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"I Can Make My Own Way Now"

By Grit Thümmel

She is a computer scientist and comes from Romania, he is a Pakistani economist, and they have one thing in common: they have chosen to complete their doctorates in Germany. academics.de wanted to know what their day-to-day life at their German universities looks like, and visited them both.

I Can Make My Own Way NowMonica Gavrila at her workplace
Monica Gavrila is sitting in her small office in the Department of Informatics at Hamburg University. Her computer monitor shows an input field - "enter text", it says, and then: "translate".

The doctoral candidate from Romania points at her screen and describes her vision. She wants to develop a computer program that helps translate. "Recombination in Example-based Machine Translation" is the scientific term for the subject of the 28-year-old's doctoral thesis, for which she came to Germany in 2005. "In Romania, language processing as a discipline didn't even exist back then", recounts the computer scientist. She had already met her thesis supervisor during an Erasmus semester at Hamburg University a few years earlier. An exception: researchers wishing to complete their doctorate in the traditional manner in Germany often face a lengthy search before they find the right supervisor. And the vast number of faculties and institutes can easily become overwhelming.

Naveed Iqbal Shaikh is familiar with the issue from personal experience. He sought a suitable supervisor for his doctoral thesis on "Trade Liberalisation and Poverty Reduction" at numerous European universities - and finally found one at the Institute of Development Research and Development Policy of the Ruhr University Bochum: "I chose Germany because it's the driving force in Europe. And here in Bochum they conduct research in the field that interests me and matches my topic", explains the 30-year-old from Pakistan.

I Can Make My Own Way Now "If you really want to understand life in Germany, you should speak the language at least a little", says Naveed Iqbal Shaikh

The funding method determines how much time remains for one's own project

Iqbal lives in an apartment near the university with his wife and small daughter. But that wasn't the case at first. When he came to Bochum in April 2006, the waiting started - it took six months for the authorities to issue a visa for his family. "A terrible time", he remembers. "That was my lowest point. My daughter had only just been born and I was alone here in Germany." He supports his family through a grant from his home country, for which he has to re-apply each semester and demonstrate that his doctoral thesis is progressing. The decisive advantage for him: this is the only way he can concentrate fully on his thesis, and that often means up to eleven hours of work a day.

Monica Gavrila has often lacked the time for her own research project in recent years. For three years, she supported herself by working as a research assistant. "That was difficult. During my working hours I was dealing with other projects of the faculty. They always had priority. That's why after four years I still can't say that I'm now finished with my own project", she says, thinks for a moment, and then adds: "December". That's her deadline. By then she intends to have her first draft completed.

Team player or lone wolf - day-to-day research work can be very lonely

As she is not part of a group, she keeps having to motivate herself. "You're alone with your topic. That's quite different to a research training group where you exchange ideas with others." For Gavrila, it's a question of type - "for someone who's more of a lone wolf, an individual doctorate is perhaps better.

I like collaborating with people, that's why I try to exchange ideas with my colleagues at the faculty as much as possible." She smiles and adds: "But perhaps not having worked exclusively on a single project will be useful later on, when I'm applying for jobs. One should definitely seek thorough advice before starting out and see what suits one's own personality."

The doctoral candidate doesn't yet know what she wants to do once she has completed her Ph.D. Maybe work at a company or teach at a university But one thing is certain: she wants to do it somewhere in Europe. Shaikh will not be staying. He wants to return to Pakistan with his family and work at his home university. "I owe Pakistan something for my grant. What the country really needs are qualified people who bring their knowledge into the country and pass it on", he believes.

More than professional experience gained

Both doctoral candidates agree: completing their doctorate abroad was the right decision. "It's worth it because I'm learning so much. I'm gaining experience abroad, I'm more independent, I can make my own way now", says the computer scientist. The economist from Bochum also believes that he will take a lot back home from his doctoral period. "Just reading books, that won't get you anywhere. You have to learn from others and experience for yourself how people live and work elsewhere."

When asked what advice he would give other doctoral candidates, he answers, "Learn German!". "If you really want to get to know and understand life in Germany, you should speak the language at least a little", says Iqbal, who took an intensive language course at the beginning of his stay. And sometimes he can even learn from his little daughter: "She goes to kindergarten here and teaches me new words that she has learnt", he says, laughing.

Monica Gavrila even speaks German fluently, although her working language is English. After more than five years in Hamburg, she has made not only many international contacts but also a lot of German friends - she hasn't needed her translation program to settle in in Germany.

academics :: June 2009