Here follows Andrew’s experience of doing an engineering internship in Germany.
As the nature of my involvement with the exchange program with Georg Simon Ohm differs from the standard student exchange arrangement, I have decided to try and write my blog entries as more informative pieces.
I start by describing the process I followed to get the internship with Siemens and the problems experienced in doing so. This is followed by an account of my journey to Germany and to Ruhstorf where I am doing my internship. Finally I describe some of the good and bad points of settling into a small town in Germany and give a brief account of what it has been like to work at Siemens.
Getting the Internship:
For anyone attempting to gain an internship there is one thing that is key to the entire process: start early. Internship applications for Siemens need to be completed by June and so it is essential to begin as early as possible to leave enough time to deal with all the required administrative aspects. It also helps to use the time available during the relative lull in activity at the start of the semester rather than scrambling to jump through all the administrative hoops while also trying to prepare for tests or working on large projects.
One piece of advice that helped the process a lot though was to join a student exchange program. What this does is give you access to invaluable help from the PGIO and their counterparts in the host country with regards to getting the internship. All you need to do is ensure that you provide them with all the required documents, listen to their advice and recommendations and follow up regularly to ensure that any problems that arise can be dealt with swiftly. They will then make sure that everything gets organised while you can keep the majority of your focus where it matters: your studies.
From an engineering student’s perspective there are some issues that arise with this approach. Firstly, according to the requirements set by ECSA, we cannot get credit for anything done at or through an educational institution outside South Africa. This means that the internship cannot be done in place of the “skripsie” for instance and that you need to complete your entire degree before leaving. You still need to get your department head to sign off on the equivalent credits though, which shouldn’t be a problem as long as you make it clear that you understand that those credits will not count towards your degree.
The second problem that arises is that in order to take part in the exchange program you need to be a registered student of Stellenbosch University for the duration of the exchange period. Naturally this causes an issue as you will probably graduate before leaving for the internship. One possible solution to this is to register for a Master’s degree. You will need a willing study leader for this to work and you need to be certain that they won’t mind if you start work late. There are probably other possible solutions as well, but I didn’t personally have the time to find those.
Another important consideration is the duration of the internship. It is possible to do a 3 month internship, but the people at Siemens who offered the internship said they prefer a longer duration. This is because they feel that you only really start to be truly productive at three months and so it is better to stay longer to make the best use of your time there. To this extent they recommended an internship of around 6 months at least.
There is one last aspect that might lead to some confusion. Whereas in South Africa our academic year follows the calendar year, in Europe though they have winter and summer semesters, with the winter semester starting in October and spanning over the New Year. While this isn’t really a problem, it should be kept in mind.
Preparing to Leave:
Preparations had to start early as my flight was the day after the final poster presentation. The final weeks before my departure were thus mostly spent on preparing for my Skripsie oral exam and poster presentation. In the gap between these days I took a little time to make sure I have all the documents that I believe to be important printed out and ready.
I always feel it is important to have all the relevant documents available for when you go through immigration. This includes proof of finances, addresses of the place where you will stay and work with contact numbers and information about your return ticket, amongst other things. I should note that, to my surprise, when I went through immigration at Frankfurt Airport they didn’t ask me any question, but I think it’s still a good idea to be prepared.
Packing consisted of one bag of about a week’s worth of clothes and a carry-on bag with my documents and some entertainment for the long flights. Ruhstorf is about 3 hours on the train from Munich Airport and so I didn’t want to travel with too many bags. In winter it is said that south eastern Germany can get as cold as 20 degrees Celsius below zero so I decided I would have to buy proper clothing in Germany as few places in South Africa stock that type of winter wear. You don’t have to worry about being cold indoors though as every building has central heating.
There was very little time to really think about what was coming, so the stresses of leaving the county was really overshadowed by the stresses of finishing all my requirements for my degree. I also found myself to be remarkably calm when they day came to finally leave for Germany. I think the high from finishing my degree cancelled out the anxiety of leaving for a completely different country. It might also be that because I have travelled to London a few times in the past, the novelty of long flights has worn off for me.
Arriving in Germany:
I had decided to book my ticket through Neelsie Travel in the Neelsie as this would probably be the best way to find cheap flights. The booking was made with Qatar Airways and was relatively cheap. The route was supposed to consist of a stopover in Johannesburg and one change in Doha before continuing on to Munich International Airport. This didn’t happen of course.
During the stopover in Johannesburg they found a problem with the right fuel dump valve that is used to regulate the airplane’s weight before landing. This took around 5 hours to fix before we managed to make our way to Doha. Once there they had to get us new flights to our destinations as everyone had missed their connecting flights. They were kind enough to give us access to the VIP lounge while we waited for our new flights. My new connections consisted of flying to Frankfurt and then to go on to Munich.
All in all this meant that I only arrived in Munich around 22:00 which meant that I had missed the last train that would get me to Ruhstorf. The mission before me was thus to find somewhere to stay for the night until I could grab a train in the morning. Luckily, in Terminal 1 of Munich International there is a hotel information and reservations desk with some really helpful people who managed to find me a spot at a bed and breakfast that included a shuttle service to and from the airport for a reasonable price of 48 Euros.
The Way to Ruhstorf:
The morning started with a quick shower in the room and a buffet breakfast together with bread and cheese and cold meats that they bring to you. This, it turns out, is a very standard type of breakfast meal in Germany. This was followed by a shuttle ride back to the airport.
At the airport I found the Duetsche Bahn counter in Terminal 1 and managed to get a ticket to Ruhstorf. The guy at the counter didn’t even know where that was, being a very small town about 20 minutes from the Austrian border. The cost of the ticket was 24 Euro. I later realised that this is the Bavaria ticket which allows me to use most trains and busses in Bavaria between 9am and 3am the next day or whole days on public holidays. This is a pretty good deal, seeing as a regular one way ticket would cost 35 Euro.
Getting to Ruhstorf by train is pretty easy as it is a simple matter just taking the right train at the right time and the directions on the tickets are pretty clear. When buying the Bavaria ticket at a machine, you can also have the machine print out a timetable of when and where the trains are that you need to take in order to reach your destination. All in all the public transport system works well, even though in general it can be a bit expensive.
Settling in in Ruhstorf has probably been the trickiest part of the whole experience so far. Siemens has been good enough to set me up at a bed & breakfast called Pension Graml. The place is run by a kind lady who likes to chat with you in the morning at breakfast. Breakfast itself consists of coffee and bread with some cold meats and cheese together with a boiled egg. The room is also nice, having a double bed and TV as well as its own bathroom. One funny thing is that they dub just about every show you can think of to German and they do not provide English subtitles even. Ever wanted to watch your favourite movie in German?
Here is where the first unexpected problem arises though. There is no internet to use here. There is also no kitchen for me to use, only a fridge and a microwave downstairs. To sort out some internet I have had to result to getting a Vodago wireless dongle which is fast enough, but costs 70 Euros to buy and for the first 5 gigs of bandwidth and then a further 35 Euro per 5 gig after that.
Besides that, there is nowhere where I can go to wash my clothes and so I have to give it to the lady to wash. She is also a very private person, so I can’t use their kitchen or their laundry machine to do the washing myself.
Another issue is that there are only two small supermarkets, two small clothing shops and a few restaurants in this town. If you need to get any real shopping done then you have to go to the neighbouring town of Pocking, which is only about 10 minutes away on the train. Also, the majority of places are closed on Sundays, with only a few restaurants being open for business.
The townspeople are generally nice, with many people greeting you as you pass them in the streets. Being so far away from the larger cities though, most people here can’t speak English and some have only a rudimentary grasp of the language.
First two weeks at Siemens AG:
The internship is with Siemens Wind Power that is located in Ruhstorf. Every day at the office starts by people walking through and greeting everyone by hand. The people at the office are all really friendly and helpful and they have done their best to make me feel welcome. The office is filled with electrical and mechanical engineers all working on different parts of the generator designs.
The first week was mostly taken up by administrative issues, getting all the details of my employment sorted out. I was also given a tour of the factory where they build the generators. Mondays to Thursdays there is lunch served at a canteen for 3.50 Euro per day, and the portions are very generous. You buy a card with order slips that you use to order your next day’s meal.
The following week was spent getting used to some programs that are used to design and develop the generators, after which they outlines of my project was laid out for me. While I can’t give details on the project, I can say it’s really challenging and interesting and has been a pleasure to work on. Everyone in the office is also very keen to help with any questions that might arise.
So the lessons learned so are this: start early and join a student exchange program if possible; Be prepared for things to go wrong when you travel and don’t stress when they do; and don’t expect that just because you are going to a first world country, that everything will be easy.
While it has been a little tricky to adapt and find my feet in Germany, it has been an amazing experience so far. I am looking forward to the rest of my time here and I am hopeful that my project at Siemens holds much promise.