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Summer 2017

Summer Diaries: Technical University of Berlin

July 10, 2017
- Himanshu Nagpure

Making it there

While I was applying for internships on campus, I was also searching for foreign internship programs like DAAD, EPFL, Charpak, Mitacs, Viterbi etc. Seniors help a lot in getting you familiar with these programs and letting you know the particulars of each program. Generally, the procedure for all foreign internships is similar. They ask you to fill in your educational details in a form and upload your résumé, statement of purpose (SOP), motivation letter, no objection certificate (NOC), letter of recommendation (LOR), passport, transcripts and finally give your choices for the projects out of the given choices or of your own. In Mitacs, you were given many options for the projects in multiple universities across Canada. In EPFL and Viterbi, you have to find your institute of interest and give your idea about a project of your choice, which is tough if you don’t have any. However, DAAD has a very different selection process. To apply for the program, you need to be in the pre-final year of your course and have an CGPA above 8.5 till the current semester. First of all, you have to send emails to the professors of government universities of Germany (which was the most tiresome part), and if they agree to become your mentor, you ask him/her for an invitation letter and a German host confirmation letter. You have to upload these documents along with the other documents mentioned above and some of your personal documents to the DAAD portal.

DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) is a German government funded program which helps students of different countries experience internships and masters in Germany. The scholarship is 650€ per month plus 525€ for travel. The application process has a deadline almost every year on 1st November and the results are declared in December or January. But the process is longer than just filling the form. It is better to start sending emails to the professor from the month of September as the professor may take time to respond or may not respond at all. I made a list of all the top ranking universities (based on QS world ranking) and searched for professors whose research area matches my area of interest. It is advantageous to read their research papers or articles, as it helps you know the professor better and enables you to mention in the email the specific work you would like to do under him. The professor would also feel good that you are taking interest in his/her work, which increases your chance of getting a reply. An email should consist of your introduction, your interests, any of the professor’s work that interests you, what you expect from the internship and lastly a mention that your internship would be funded by DAAD.

Seniors can also help in writing emails. I also used Mailtrack as I wanted to be sure if my mails were really seen or not, although this isn’t a good habit. If you have a very good resume and are very specific about the research topic, you will most probably get a reply after two or three emails. I got three replies from professors of three different universities. I found that working in TU Berlin would be the best option. The duration of my internship was three months, from the 15th of May to the 15th of July under a professor from the mathematics department of TU Berlin.

Big cities are more expensive than smaller ones, so finding cheap accommodation and food is a problem. But, I still chose Berlin because TU Berlin was the best of the three universities. I politely rejected the other two offers mentioning that another professor had already accepted me. Then I requested the professor for the invitation letter, which took nearly a week. After that I filled the details in the DAAD portal and performed some formalities like uploading the NOC and the LOR, and writing a motivation letter regarding my project and my motivation behind taking it.

I started completing the remaining process for DAAD application. It includes providing your passport details, making a German VISA, hunting for accommodation and cheap currency exchange rates and most importantly booking flights. Booking flights in advance and also for the return journey is a good idea as prices increase dynamically. I booked my flights in February when the rates were quite low. If direct flights to your destination is not cheap, then flying to either Munich or Frankfurt is better. The cities are well connected by bus and train services. You can also find some domestic flights having rates comparable to trains and buses. Flixbus is the most economical option one has in Germany and many other European countries.

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Getting a visa is not difficult. If you have your passport already ready, which you must in January, the visa application hardly takes 20 days. The process is simple: there is a short term visa available for a short (less than 3 months) stay in Germany which is called Schengen visa, which is valid for most countries in the European Union. All you have to do is book an appointment at the visa application centre near you, fill in the online or offline form and take the printout to the centre on the appointment day. It takes 2-3 hours for biometric scanning and verifying your details. Visa application is free for DAAD students but still you have to pay the convenience fee of ~1500₹.

One of the toughest parts of the DAAD process is to find accommodation in Germany. The cheapest accommodation available in any city is that of Studentenwerk, however it is only for semester exchange students. There are also sites which allow one to post ads for rent like WG-Gesucht, but one should be careful on such sites because scammers might reply very quickly and ask for advance payment of rent for making a contract. Guest houses are available in many universities but most of the times they are full. It is also a good option to contact a PhD student working under the Professor for accommodation inquiries. I found one site named ‘spotahome’ where apartments were available for rent at reasonable prices. There were many people going to Berlin so sharing with them helped me in having accommodation for low cost. The rates here are very high and generally getting an accommodation under 300€/month is difficult. I was lucky, having finalised my accommodation by the end of April. The apartment we chose had a kitchen so we decided to take some rice, dal and masala with us.

I did my currency exchange beforehand from buyforex.in. You should carry enough money for at least two weeks worth of expenses because the monthly scholarship starts only after you make your bank account in Germany, which takes at least a week. A international travel card is a good option if you don’t want to take money in cash. It is an easy, fast and reliable means of exchange, and can be issued from any nationalised bank. Note: Learning German is not required as you will find English speakers in your institute and in the worst case you have your Google translate app.

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Work

My internship was in the combinatorial optimisation and graph algorithm research group of the Mathematics department of TU Berlin. My professor was a very kind and helpful person. On the first day of my internship, he allotted me my laboratory (with my name written on the door, cool!), which contained an email account of TUB. The project overview was sent to me earlier but he explained the problem statement very clearly and gave me my first task and some research papers and books as a reference.

In the main campus of TUB where I was working, there are seven faculties and every faculty has 6 to 7 institutes. I was working alone on a new project on “Instationary Gas Flows: Complexity and Algorithms”. Basically, my study was on the model of gas flows in a network. This was a completely new research topic, and the work was based on graph theory and optimisation techniques. I was supposed to do some theoretical stuff at first and then implement it using any programming language to find the maximal flow. My professor helped a lot by clearing my doubts. I was expected to dig deep into this new topic and try to gain an intuition about what actually happens if the networks complexities are changed. I was not supposed to publish a research paper because it is tough to publish in 2 months and the project took me some time to get comfortable with.

The work culture is completely different in here. Students and professors are very dedicated to their work. PhDs are very much engaged in doing their research. There are a number of seminars arranged by the PhDs in the institute every week and topics discussed there are those from the latest research that anyone can sit and listen to. I attended some of them though most of the talks were bouncers for me. Professors and students are very friendly with each other. They work, eat, play or chat together over times. Students don’t feel shy to talk to the professors. Professors ask PhD students and interns to join them for lunch (they don’t pay for us if you are thinking so). And there are no working hours restriction. I can come, work and leave anytime. I used to go at around 10 am and work till 5 pm with some time for lunch and stretching in between. The work is relaxed with no strict deadlines so I can work at my will. But, at the end of the week (i.e. Friday), the summary of the work should be presented. There were some PhD students working in the institute who became my friends. We used to play foosball and carrom in our free time after work.

What to love about the place

Obviously, when you are in Germany, there is almost nothing you don’t like. When I landed in Frankfurt, my first vision of a German city was astonishing. The city was so clean, the air was fresh with almost no pollution and everything so well maintained that I was feeling almost uncomfortable at first.

The people here greet others very happily and friendly. Generally, when you buy something from the shop, the person on the counter first asks, “Good morning, how are you?”. When I ask someone for help (e.g. for directions or for a translation), they feel like it is their responsibility to help. This shows the really amazing nature of the Germans.

The bus service in Germany and other countries in Europe are very comfortable and restful. All the buses have A.C. and are very clean. Most of them have USB ports and some even have free wifi. They almost always run on time. Also, the six lane highways are so even that you cannot tell the difference between flying in a plane and travelling in a bus. The countryside is bright green with lots of windmills installed. Wind is one of the primary sources of energy in Germany. They even decorate the fields in various ways for beautiful views from the highways.

Almost all the countries of Europe have great travel attractions. Even Germany itself consists of many beautiful places to see. The north coast of Germany (the Baltic and the North sea) has many wonderful cities with very beautiful beaches. In south Germany, there are many beautiful forests in Bavaria. Even cities like Berlin, Munich, Hamburg and Leipzig contain many attractions. And if you are in Germany, it is easy for you to go anywhere being right at the centre of Europe. Major German cities are well connected to other countries of Europe by road, railways and planes. Weekend trips are best because you don’t need to worry about work.

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If you are a fan of football, then this country is for you, but the time is not suitable since the league ends in May. However, you can always visit football grounds for a minimal entrance fee.

The one thing I did really miss about India was the food. Indian food is the best. Being used to it, I found German food bland and tasteless. The only dishes I liked there were the sweets. So we used to cook our own food daily. Vegetables, along with snacks and fast food, can easily be bought from supermarkets at reasonably low prices.

The weather in Germany is the best in the summer. Temperature ranges from 7 to 30 degrees with good sunshine. There are cold breezes blowing almost all the time, so carrying warm wear is recommended. The sun rises here at around 4 in the morning and sets at 10 in the night during summers. It was at first difficult for me to manage sunlight after 7. But I got used to it eventually. It also used to rain unexpectedly once or twice in a week.

Summing up and takeaways

This was my first experience of foreign travel and a research internship. I learned how to live in a foreign country which has a different culture, different language and a different way of living. I never followed traffic rules as strictly as I did while I was there.

My internship was also a memorable experience. I learnt how research actually takes place. The cooperation of professors and students were necessary for a good internship experience. You feel very proud working on a problem which no one has touched before. And when you get results, you feel really happy for yourself.

I would say that from a foreign intern, you should expect to see the working environment, the respect and the facilities you never felt before. You should expect to make new friends (including professors) who are very helpful and kind. You should expect to see a new world.

For those who are already excited for the opportunity, start your hunt for a professor from September onwards. And keep your passport ready!