6 Important Hacks I Learned During My First Week Of Grad School

Graduate School Experience
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Oh, I hate those days when I had to work on assignments and slog hours mugging up stuff I don’t understand lest some smart guy ousts me in the class ranks during high school. After the final exams of my last semester at IIT(BHU), it was as if I was in a hibernation doing mostly unproductive things. Well, I don’t binge-watch TV series, but a ‘movie buff’ that I am, I would watch movies all day long. Sometimes, I was forcefully made to hone my culinary skills by my mother and father so that they can ensure I survive my grad school at RWTH Aachen Germany and Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.

So, it’s early October and the official international orientation days at RWTH Aachen are over. I landed in Germany on 24 September 2018. The long journey from India was something I cherished for quite some days. I endured a layover at Amsterdam Schipol and was patient all the time I had to wait for my connecting trains at Frankfurt and Cologne.

So, now back to the context after a melodramatic introduction where I gushed out my feelings. Although some of you might be quite aware of these facts, nevertheless I observed these things for the first time and thought about sharing it with you.

1. Encash From Trash

Beer Bottle With The Recycle Label

The first time I saw a cyclist picking up empty cans from the dustbins in Cologne Railway Station and Aachen Hbf, I was shocked to an extent. My curiosity lingered till the time I went shopping in Germany. I could see a queue of 5–6 people with a bag full of empty cans.

So, I figured it out that Germany has an interesting ‘Bottle and Can Return’ scheme. The beer can that you see in the photo above cost my roommate €0.39 or 39 cents. However, when he returns the uncrushed can, he can get back a voucher of €0.25 or 25 cents. He can use the receipt to purchase a new product. He can return the bottles at any store with a recycling machine regardless of the store where he purchased the product.

Recycling rates of Beer Cans in Germany is now as high as 99%. One must be extravagant, unmindful or really rich to give up the urge to encash from trash.

Germany’s recycling policy has been an inspiration to the UK and other European countries who now plan to emulate the German waste disposal model.

But wait! If this ‘bottle and can return’ scheme made you excited (especially if you are not much versed with the German laws), then let me tell you the snag here. This scheme is known as the ‘Pfand System’ in Germany and it was implemented in 2003.

So, when you buy a bottle of water or a can of beer made of aluminium, you pay an extra amount (€0.25 or 25 cents in my roommate’s case) as Pfand Tax. So, the next time you return the can, you get back a voucher of an equivalent amount. Basically, you are getting back your own money.

I am not sure if such a model is feasible in India, but I believe it can be set off as a pilot project in railway stations as a part of the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan‘.

2. European Union Data Protection Act

It was never a problem in India to download high-quality videos on YouTube using the IIT (BHU) network and stream it offline later. However, you can’t do that in the European Union. You can stream everything online (even the videos that your parents forbid). However, be wary before you attempt to download them.

A strong EU Data Protection Rule implies:

  • people have more control over their personal data
  • businesses benefit from a level playing field

I wouldn’t have mentioned it over here unless I was asked by RWTH Online (University Enrollment Forum which contains all your courses, modules, and personal data) to opt between RWTH Blue Card (Student ID Card) with or without chip which obviously is not a choice in most universities.

Sometimes, it’s really frustrating as you have to click twice or thrice giving your consent for your data before you can access anything. Sometimes, the text is just in German without any English translation.

However, in one week I have learned to be used to it.

3. Optimum Budget Planning

Before I first stepped out of India last summer for my internship near Paris, I could never relate to the financial management books by ‘Great Gurus’ like Napolean Hill. I read articles where authors were so vocal about saving.

For example, one of the CNBC articles states that Americans are horrendous in saving for their retirements. Unlike Americans, Europeans don’t have huge debts because of the low cost of education and healthcare. However, their aptitude for savings is far lower than the Indians.

I think budgeting comes naturally to most Indians, especially the heavily-taxed middle class.

Here is an excerpt.

A regular Indian buyer at Zara buys at an average of 3 pieces of clothes from the store every year and flaunts it with a tinge of vanity on Instagram. However, a regular European buyer shops at an average of 17 times from Zara annually and may still feel modest to flaunt.

So, being an Indian, how could I be left behind.

On the very first day, I figured out restaurants with student discount. Mensa Academica and Mensa Vita are the student dining services which offer a wide variety of delicacies that includes one of my favorite dishes, ratatouille. Even the restaurants in Pontstraße offer student discounts.

A 29 cm pizza with a choice of 3 toppings (Tuna, Chicken, and Paprika) at a restaurant in Hansmannplatz cost me €3.50. This is cheaper than almost every variety of medium size Dominos Pizza in India. And the taste was better than Dominos for sure!

Note: A Dominos medium size pizza is 12 inches or 30.5 cm. I am not putting the menu over here. Zomato can do it better.

I am sorry, I couldn’t help but compare.

I had not encountered a ‘Euro shop‘ in my previous tour to Europe. I haven’t seen a Euro Store in Paris or Lille. Everything available in the ‘Euro Store’ costs just 1 Euro, be it a sanitizer, deodorant or a packet of chips. It’s just an American equivalent of the ‘Dollar Store’. However, some of the products lack the quality. So, being wary of the quality of various products, I learned my way to shop from the 4 supermarkets: Lidl, Edeka, Netto and Euro Store.

4. Budget Travel

“Air India sucks and it’s nowhere near the gulf or European airlines.”

“Air India is expensive”

This was what my seniors at college had drilled into my head and in this era,where word of mouth communication plays a crucial role in business, no wonder that I was influenced.

Well, if you ever have used Skyscanner to plan your itinerary to Europe, it’s either the Gulf airlines or the European ones which would pop out at the top of the search results. Air France + KLM Royal Dutch airlines is one of the most profitable alliances in the world with cheap flights to several destinations.

In the orientation week, I met a few cool guys who had previously worked on the airport logistics. It was then that the thought about the airplane costs hit me up. So, here is why the European flights are cheaper.

  • In this eye-opening article, the author found that the Canadian airlines cost around 25 US cents per km while European flights cost 14 cents per km, although the European flights pay 49% tax and the Canadian ones pay just 32% tax during their flight from Canada to Europe.
  • So, a major reason for the airfares to be low is the healthy and robust competition among the European airlines. Europe has one of the most open airline markets. Almost every European country has official airlines.
  • Liberalization of the air traffic took place in 1997. So, now a French airline can drop passenger in Poland without paying additional taxes for flying over Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany.

A nice lesson learned in the first week.

I have planned to go on a trip every 8 weeks during my grad school. So, optimum planning involves budget travel and giving up the urge to visit any XYZ random places I fancy and wait till the Flix bus or Ryanair fares dropdown.

I figured out that a trip to Stockholm from Cologne would cost me just €10 on 27 October. Let me tell you, the distance between Cologne and Stockholm Skvasta Airport is a little over 1300 km. That is roughly the distance between Delhi and Mumbai.

In my first week at Aachen, I went on a budget tour to Brussels and Antwerp with one overnight stay at a hostel enjoying Belgian beer and waffles, all for less than 55 Euros.

So, now that I understand the dynamics of airport logistics, albeit a little, I believe I have become smarter.

Enough of bragging!

5. The German Keyboard

I am a German illiterate.

Before landing in Germany, I just knew two words, “Willkommen” and “Danke”. While several words of German is similar to that in English, I believe that it is easier to learn German than French.

During my orientation week, I went on to visit the Humboldt Institute of Biomedical Engineering where I got to interact with some interns and master’s students. I wasn’t surprised by the keyboards. I know what to do after a tough typing lesson during my internship at the CNRS lab in France.

Now I simply switch the keyboard to US English mode and type without looking at the keys. So, my brain is still wired with ‘QWERTY’ but my eyes see them as ‘QWERTZ’. When I have to type € or Ü, I change my keyboard to German (Deutsche) and simply type them once. Maybe I should start remembering the ASCII key combinations, say (Alt+132) for ä, but I am still fine with switching keyboard layouts.

6. Getting Around With Cooking

Schinken (Pork). I mistook it for Chicken

Time is scarce due to a hectic grad school schedule. Currently, I have 8 subjects in the first semester and it’s almost twice that in most regular postgraduate courses in UK or American universities. Under such a circumstance, you need to save time with food.

‘Schinken’ is a misleading German word, at least it was for me to eat. In an effort to buy chicken, I ended up buying pork. ‘Schinkenwürst‘ is ham sausage. Since cold sandwiches are a great way to avoid kicking your lazy butts and showing up at the kitchen, finally I figured out making ‘Hänchen sandwich’ using readymade products in less than a minute.

Salads, muesli, and fruits are a great way to avoid cooking. I can eat muesli for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The health benefits are always the reasons to justify your choice of food (if anybody ever inquired).

If ever something doesn’t go right, stock enough varieties of sauce to make up for your poor culinary skills. Although Germany is not as popular as France for sauces, still Mayonnaise and the French ones like Bechamel, Tomate, mustard, and poivrade can be easily found in the stores.

About Post Author


I started this blog for my love of writing and disseminating my views on things that excited me. I don't have a clear direction with this blog. However, you can find content mostly related to higher education, career development, MedTech, finance, and budget travel hacks. Background: After graduating in Mechanical Engineering from IIT (BHU) Varanasi, India, I pursued a dual degree Master's program in Europe (MS in Biomedical Engineering at RWTH Aachen, Germany and MS in Bioengineering at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland). I am currently working as a 'Manufacturing Engineer' in a MedTech company in Ireland.
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