How I had secured a research associate position during my PhD and moved to Germany?

Research internships provide an intensive exposure to reach academia and may play a crucial role in making the tough decision of whether or not to pursue a career in research, particularly pursuing a Ph.D. degree. When I look back, I realize that my first internship at IIT Kharagpur for my Bachelor’s played a significant role.

The whole process of selection and shifting to a new country as an international student may sound very intimidating and it is actually to some extent.  You can find more details regarding my research associate position along with the current projects I am working on the homepage of this website.

But from my experience, it is also worth it…

What will you get to know by the end of this article?

Through this article, I will share my experience of applying, interview preparation, and planning to come to Germany (right in the middle of the pandemic — January 2021), followed by some technical and administrative formalities before and after coming to Germany.

I hope by the end of this article, you will get a better understanding of this entire process and make a smoother transition plan.

Research position experience as an international student. Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

To give more context, I was a first-year Ph.D. student at IIT Kharagpur, India when I applied for the research associate or research assistant position. I got to know of this opportunity through my Ph.D. supervisor.

So, let’s start going through my memory lanes

This article targets graduate international students coming to Germany on a short or long-term (more than 3 months) internship. Most of the administrative formalities I believe will be almost similar to students from other disciplines or courses as well, but still, check whether it applies to your case in order to be sure.

The Search for Research Associate position in Germany

I am assuming that you are already super-motivated, given that you are now reading it. So, you will not find a pep talk of any kind throughout this article.

But still, if you need some inspiration or are still unsure, I would suggest going through the Ph.D. stories of other people — PhDs of India, and
Humans of AI: Stories, Not Stats Podcast

Let’s now start with the most pertinent question: Where to start looking?

Twitter

Try to follow eminent researchers from your domain, they may retweet or post if some project positions are available. Follow Twitter handles like @jobRxiv.

Research programs in Germany

DAAD (quite famous) and Erasmus+ are the most famous ones. DAAD provides a very useful scholarship search tool, which you can use to filter based on your preferences. I think DAAD has programs for almost all education levels — whether you are a Bachelor’s, Master’s, Ph.D., or Postdoc student or even faculty, and usually has no restriction on the country of origin. Erasmus, on the other hand, is limited to EU Member states and some more (see the following list of eligible countries)

Research experiences of past (Ph.D.) students

These two resources came to my mind that may help you — Demystifying ML Ph.D. Admissions to US UniversitiesScholars Avenue IIT Kharagpur — Grad School Series. You can easily find several others on Youtube

Complete the Application and Submit it!

This step involves preparing a cover letter and a CV (my CV can be found here). Please ensure that the CV contains the list of references who may be contacted by the institute to give recommendations regarding you as a research student. A letter of recommendation is very crucial and do not hesitate to ask it from your professor if you have worked with him for a significant time

Please have a personal website of your own

You can make it for free using Github Pages or Google Sites. There are standard templates also available that you can directly use. This page can be used to highlight your portfolio of projects

Prepare a solid cover letter

This may be optional, but I will personally recommend you to keep one ready. A standard storyline will be as follows:

Paragraph 1 — Who you are and what are you currently doing (2–3 sentences). Which projects or research areas you are interested in and why. This marks the end of the first paragraph

Paragraph 2 — Provide details about your education and academic achievements. Remember to maintain a storyline, and thematize to 2 or 3 special skills unique to you. For example, if you are a Ph.D. student, you can emphasize more how your Ph.D. work is very related and how well it will be a learning experience for you

Final paragraph — Describe specifics about the project you are interested in and mention some broad plans for the future work that you think will be useful. Provide evidence or reasoning to defend your proposal.

For reference, you can find the template of my cover letter here.

Research Interview Preparation

I will break down the questions asked in my interview into 3 parts:

  1. Master’s coursework: List the courses in the order of relevance to the research position or the lab you are applying for. Given subject A, what was it about and what did you like about it
  2. Master’s project or Thesis: Motivation and Problem statement of your Master thesis. What are the research challenges and how did you solve them. Did you have any publications? ( I prepared a slide deck of 3 to 4 slides and took 4 to 5 minutes to explain it)
  3. Current work (in my case Ph.D. work): Motivation, problem statement, and intuition behind currently methodology

Final Decision — Accept or Reject?

Notification of acceptance/rejection

Usually, you will be notified of the final decision within one month. If not, you can once ping, asking for an update. If rejected, do not lose hope and keep trying for different venues.

The remaining part of the document is targeted at those who successfully clear the interview.

Internship confirmation from Germany

Once you receive the internship confirmation from Germany, they will also send a list of documents for you to complete. Please communicate with the contact person and clear all your queries. They are quite helpful and the procedure will usually be quite smooth. So, you will now have an offer letter and visa application letter with you.

Photo by Brett Garwood on Unsplash

Good news! Congrats for making it so far

Now we will discuss the academic and administrative formalities that need to be completed. We will also discuss what else you need to plan as you move as an international student to a new country.

It was quite intimidating for me, especially in the middle of the pandemic, January 2021. It was winter and right in the middle of the holidays (so a little deserted for the first two weeks)

Institute clearance from your parent institute

This part is the most crucial part and maybe the most time-consuming. Please talk with your supervisor and the academic section regarding the regulations and the documents required. Usually, they require the following set of documents:

1. Offer letter or Visa Application letter from the German institute

2. Plain-paper application requesting for No-Objection Certificate (NOC) directed to Dean, PGSRS (Dean of Academic Section of your institute). This application needs to be forwarded by your supervisor(s) and approved by the Head of Department (HOD).

This process may take some time so please keep in constant contact with the Academic Section regarding any update on the status of the NOC (twice a week is appropriate, better try on Tuesdays and Thursdays)

Preparation for coming to Germany

I will provide a list of resources that I found quite useful. Then I will elaborate on them if necessary

  1. Studentenwerk of where you are going (for Hannover, it is https://www.studentenwerk-hannover.de/index.php?id=en-international)

2. The International Students or Visiting Scholars page of the university you are going to (in my case, it is the Leibniz University Hannover has this page, https://www.uni-hannover.de/de/forschung/gastwissenschaftler/)https://www.uni-hannover.de/en/universitaet/internationales/wege-nach-hannover/

3. DAAD Website: Requirements: https://www.daad.de/en/study-and-research-in-germany/plan-your-studies/requirements/, Planning: https://www.daad.de/en/study-and-research-in-germany/plan-your-studies/

Guest Scientist Visa interview for coming to Germany

Usually, students who are going for pursuing a Master’s in Germany, need to apply for a ‘Student Visa’. However, Ph.D. and Post-Doc students or ones going for research internships or research associate positions like in my case requires a `Guest Scientist/Researcher Visa`. You can find more information regarding the Schengen visa and other regulations regarding entry to Germany from the Germany Missions in India website. You can directly book an appointment with the German consulate but I recommend using the VFS Global Service for a smoother experience.

I have used them for my visa and had a good experience and will definitely recommend them to everyone.

1. If you are visiting the VFS Kolkata center, remember to take around Rs. 8000/- in cash, they sometimes have an issue with taking digital payment

2. Remember the passport-size photo should conform to the biometric requirements. This means it should have 35 mm x 45 mm dimensions and also have a white background (note: no grey or blue or any other background is going to work). Please make around 5 to 10 copies because it will be required for different administrative formalities after you reach Germany. This is because it is quite costly for getting passport photos here.

It was also quite quick. I received my visa by post within 5 days from the appointment date.

Accommodation

Photo by Kirill on Unsplash

Finding accommodation is one of the hardest aspects for newcomers. This is quite true and you must prepare for it as soon as you receive your offer letter from the German institution. I would two ways to get started:

1. If you are coming on a student visa, then you can apply to the Studentenwerk in your city, for example, Studentenwerk Hannover. I have heard that they usually have a long waiting list so try to apply as early as possible

2. If you are an international student, you can reach out to the International Office of your German university. Their websites are very informative and will help you to answer most of them.

If you still have more queries, they usually provide online or offline counseling sessions. For example, this is the international students’ related section of the Leibniz University Hannover and it was of great help to me. Specifically, they had a researcher accommodation help service where I had to provide my preferred accommodation details and my budget and they connected me with a prospective landlord. This is how I got my first accommodation.

Believe me, this assurance from the university takes a lot of the pressure off you.

3. Shared rooms in an apartment (WG) offers are advertised on WG-Gesuchtimmobilienscout24

4. Facebook groups, Whatsapp groups: Try to find some connections who live there (relatives, friends), or find public Facebook groups. Many accommodation advertisements are also made there

Travel

Flight options: The most common flight choice is the Delhi-to-Frankfurt or Mumbai to Frankfurt Air India flight. It is both a cheaper option as well as the journey will most be at night-time. You can easily sleep through most of the journey, and you will reach Frankfurt in the morning. The timing is perfect if you plan to travel to other cities from there.

You can travel again by flight but I will advise you to use the ICE (Inter-City Express train). You can directly get on it from the airport and the journey is quite comfortable.

Recently, I found out about Flixbus quite recently and use it always for inter-city travel (also have FlixTrain that are inter-city trains are good but is very budget-friendly. I have used them and had no complaints till date).

Monthly Salary or Remuneration for different research research positions in Germany

If you are here for an internship, you are most likely to get reimbursed (up to 1000 euros, it should be mentioned in your offer letter).

There is another position called “Scholarship Holder” where you are paid a standard amount of around 1700–1800 euros.

If you are here as a university employee (like a Ph.D. or Post-doc student), you will be paid at TVL-13 or 14 scales, ranging from 50% to 100% as mentioned in your contract. You can use the following salary calculator to know the exact amount. You will not receive any reimbursement for relocation. But please clarify the same with your present point-of-contact with the university.

Please avoid mailing them on the weekends, and during weekdays, remember the time difference with your region.

Daily and monthly expenses of living in Germany

The majority portion of your salary will be for your room rent (350 to 500 euros for a shared flat, above 550 euros for a studio apartment). I have mentioned the rent breakup details under the ‘Accommodation’ point. Next will be your insurance which will be automatically deducted from your salary. Health insurance is mandatory and the most popular ones are TK or AOK. For food, 125 to 150 euros per month is enough for a single student, and 50 to 100 euros for transport (based on the distance of your home or office). The total monthly expenses lead to a minimum of 550 euros for a moderately comfortable lifestyle. However, this will vary from city to city.

Cooking on your own is a great way to control expenses. The grocery materials are relatively inexpensive in comparison to takeout food you get from restaurants (minimum 5 euros for one meal). So, it will be a great advantage to learn how to cook some basic dishes like making boiled rice, dal, and chicken curry. Please bring a multi-purpose pressure cooker (preferably from India), it will be crucial for daily cooking.

Conclusion

We covered quite a lot of breadth and dived deep into certain topics.

I hope to spread awareness regarding the research selection and shift to a new country as an international student. I hope it makes it a little less intimidating and would encourage others to take on this journey.

Stay safe and wish you all the best in your new journey.

শুভ যাত্রা

If you have any more questions or comments, please feel free to let me know. I will try to get back to you as soon as possible (mostly on the weekends!)

What is your take on this topic?

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