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Higher Education in Germany - Dr. Ahmed Omran

Updated: May 19, 2020

Hometown: Cairo, Egypt

Undergraduate: Engineering Physics, Technical University of Munich (TUM), Germany

Masters: Engineering Physics, TUM, Germany

PhD: Physics, Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (MPQ), Germany

Postdoc: Harvard Physics Department

Field: Experimental Quantum Science

Ahmed, Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I was born in Saudi Arabia, my family then lived for a few years in the UK before moving back to Cairo. I spent the next 14 years there and enrolled in a German school. Afterwards, I moved to Germany to study Engineering Physics at the Technical University of Munich (TUM). Ten years and three degrees later, I moved to the US for a postdoc position at the Harvard Physics Department.

What do you think are the main advantages of studying in Germany?

As far as studying goes, the quality of education is solid and tuition costs are extremely low. There is a symbolic fee due each semester for services provided to students such as access to subsidised housing and dining, and free public transportation. During my first year, Germany introduced additional tuition fees of up to 500€ per semester, for the sole purpose of improving studying conditions, with student representatives given a say on how the money is spent. These extra fees were ultimately dropped following widespread protest at the fact that education is getting commodified. It points to a different (and in my view, admirable) mindset in Germany about education being a right and not a privilege. Recently though, one state (Baden Württemberg) introduced tuition fees for non-EU foreign students.

On top of cheap education, Germany has some very nice cities with a lot to offer, a beautiful landscape, strong infrastructure, access to easy travel within Europe, a strong healthcare system and a moderate cost of living. Against common assumptions, Germans are actually quite friendly and genuine. Work-life balance is valued there, and so the quality of life is generally very good.

How did you reach your decision to study abroad?

I was unsure what to study for the longest time. For lack of a better idea, medicine seemed like an obvious solution, but I eventually became very interested in sciences, particularly chemistry. Later though, I developed a passion for mathematics, and started getting into computers and operating systems a lot, so computer science seemed like a viable option. At some point, physics dislodged chemistry as my favourite natural science. So for about a year, I was unsure about whether to study maths, physics, or computer science.

In Summer of 2005, I got to travel to Germany to a “German Student Academy”, a 16-day workshop where you took a course to dive deep into a specific topic. These ranged all the way from political theory to cosmology, and each academy had six courses running in parallel. When I was there, it just so happened that all six courses were physics related, and so I ended up at a boarding school with 100 like-minded and highly motivated students, all passionate about physics. The richness of that experience is almost impossible to convey in words, and some of those friendships lasted until this day. Clearly, this had a major impact on my choice of study.

My concern was that science education in Egypt isn’t very strong, and the career prospects for physicists are slim, so I was going back and forth on doing what I loved in a different place, or staying home and studying something more “grounded”. In the meantime, I had applied for a scholarship by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which has a special scholarship program for German school graduates to fund their studies in Germany. I eventually was granted a scholarship, and so I had no reason not to move abroad.

When did you first start preparing for the application process? How did you prepare?

My decision to apply was only half a year in advance. I did a tiny bit of research on different universities and the programs they offered and found that all German university rankings, while slightly different, consistently placed TUM at the top of physics education in Germany. I reached out to some people studying at different universities to get their input, and finally sent my only application to TUM.

While applying only to one place sounds like a bad idea in general, there was a valid reason: TUM had exactly two requirements for applying to their undergraduate physics program: A qualifying high-school degree and proven German proficiency. There were no admission limits, no requirements on GPA, no recommendation letters, no personal statements, no standardised tests, and no interviews. As I had a German school certificate (Abitur) in hand, I had everything I needed, and my acceptance was guaranteed. Generally, other high-school diplomas will only allow you to apply for a one-year “Studienkolleg” (preparatory course), which bridges the gap between a non-German diploma and university. What your certificate qualifies you for can be checked here.

Back in 2006, the application forms had to be filled out on paper and sent by regular mail along with required documents. Postal services were notoriously unreliable in Egypt at the time, but luckily my family had a German friend living in Cairo who happened to be traveling to Germany, and so she took my application envelope and mailed it from within the country. It was a bit of a challenge to get the university to send me the acceptance papers in a timely fashion, but DAAD was very helpful in mediating that. All in all, I spent far more time on the paperwork to leave the country than I did on applying to university.

The master’s program I did was a natural continuation of the bachelor program I enrolled in, and so the application was just a formality. Officially, it was a bit more selective, but even with slightly above-average grades your chances were very good. Typically, you spend one year taking classes and one year doing research. My program was an international one, so the core courses requirements were in English and several students came from abroad without any German knowledge. Such programs are becoming more common nowadays.

The US is a popular destination for students. How would you compare studying in Germany to the US?

I can only comment on the US college experience as an outsider, but my impression is that Germany has much less of a “college culture”, and its universities tend to slightly lack visibility in the world. But in my mind, this is only indicative of Germans not focusing much on marketing their universities and says nothing about the quality of education or experience. In fact, I would totally study in Germany again if I traveled back in time, for the most part because of the depth and focus of studies. In contrast to the US, you apply to a specific major, and that is what you did day in and out. The programs are generally very structured with only a bit of flexibility, and this was especially true for TUM. However, this ensured that you got the most solid foundation in your field. Having come to the US, I sometimes envy students here for the breadth of courses they took and the seemingly more lively study experience, but looking back I feel very grateful for a much deeper, focused and comprehensive physics education. Despite the apparent rigidity, you were free to take any course you wanted on your own time. And finally, the fact that students have to pay this much tuition in the US blows my mind.

At the same time, there was no policy of making sure everyone graduated. Grade inflation was non-existent, and in STEM programs it was common for half a class of a few hundred people to fail an exam. As I mentioned earlier, all applicants to my program were admitted, but only 30% of those who came actually graduated. This sums up my experience with university education in Germany: Here, you are free to come in, be offered a solid training, and it’s entirely your responsibility to get through it. This breeds a special type of discipline and work ethic.

How did the funding through DAAD work?

The DAAD scholarship wasn’t a ton of money, but it easily covered my rent and food. When 500€ of tuition fees per semester were introduced, they covered that as well. They also funded annual workshops for all scholarship holders to get together and meet up with figures from academia, politics, industry and business. Through a group plan they put together, we also got incredibly cheap health, accident and liability insurance. Finally, the scholarship was particularly useful for the visa and residence permit applications, because Germany requires a proof of adequate funds, either in the form of a sufficiently large bank account or a regular income.

The process started when one of my teachers reached out and said I was selected as a possible applicant for the scholarships. There was an application process, for which I had to write a personal statement and face a panel of (benevolent) interviewers. The Sawiris foundation was also on board, providing a similar scholarship, and so some of us ended up with one scholarship or the other. Of my cohort, four of us got selected and ended up in different places in Germany.

I advise people to check the DAAD homepage for advice on moving to Germany and scholarship announcements. They list a database of scholarships mostly targeting graduate studies, but there are a few undergraduate programs as well.

Did you receive any mentorship/support as you were applying?

From the dry bureaucracy of German institutions? Hardly. I would argue though that it wasn’t really necessary, seeing how straightforward the process was. My family was my biggest support system. Navigating paperwork like the visa application and postponement of Egyptian military service was an odyssey of its own, which would have not been possible without their help. The advice by DAAD was also quite helpful, and their letter of support made the visa application smoother.

How does the PhD process in Germany work?

A prerequisite for doing a PhD there is having a master’s degree. In contrast to the US, master and PhD are separate. There are no courses to attend as a PhD student (though nobody will throw you out of a class if you do), and you mainly focus on your research. Depending on your field of study and institution, you might be working alone or as part of a larger group, and the duration is nominally three years, but commonly longer.

Usually one applies directly to a research group, and so the decision falls in the hands of a professor. There are no formal programs or admission committees involved, and your application to the university at this point is merely a formality. That said, some institutions have adopted a “graduate school” in certain fields, where you still do your research as intended, but get additional mentorship and soft skill courses on the side. Funding for your research and your salary either comes through the institution itself, through grants from your professor or from various fellowships that you can apply for.

Aside from universities, many people do their PhD research at private research institutes, e.g. within the Max Planck, Fraunhofer or Helmholtz societies. Some students even do it in industry. In these cases, you need a formal faculty advisor at a university, because only universities can grant PhD degrees. In my case, I did my master’s research and PhD in a group at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (MPQ), which is headed by a professor at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

Did you consider moving to a different place for your PhD?

While doing my master project at MPQ, for a fleeting moment I toyed with the idea of applying in the US after meeting a professor from MIT on sabbatical in our group, but then I realised there was an application deadline due in 2 weeks, and there was no way I could get the paperwork and required tests in time. I had a standing offer to stay in my group, but actually did apply to another group in Switzerland to have another option. I decided though that my advisor was too phenomenal and our working environment too good for me to leave, so I ended up staying. However, there is a lot to be gained from transitioning to a different place for your PhD.

What advice do you have for students who are interested in applying?

Find the field of study you’re most interested in and do exactly that. Maybe worry a little bit about your later career, but be flexible and don’t make it the main criterion guiding your choice.

Any other pieces of advice?

  • Develop good attention management.

  • Be flexible and don’t worry about making the perfect choices all along the way. It’s fine to switch gears and do something different later in life.

  • Never be afraid to ask questions. Ever.

  • To get places, it helps a lot to talk to people.

  • Focus more on who you will be working with than what you will be working on.

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