Srihari S., is a final year student of B. Tech. Chemical Engineering and a DAAD-WISE scholar. He undertook a research internship at RWTH Aachen in the field of nanotechnolgy.
The first and foremost step is to secure an internship offer letter from a German professor. How should one go about shortlisting professors?
Shortlist a number of professors who are working on the field you aspire to research on. Start sending mails to all of them. Don’t hesitate to send a mail. Even if you get multiple acceptances, you’re only improving your chances of getting a better project.
Professors, or rather projects, should be chosen based on research interest and scope of work to be done there. I worked on nanotechnology and mass transfer, both of which are very broad fields. It is recommended that you talk to the professor and ensure that both your areas of interest coincide.
Do you have any guidelines for sending mails to professors?
Make sure you address the particular professor you are mailing to in your email. The common mistake many people make is not highlighting the professor’s name in bold, which is really important. When they receive a mail without their name, professors are most likely to regard it as another common template requesting an internship. You have to customize the mail for each professor. I would recommend you to compose the email by including three important details:
- How you found the professor?
- Why that professor?
- What tangible results do you expect to produce while working under them?
After the initial mail, did the professor contact you for further rounds?
My professor asked for a Skype interview before accepting me as a research student. The first question he asked was, “Why did you choose me, and why can’t you do the same thing under a different professor?” The answer to that was going to decide everything. One should be prepared before mailing a professor and think about how to answer such questions.
Did you have any past research experience, at the time of applying for DAAD-WISE?
In the summer vacation after 4th semester, I was working under a professor in the Department of Chemistry at IIT-B. That was my first research experience and I was introduced to Nanotechnology there. The internship was offered by the Indian Academy of Sciences – Summer Research Fellowship Program. It was really a very good learning experience where I found that this is where my interest lies. Past research experience matters a lot. The professor is not obliged to take you when you don’t have any previous experiences. Familiarity with the research boosts your image and gives you an edge over other applicants.
Do you think one must choose a professor based on one’s previous research experience?
It is always preferred that you do that. But when you have decided that your interest lies elsewhere, you should have done at least an online course or mini-project so that the professor is convinced of your interest.
What do you think is the biggest criteria that DAAD-WISE uses for selection of scholars?
DAAD-WISE scholars are selected primarily based on their academic profile, especially CGPA. For my batch, the CGPA cutoff was 9.45 and for the previous batch it was 9.36.
Which university did you work at? Could you briefly describe your project?
I was working under Prof. Dominik Wöll in the Department of Physical Chemistry in RWTH-Aachen University. I was working on thermoresponsive gels for extraction. In petrochemical processes, the water used for cleaning when separated has oil mixed in it. This oil is removed by a process known as de-emulsification. So I was working on microgels which shrink or expand upon usage so that the de-emulsification becomes more easier. So I was working on the perks of using it and how advantageous it is to use in commercial plants.
My work for the project was both experimental and computational.
Could you explain the procedure one must follow after he/she has landed a DAAD-WISE scholarship?
There are a lot of things one has to do after the selection when compared to that before the selection process. DAAD provides only the stipend; we are responsible for making arrangements for the flight, visa and stay. You have to coordinate with your professor and accordingly work on it.
It is recommended that one starts looking for accommodation towards the end of February. There are various websites to look for rental accomodation. However they may be expensive. It is preferred to search for facebook groups where you have Indians living in Germany who can rent out their apartments when they’re going out for an internship during the same period. So, these students generally sub-lease out their apartment for that duration of 2-3 months. I was searching for places to stay on this facebook group called AISA, a group of Indians living in Aachen. So, this is how I came across my house-owner who was a student who went for an internship during that time. I rented his room for 3 months.
Flight tickets have to be booked as early as possible because they may get expensive later. You also require your flight tickets as a proof for your visa application. So, you have to book them before you apply for your visa.
The visa application requires a set of documents from your college and from the host professor. Proof of accommodation is a very important factor that they look for while assisting your visa application process. If one is not able to produce the proof for the same before the stipulated time, it’s better if you can arrange for a letter from your host professor assuring about your accommodation. Flight tickets have to be produced at the time of applying for a visa. You will also be required to write a letter to the Consulate saying that you’ll be taking care of your expenses and that DAAD is supporting you with a stipend and that you’ll return to your home country after a period of three months.
Was the stipend provided by DAAD sufficient to cover all your expenses?
To be honest, it wasn’t. The stipend I received was 750 euros per month. The cost of living is quite high in Europe. The rent alone amounted to 400-450 euros. So, I had to pitch in extra money from my pocket to cover my expenses. However, it is possible to limit one’s expenses to the stipend amount, if one manages to live frugally.
How will you rate your research experience in Germany?
There is no hierarchy in research like in India. Be it an undergraduate student or a doctoral scholar, everyone is treated equally and every idea is given importance. You are given more freedom to work on what you wish to do and no matter how small the result is, everything is appreciated. To be honest, the freedom I experienced there was very conducive to research. Professors are really engaging when you want them to do something for you. Any letter or any document you need signed, they’re ready to help you in every way. They don’t ask you why you didn’t produce any result in a given period of time. What you learn in the end is what matters to them.
What are some things students should keep in mind when staying in Germany during the internship period?
One major obstacle I faced during my internship is the language barrier. Within the university campus, most people are capable of speaking in English. However, outside the campus, especially in a city like Aachen, most people could only converse in German. I had a hard time at the grocery stores and when I was travelling. I had to use Google translate for each word I wanted to speak. Some basic German knowledge will help you communicate more easily.
After you land in Germany, one must visit the City Council to register oneself. This is necessary for opening a bank account in Germany, where your stipend will be deposited. This is also essential for purchasing a German SIM card.
Always carry your passport, which will serve as your identity proof. If possible, get an International Students Identity Card (ISIC) which will be useful to get student discounts and perks.
The Schengen visa allows one to explore nearly 26 countries. I visited around 7-8 countries during my internship. Plan for trips during the weekends based out of your city. FlixBus offers inter-city bus services between various European cities, tickets for which can be pre-booked. Most European museums allow students free of charge. Exploring new cultures and new people will remain a very memorable aspect of my summer in Germany.