PhD, a surprisingly great time for personal growth, Part 1

Moving to Europe has been a big dream of mine as I was growing up in Canada. I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the Dresden International PhD Program in the lab of Prof. Stephan Grill in 2016, as a part of the Marie Curie Innovative Training Network PolarNet. Two and a half years in, I would like to share my experiences moving from Toronto, Canada to Dresden, Germany, 1) why I made the move, and some practical information about moving to Germany, and 2) my experience adapting to the cultural differences living with racial stereotypes.

I chose Dresden solely because of the collaborative innovative and interdisciplinary research community, but after moving here I’ve experienced exactly this and learned so much more in the wonderful city of Dresden.

Most of what I have experienced is very specific to Dresden, but hope it can still be helpful in some way.

1) Why did I leave Toronto and why Dresden?

I thought I should talk about why I left my beloved home town Toronto to move to Dresden. It was three main reasons:



  1. As a researcher, we are expected to be highly mobile during our training. If you can move to a different country, as tough as it may be, it can be extremely enriching to experience many research environments, learn from differing approaches and techniques, and to live in different cities. This however is a privilege, and not every trainee can.
  2. During my Masters at the University of Toronto, I saw the trend in decreasing investment basic research in Canada. Further, graduate students lived 8000 dollars below the poverty line in Toronto. We were unionized as Teaching Assistants to the University of Toronto. As of 2015, the stipend did not change in 8 years, as the cost of living kept rising in Toronto, which is one the most expensive cities to live in the world. We went on strike in February and picketed in the sub-zero temperatures. At the end of the negotiations, at my old department the 250 dollars was added to the annual stipend of PhD students, which was16500 Cad (approx. 11000 Euros), followed by 500 in the second and 750 in the third, still a very difficult amount to live on in Toronto for 6 years of graduate school. The strike was a particularly saddening experience and reinforced my decision to leave.
  3. I wanted to be trained in quantitative biology, as a part of an interdisciplinary research community, and Dresden seemed an obvious choice. More specifically, meeting Stephan and finding an exact fit for the line of research and approach, moreover a lab of incredibly passionate and curious scientists that I can also learn from.

Practical points for moving to Dresden Germany for non-Europeans

The Residence permit

As a non-European, I needed an Article 20 Researcher visa, which is a specific type of employee visa, that allows you to work for up to 1 year in another Schengen country without visa. It is as long as my employment contract, where I had to renew once.The difficulties lie in that official documents must be in German, foreign documents must be notarized at the city office here, and that some immigration office employees do not speak English. Specifically in Dresden, Stephan’s assistants and the Max Planck Institute International Office is absolutely instrumental in helping us coordinate the appointments, paperwork, and make sure that we obtain our work permits smoothly.

Finding housing

I found a flat after moving to Dresden. We have the opportunity to stay in the institute guest house while finding housing. This was done online, and again the International Office was incredible in helping to set up viewing appointments and handover procedure. I can speak for everyone that we are deeply grateful. One tip is that some apartments do not have a kitchen installed, literally pipes in the wall. I highly recommend finding an apartment with a kitchen, as installing a kitchen can be expensive and time consuming.

Health insurance, insurance, banking, transportation, etc.

As a public employee, we can have public health insurance. In the city of Dresden, there are English-speaking doctors, and there is a list of doctors available. In other essential, but slightly minor points, Germany is notoriously well insured, you might want to consider getting home and liability insurance. Setting up a bank account is easy, but you may want to consider going to a bank that has more branches. For transportation, having a bike in Germany is wonderful, in addition to a great public transit and train system. You absolutely do not need a car to get around Germany, and Europe for that matter!

In conclusion, it will take a few months to fully resolve all administrative tasks, and set up your life. There are many more that I haven’t covered, but my fellow colleagues were the best resources. Starting fresh is both difficult but also confidence building, now I’m not afraid to start all over again, anywhere else in the world.