (second half of exchange year) and developed my German language skills. On the social side I met a lot of interesting people from all over the world and explored Switzerland with all its beautiful places. Anyone interested in finding out more - feel free to email me at p.p.szwabowicz@warwick.ac.uk.