Interview: Aradhana (2016-2020)

Securing an internship offer letter from a German professor is one of the more important steps to get the DAAD scholarship. How should one go about shortlisting professors to secure an internship offer letter?

It depends upon the applicant’s field of interest, I went through the various research developments going on in the TU9 universities. My area of interest was Bioelectronics and embedded systems for biomedical applications, so I searched for the ranking of the universities, the labs that are pursuing research in this field and based on that, I started mailing the topmost universities. I went through the research work being carried out in these universities. If I liked a particular university, I would go through the details of the point of contact and mail him/her and not the professor directly. They normally have a Head or a chairperson-like figure, but I didn’t mail them because they receive many such emails. I contacted the above-said point of contact, they may be professors or PhD scholars.

Shortlisting depends on one’s field of interest, the various universities/ labs that are currently doing research in the said field and whether or not the applicant finds the research work interesting.

Did the PhD scholars direct you to the professor? If not what reply did they give you?

In my case, there was a team that was doing a project on an artificial heart, which I found interesting so I mailed the team leader of the project, and they forwarded it to the entire team and discussed my application. I didn’t have to introduce myself and my previous works, as they have already discussed about my application thoroughly. I didn’t have to go and meet the HoD, it was mostly within this team, so I had to report to the team leader and the PhD scholars.

Do you have any guidelines for sending emails to professors?

Normally in German institutes they won’t mention that so-and-so professors work in this department or anything to that effect. They normally have a research institute and they’ll provide the contact details of the HoDs. Most of my friends mailed the HoDs, who normally don’t read or reply to your mails, as the application process happens at the same time of the year as their vacations, which further reduces the chances of them reading and replying to your mail. You’ll receive a proper reply by the end of September, so it’s better to contact the person in charge of a certain project, even if it’s the PhD scholar. In your mail try your best to convey your interest in the project, the prerequisite knowledge that you have and what you think will add-on to the project. Project these skills of yours in the cover letter, even though it’ll be present in the CV, and explain how your skills will contribute to the project.

Could you give a timeline of the whole process? When did you start mailing?

I was preparing my resume, cover letter, etc till the end of August, and started mailing by the last week of August.

When is the deadline for the DAAD applications?

November the 1st. Before the application you’re expected to have gotten the acceptance letter, and certain other documents like Invitation letter, acceptance form, etc which will be sent to you by your host and like in any other internship an NOC (No Objection Certificate) from the institute, your details, statement of purpose, letter(s) of recommendation, etc. For DAAD applications you’ll get an application summary, the hard copy of which you’ll be required to send along with the LoRs from your professor(s) to the DAAD office in Delhi.

After the mail where did the professor contact you for further rounds?

For DAAD they didn’t contact me for further rounds, I received an email from the professor asking me if I’d be willing to work in so-and-so areas, however for other internships I had skype interviews.

Did you prepare for the interviews?

Mostly the interviews were regarding my previous work, it is basically for them to know whether the contents of the resume were true or not.

Did you have any past research experience at the time of applying?

I had done an internship in IIT Madras in the applied mechanics lab and am also a part of Spider, for which I did projects.

Do you think one must choose a professor based on one’s previous research experience?

Not necessarily, if you want to explore a new field and want to pursue higher studies in it then you can apply to a different professor, but it’ll be easier to get acceptance if you mail for an internship in a field which you have already worked in.

Which university did you work at? Could you briefly describe the project? Did you learn any new skills upon completion of the internship?

I worked at the Institute of applied medical engineering- the Helmholtz University. I worked on a project called the ‘artificial heart’. Since the duration was only 2 months, my work wasn’t highly research-oriented, as no one believed that it’d be possible to work on something that will be so fruitful in just two months considering the amount of research that has already been carried out. My role was basically to automize; since it was biomedical engineering and they were concerned with the heart, they had to measure the flow rate, etc and hence they had flow sensors throughout their model. Furthermore, they designed a test-bench to calibrate the flow sensors. My task was to automate this test-bench, compute the flow value and design a user interface for it and develop it like a product. All the things that were carried out there were perfect, they wanted the results of the research to be a product that anyone could use.

 What were the tools and languages you had to use there?

The microcontroller which I used was Arduino duo a board which is based on the ARM Cortex M3 processor, for which I used the normal Arduino libraries and Arduino IDE, other than that I had to design a PCB, since it is like a product, and that I did using Altium designer which is not an open-source software and is professional, so I had to go there and learn it. Once you learn that, it is really helpful in PCB designing. The other thing which I learnt was to do SMD soldering by myself. They use microscopes to carry out the soldering process. It was a whole practical experience rather than just coding.

It was a touchscreen user interface, right?

Yeah, Touchscreen coding was based on SPI protocol, the arduino duo communicated with the touchscreen through the SPI protocol. It has a resistive touchscreen and a display, I had to map the touchscreen and the display and then have the same coordinates and the communication was the normal SPI communication. When I was designing the touchscreen interface I had to design different layouts and then also design the layouts in the touchscreen interface, and since it was Arduino it was easy to work with. As I already said, something which I learnt was how to mechanically do all these things, mechanically as in, since I had to design a complete product, a box-like structure where all the components go i.e basically a chassis. I also had to decide the top of the structure, like where the touchscreen goes and where the power input is located etc. I basically had to design all the aspects of the model in 3D. The initial stage was to 3D print the chassis and test it before making one using the actual material. . Here, in college, when I do some project I connect the 230V input and just try it out, but there everything is supposed to be made perfect, before the test run, they would inspect every aspect before testing it. The utmost importance was given to perfection. Hence it was practical learning more than just research. I also worked on the literature survey on proper biomedical aspects like modelling the impact of our breathing on the pulmonary resistance i.e. the resistance to blood flow from the lungs to the heart. I had to model the change in the resistance corresponding to how we inhale or exhale. This was an additional task I volunteered for, because I wanted to do proper research in biomedical fields, I started working on it but they told that I wouldn’t be able to finish it by the time the internship ends, and the same happened, and I’m still continuing the work on it, virtually, as it doesn’t require any hardware. Most of the projects they have done there were long ones like one of them was done for 8 months and is still not near completion. They emphasize on very long term projects, rather than short projects. Their aim is not to publish papers, they work for such long periods and if they think that the project has some scope towards a breakthrough or innovations somewhere in the future, they proceed. The primary goal is not to publish papers but to do something of significance. They also have strong industrial collaboration, so most of the research work goes on to be used in various industries. There were also trials conducted on animals for the artificial heart, I couldn’t see the tests but I was kept informed about the proceedings and/or results.

Were they successful?

Not really but they were improving

Could you explain the procedure that one must follow after landing the DAAD-WISE scholarship?

After getting the DAAD scholarship the difficult part is to get accommodation there. One must start searching for accommodation in February itself to get a proper place to stay. Sometimes your professor may provide you, either accommodation itself or contacts for the same, upon request. If the professor doesn’t then there are various ways to search for accommodation like facebook groups, etc. Then you’ll have the DAAD group form i.e. the list of all DAAD scholars from all over India, so one can get contacts of people who will be going to the same city as him/herself, and see if they can arrange accommodation together with you. I did that, I took accommodation with another girl so that I have someone to give me company. After a while, he/she will get the documents related to visa, etc from DAAD then one will also need proof for accommodation for the visa application.

Results came in the first/second week of January, I started searching for accommodation during February and got it confirmed mid-March.

VISA application process

The visa process is what takes more time. I made sure that all the documents except for the proof of accommodation were ready, so once I got the accommodation I applied for a visa. The process, however, is a cakewalk as all the necessary documents are provided by DAAD itself. And since it is through DAAD, there is no chance of getting rejected, one will definitely get the visa. Also, the visa given will be a Schengen visa, so one can roam around Europe.

Was the stipend provided by DAAD enough to cover your expenses?

It was sufficient for me because I cooked my food, I’m vegetarian and it is very difficult to find vegetarian food over there, and their vegetarian food includes egg, so you can’t go out and eat. Even if you get vegetarian options they were more expensive than the Non-Veg food, and also not many will find the taste of them appealing. So cooking for myself was my only option and hence the stipend was sufficient. This also depends on the rent of the apartment i.e. your place of stay. If you use it wisely the stipend will be enough and more, even to roam around Europe.

Did you roam around Europe

I stayed in Aachen which is in the border of Netherlands and Germany, so I visited a few places in the Netherlands and I went to Belgium, I went to Prague, The Republic of Czech, then a few cities in Germany itself. Almost all of my weekends there were spent in this manner. Because during the time/period of the internship, there were a lot of holidays, government holidays. In the institute, I interned if Thursday is a holiday then by default Friday is also a holiday, a bridge holiday, and they give four days of the week for people to enjoy the weekend. In the beginning, I was worried as the time given to me is only two months and I have to finish my project, and they asked me to go chill around and visit various places in Europe. They were friendly and did not give me any kind of pressure. They gave the impression that it is research and you’re not working in a company, you can take your time to learn the process and then do it, and that it was okay if the project is incomplete. The deadlines to my tasks were to be decided by me, the tasks that I want to do are also my choice, they’ll help if needed. My working hours were highly flexible, to an extent that I can come and go whenever I want. Even if I couldn’t do something very productive on one day it was fine, what they wanted is ultimately I should do something.

What was your typical daily routine?

Normally, I’ll wake up around 6:30-7:00 am, get ready and generally, breakfast was cornflakes and milk or something to that effect. I’ll leave my stay around 7:45 am and reach the institute by 8:30 am. In my research group, everyone came to the institute around 8:00 am and used to leave by 4:00-5:30 pm. I followed the same schedule as I could also interact with the scholars during the commute. After reaching the Institute, generally, my work was done on my laptop. I’d also leave around 5:30-6:00 pm and I’d come back to my residence, cook something for dinner, usually rice, for the next day’s lunch as well, and watch some shows.

Did you have to learn German just to get by?

The town I was in was small so most people didn’t know English. In the university and the lab, people knew English. But in other places like grocery stores or other shops, that wasn’t the case. Despite initial struggles, I used Google Translate at first and over time learnt a few basic phrases and terms to get by. Otherwise, if you go for tourist-centric places or big cities, everything would also be available in English, so knowing German is not a prerequisite.

How will you rate your research experience in Germany?

Maybe out of 10, I’d give it an 8 or 9 for sure. My project had lesser research aspects; what I worked on was pure development, which is still unfinished. Otherwise, the work culture there is really good. Even the PhD scholars there aren’t your typical students. Everyone pursues Masters there, there’s also an integrated Masters (3+2 years) available, which is a really popular option. The people who pursue a PhD are employed in industrial research labs. These projects aim to solve problems in the industry uniquely. If something new comes up, then they publish a paper. Most projects are long term. Even undergrads work as part-time research employees getting paid as well as getting experience. This is supplementary to the lab courses and is better since the people there are very knowledgeable in the practical aspects. For example, in my experience, most projects we do here are based on coding, maybe a little hardware. There, the focus is on perfection, even the small things matter. For us, we’re satisfied if our product just manages to work. This isn’t acceptable there; their philosophy is that everyone should be able to use the product. For example, a flow sensor calibrator is used by multiple groups so it must be made to perfection. It’s so nice that something you’ve worked on is being used throughout the lab and will go on to be used in the future too. You get that personal satisfaction that whatever you have made isn’t just for the sake of it and has actual utility.

What are some things students should keep in mind while staying in Germany during the internship period?

Nothing much. The town I stayed in, Aachen, was a university or student town, so it was very safe and student-friendly. It’s not an enclosed campus, there are institute buildings dispersed between residential buildings. You would be able to find students from all over the world there. There are some small issues in other cities – pickpockets and so on, but my city didn’t have any such issues. Since I went in summer, daylight would last until 10 at night, so you’ll have that sense of safety.

Would you consider studying in Germany in the future? Would this help you get admission there easily?

I don’t know exactly, but I think it should be somewhat helpful because I already have prior experience working in the lab, so they’ll get a sense that I am applying because I liked what I have done and that I’m interested well-versed in it. Also, I can get a recommendation letter from the research group itself, which would obviously be a valuable and reliable opinion, which they could contact the group about and get easily. If I were going to apply for Masters in Germany, I could easily get a student researcher job in the lab which I worked in. This funding would help sustain my expenditure during my Masters. Of course, Germany is also cheaper for higher studies as compared to the US and other countries. Tuition fees are almost zero, and you also get concessions everywhere as a student, be it public transport or anything else. To account for that, a small fee is taken. Whatever you earn as a student researcher would be able to cover your living expenses.

For students who were not able to get a DAAD scholarship but were able to get an acceptance from a professor in Germany, would you recommend them to go ahead with the internship, bearing their own expenses?

That depends on the project you have gotten. No matter what, this is a costly affair since you’ll have to take care of your insurance, your stay, it’ll easily cost 2-2.5 lakhs. You’ll have to take care of all that. As far as my experience is concerned, it was really good, but it depends on the project as well. You should see if it is in your area of interest and weigh the worth of making such an investment.

Any advice you would like to give to the juniors?

When you’re trying for internships, don’t focus on probabilities of bagging them. Don’t miss out on the opportunity of an internship just because you think you have a lesser chance of getting it. Apply for it with full sincerity, you might even get what you thought you would not get. DAAD was not something I thought I wanted. In all honesty, I wanted SN Bose more than this. So, just don’t think you’ll get this or not get that. Just apply for everything with interest. This is a process that takes immense patience and effort. Don’t stop at just one acceptance. Get as many as you can and weigh their pros and cons. Choose the best one. This applies to all internships. You have to start mailing professors beforehand. If anything increases the chance of getting an internship, work towards getting it. Keep all your options open

Is it possible that someone gets rejected for DAAD scholarship even after they’ve gotten an acceptance from the professor?

Many people get acceptance from professors. However, DAAD has the final say, so not everyone gets it. I know some of my friends who didn’t get the scholarship. This is determined by certain criteria, normally a very good CGPA.

What do you think is the safe CGPA threshold?

9.5 and above almost guarantees a chance of getting this scholarship. People with 9.4 or 9.3 are also awarded the scholarship too, but it’s just a little harder. The difficult part would be to get the acceptance from the German professors no matter what. This is why having more than one acceptance is useful. Your interests may be varied right now. Read more about the fields, decide whether you are really interested in a specific field, and accordingly finalise the project that would be useful for you in the future

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