Getting Started: Life as an International PhD Student

Pavan presents some of “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” from his experiences as an International PhD Student.

What do you feel at the culmination of a long and arduous journey when you reach your destination? Relief? Excitement? Elation? It was a combination of all three for me when I was finally accepted as a PhD student in the Institut für Bioverfahrenstechnik at Universität Stuttgart. All changes bring along some challenges with them, and taking the plunge into doctoral research in a new continent in a country with a radically different language, culture and overall system from what I was used to all my life was indeed a significant change, to say the least.

The Good

The entire PhD system in Europe is very different from how it is in most other places like the USA or India, and in my opinion, much better. In the USA, grad students are just students of the institute. Europe, however, respects the prior experience and training of doctoral applicants and most PhD positions particularly in the Engineering disciplines are salaried jobs. The real cherry on the cake is the kind of dual status that we have in Uni Stuttgart. As salaried researchers with a contract, we are technically employees of the university and the state government! Also, as per regulations, we are enrolled as doctoral students with GRADUS, making us students of the university. This enables us to access a plethora of benefits and concessions that come along with the student status. Of course it also means that we have to pay a semester contribution of roughly 200EUR. But the benefits recover the cost in no time.

For instance, the student ID gives access to highly subsidised food in Mensa, the student cafeteria on campus. The semester contribution also includes a Semester Ticket for public transport, which allows unlimited travel in all public transport in the entire regional VVS network. Clearly, the benefits of this dual status far outweigh the costs.

The research infrastructure here is leaps and bounds ahead of what I was used to in universities in India. My lab here is built like a full-fledged chemical processing unit with state-of-the art reactors and controls. It is the dream of any chemical engineer to have access to such facilities for research. What I find most impressive is the kind of spontaneity that is enabled by having such wonderful resources at our disposal. We have in-house technicians and engineers to help with equipment. Once, when we were setting up a pump, a small clamp in it broke. “There goes a week of work”, I thought to myself, assuming that we had to contact the manufacturer to fix it. But, lo and behold, in fifteen minutes our engineer just made the clamp from scratch in the workshop in the institute itself! The system is built to enable efficient and effective research.

The Bad

I still vividly recollect the day my supervisor informed me on a video call after my interview, that he had decided to offer me the PhD position. The first thing he said was that the German bureaucracy will make you go around in circles, quite literally. A research contract at the university is only valid as long as you have a valid visa or residence permit, and the permit is valid only as long as you have a valid contract. To help one enter this vicious cycle, a hosting agreement is issued jointly by the institute and the university international office, which helps one to get the visa initially after which the cycle begins.

Navigating the highly convoluted and complex bureaucratic channels both in the governmental agencies and in the university administration is an art in itself. The university’s international office, which offers some guidance on getting started, is the only refuge international students have for getting some orientation. It took me more than a month to finally get enrolled in the university. Despite what is usually said, it is far better to begin the process before arriving in Stuttgart itself.

The forces of decentralisation are again at play when it comes to the formalities with the work contract. Nobody knew why I wasn’t getting any salary for successive months. In my case for instance, there were some four other forms that I had to sign along with the contract, which I was never informed about. After multiple rounds of communication, they realised that this was the problem. One must constantly and proactively follow up each of these administrative procedures in the university for the first few months until things have been regularised.

The greatest bureaucratic challenge that an international PhD student faces, however, is with the foreigners’ office "Ausländerbehörde". With our contracts cyclically linked to our residence permits, regular interactions with the "Ausländerbehörde" is inevitable. My emails requesting an appointment for getting my residence permit went unanswered for close to three months, and there is no way to track the status of one’s query online.

The Ugly

It is common knowledge that the stressful, highly success-oriented, and unforgiving nature of academia brings with it a significant risk of mental health issues among graduate students and early-career researchers. I have personally lost a friend to academic depression in the past and it is in their memory that I choose to address this issue here. As international students, we are at an increased risk as we have moved far away from close friends and family to a new country with a radically different way of life.

An exacerbating factor I notice in Germany in particular is that the culture here as a whole is less social than in most other places. In India, for instance, the atmosphere in the labs among PhD students is just like among undergrads — one of good friendships and very casual and jovial. Here however, it is more like an office or a corporate workplace with students interacting only in a reserved and professional manner as colleagues rather than friends. Most people do not socialise outside of the workplace and in general keep their social life isolated and well insulated from their interactions in the institute. This is fine for locals who generally have their own independent social and family circles outside, but it takes a heavy toll on some international PhD students.

A key problem most of us international students would face is, of course, the language. Among my twenty or so colleagues, only three are non-German. It therefore helps to a great extent in socialising, if one is able to at least understand German to be able to interact and contribute to general conversations. I would highly recommend every international student to learn enough German to be able to understand everyday conversations even though it is not technically required for a PhD. The international office of the University of Stuttgart offers professional help and counselling to all students who need guidance or help dealing with any problems. Studierendenwerk offers professional counselling free of charge to students, too.

To conclude on a positive note, I have thoroughly enjoyed all the new experiences that Uni Stuttgart and Germany in general have exposed me to. All the challenges I have faced only added to the adventure and ultimately inculcated a greater resilience in me, which is one of the most important traits that any PhD student should have. Stuttgart in general and the university in particular are wonderful places to be in, and Europe has given an avid traveller like me a lot of fond memories with many more remaining to look forward to!


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