Interview with an American Working as a Research Assistant at a German University

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Last Thursday, I interviewed a British filmmaker who had traveled to Kyoto on a whim, and ended up meeting his future wife and starting a new life.

Continuing with the theme of unconventional ways of moving abroad, today I bring you an interview with Brandon, an American who now lives in Germany where he’s currently a research assistant at a University.

Brandon and I discuss life in Germany, differences from American society, and suggestions for how you can move abroad and become a research assistant.

Austin: What’s your name and job position?

Brandon: My name’s Brandon D. Percle and I’m a research assistant at Ilmenau University of Technology in Germany.

A: How did you get to Germany?

B: My first contact with Germany came in the summer of 1997 when several members of my high school German class from Chattanooga, TN, took a trip to one of Chattanooga’s sister cites, Hamm. We spent a little over 3 weeks in the country, visiting with our host families and traveling around a bit. This whet my appetite for Europe and Germany in particular.

A year after that, I embarked on a full exchange year to Germany (1998-99), living with a family and going to school, being fully immersed in the culture and learning the language. This was my 11th grade year.

After that, I finished high school and began university in Chattanooga (UTC). During my studies, I began preparations to do another year abroad. However, I decided instead that where I really wanted to be was in Germany again. So I applied to a Germany university (TU Ilmenau) and exmatriculated from UTC. Since the semester in Chattanooga ended in May (2002) and my studies in Ilmenau wouldn’t start until October, I did a summer internship at a large German company. My first degree in Ilmenau was completed in 2007 and I have remained at the university since then in the doctoral program and as a research assistant.

A: Can you tell me a little about your school?

B: The Ilmenau University of Technology is a smaller university in the former East that specializes in scientific and technical fields, with an emphasis on mechanical engineering, mechatronics, electrical and electronics engineering and computer science. Like many institutions with a size of less than 10,000, the University has a rather intimate atmosphere with a low professor-student ratio. This is one of the many aspects that attracted me to it.

A: How did you find the job?

B: While working toward the German degree “Diplomingenieur” (engineering diploma, approximately master’s equivalent), I had been studying under the tutelage of the professors of metrology since my 5th semester, including doing the two required year-long projects and my “Diplomarbeit” (diploma thesis) within the Institute of Process Measurement and Sensor Technology. While finishing the thesis, my professor offered me a doctoral/research assistant position after graduation, which I happily and gratefully accepted.

A: How long have you been in Germany?

B: This stay began in May 2002. I had previously stayed in Germany for one year from 1998-99.

A: What’s your previous travel experience?

B: I have little travel experience outside of the US and Germany. I have otherwise only been to a few European countries (England, Scotland and Switzerland). I hope to finally get to France, the Czech Republic, Italy and Poland soon, time permitting.

A: What’s your average day like?

B: I have been working as part of a large team on a research project called the Nanopositioning and Nanomeasuring Machine. As such, my responsibilities involve programming microcontrollers, digital signal processors and regular computers. I also perform measurement experiments in the laboratory and do some of the minor design work. This all means that I have a standard 8-5 working day on most days.

A: Does the job require German skills?

B: Almost all communication in house is done in German. I do however assist everyone else in the Institute when it comes to correcting or even translating articles into English for conferences.

A: Do you have a salary?

B: I have a standard full-time university research position, including pay and benefits.

A: What’s the hardest thing financially about Germany? What’s the best? What bills do you have? What is the cost of living?

B: The amount of income tax in Germany is comparably higher than the US. Several everyday items are more expensive, as is fuel — the latter significantly more. On the other hand, fresh groceries are less expensive for example. In general, I don’t find a big difference in cost of living between where I live in Germany and where I lived in the US. Living in the biggest cities in the US would be more expensive of course.

As far as the best thing about Germany: socialized medicine. (I am of course admitting my opinion on the hot-button issue. ;-) ) The same applies to Canada, Great Britain, France and many more places. I do not have to worry about very many health care expenses beyond my monthly insurance premiums. The costs I would carry on my own are cosmetic or other “unnecessary” procedures. But I don’t have the worry that a sudden procedure will ruin my family financially.

As far as bills, we have pretty much the same bills we would in the US as renters: rent, electricity, internet, cable etc.

Here’s an interesting tidbit about the German rental market that I particularly like. Leases of indefinite duration are much more common here. We simply have to give three months notice before moving out.

A: Have you sent money home? If so, was it easy/difficult?

B: I send money to my US account about once a quarter using an online currency trading account. It has competitive rates and very low costs. Highly recommendable. Here’s a link to the company I use: xe.com

A: Who would you recommend the job to?

B: Anyone interested in a semester abroad or even a graduate program should definitely consider coming to Germany. The research is top notch and it’s a great place to live in general!

A: Do other foreigners work at the school?

B: I share an office with a guy from China and our Institute also has a Ukrainian employee and several students from Russia.

A: What do you enjoy the most about Germany? What’s something you will never forget?

B: I don’t think I can pinpoint one thing that I most enjoy; there are many little tidbits that make up my desire for living here. I am fascinated by the dichotomy between the “work hard, pay attention to details and especially be punctual” attitude of most Germans during the working day and the “eat, drink and be merry” atmosphere of the local bar after work or after classes.

I love the fact that my city is almost five times as old as the United States. I’m a big fan of bratwurst, sauerkraut and many of the German beers (especially wheat beer). The lack of speed limits on many sections of the Autobahn is really nice, too.

Of course, many things are similar to the US, naturally stemming from the fact that the US is European in origin. But one incident from my exchange always reminds me that I am still living in a different culture than the one I grew up in.

About a week into living with my host family, I was sitting at the dinner table with them and my host brother had his left hand under the table. His father became annoyed and scolded him a little, saying “Hands belong on the table!” My first thought at that moment was imagining my mother were scolding me, except that it would have been the exact opposite: My hand would have been on the table and she would have warned me to get it off.

Like I said, it’s the little things that add up to make a huge difference in the end!

A: What are some resources for people who are interested in what you’re doing?

For some general information for Americans coming to live in Germany, I highly recommend the AmCham Germany site: www.amcham.de. Another site for Expats is www.toytowngermany.com. Specifically for studying in Germany: www.study-in-germany.de and www.daad.de.

The sites have information about scholarships and grants as well, but public German universities do not have high costs other than living expenses. The attendance fee per semester runs in the neighborhood of 100 EUR ($133) or so and some states have begun assessing an additional 500 EUR ($666), but not where I live. Generally, students do not have to buy textbooks (there is no bookstore per se, rather a copy shop), just a collection of lecture notes for each class. This too keeps the costs down compared to an average American university.

Finally, the website of the university where I work is www.tu-ilmenau.de.

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Thanks to Brandon for taking the time to share his story. It’s really cool to see someone create such a close connection with a country outside of their own.

If you liked this interview, check out my chat with Luke – the British filmmaker living in Kyoto with his new wife.

Have you ever been to Germany? What did you find interesting about German life?

Photo: Kecko

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