My Exchange Experience by Leopold Kellers, Germany

Alright, so my Erasmus year at Strathclyde University is ultimately over now. It was an enjoyable and informative time of my life, which I am sure I will never forget.

After all the paperwork back home in Germany had worked like a charm, I arrived at Glasgow Airport in September. The weather was bad, and that was directly a foretaste on how wet would be most of my time in Britain. But this was only a minor setback.

The first week of the semester, “Fresher’s Week”, introduced us new students to what social life was going on at university, especially the Union, an organization representing the students.  I decided to go for the skydiving club and the mountaineering club, as I was hoping to see a lot of places in Scotland this way, which worked out quite nicely for me.  Parties were also not missed out during that time, even though Erasmus students are often accused of having one single, long lasting party during their whole stay, which might partially be true for some of them.

Then the semester started and soon, everything was taking its even, orderly path that one is used to when studying.  At the first glance, the lectures appeared to be easier and less theoretically focussed than at my German university.  Instead of letting me crunch on the hard maths in assignments at my desk at home, I was rather being asked to lay out my understanding of the subject via writing essays.

However, I did find that more time-consuming than I expected.  Even in the exams, I was asked from time to time, to put some statement into context and describe what I knew about it, which I found quite surprising as our exams usually only test if one is able to solve mathematical tasks and physical problems.

But what makes a significant part of an exchange stay is the life outside of university and Scotland, especially Glasgow, has a lot to offer with respect to that!  At least after getting a grip on the local dialect.  I stayed with four Scottish girls in my flat and in the very beginning I was completely lost whenever they were talking with each other.  After two months, it got better and by the end I would claim that I was able to talk to most Glaswegians without problems.  I only gave up on bus drivers and construction workers – their pronunciation will always be beyond me.

Another thing that I will never forget is the local cuisine.  Not only, that some Scottish people consider a bowl of instant noodles and a pack of crisps a proper lunch, but also the omnipresent chip shops have brought the art of deep-frying to a maximum level of 1perfection.  One will have a hard time finding something that can not be deep-fried.  None of them would stop at burgers, chocolate bars of even a whole frozen pizza, traditionally served with chips, salt and vinegar, sometimes even topped with cheese and curry sauce.  The right accompaniment to that was a glass of IRN-BRU, a bright orange, highly addictive soft drink, which on its own might already have served me with sufficient calories for a whole day, leaving the aforementioned food aside. They did a lot of other stuff, too, which is often made from controversial ingredients (basically all slaughterhouse waste appears to be recycled there), but is incredibly tasty, like haggis or black pudding.

There were a few things, which I began to miss during the year though.  One of the most annoying was the absence of a transportation association.  Not only that one has to buy a new ticket every time on switching between train and bus, even between bus companies, of which there were plenty, I had to buy a new ticket every time I changed. Oh, and the subway is on its own again as well, of course.

Other stuff that I suddenly realized is not available everywhere, were good sausage, good beer, good bread and especially good döner kebab.  All these did exist, but tasted and felt slightly different.

I somehow did not manage to get used to each of them in a way such that I could have accepted it as a permanent replacement. Also it was not allowed to drink a beer with a friend on one of the rare sunny days outside in the park – the police would come and fine 40 quid without mercy.  And 5 minutes later one could watch them walking unhurriedly over a red light together with 15 other pedestrians.

But all this was a pretty fair price to pay considering all the completely new stuff I got to know.  An example for that was the ceilidh, a form of traditional Scottish dance.  Because most Scots seemed to be willing to dance only after having some quite impressive amount of alcohol, the overall performance was often a bit chaotic.  That fact gave the perfect opportunity to join in, even if one did not know how to do it, because no one would ever care whether I did it right or not.  With all the fast hopping and switching of partners it was a huge fun in any case, especially if one wore a kilt doing so.

Speaking of a kilt: this is a fantastic piece of clothing, and wearing it once really makes you jealous of the fact, that women can wear skirts any time they want.  Although I am pretty sure that women are rather rarely confronted with people that attempt to check if it is worn true Scotsman style (no underwear) or not.

2But if you decide to wear your kilt on the journey back home, because all the greasy Scottish food might have made you ultimately too fat to fit into your remaining trousers, then accept my advice and plan some extra time for airport security!

Another nice thing was getting into contact with the international students.  And at Strathclyde, there are a lot of them!  It results in a huge melting pot of different views and cultures.  Many of the friendships gained there directly came along with invitations for a home visit.  There were a lot of tours of Glasgow and Scotland offered especially for international students, ranging from historic sites to tourist attractions like Loch Ness and, of course, whisky distilleries.

There were also a few things in Glasgow that especially impressed me.  For example, Glaswegians were incredibly friendly and helpful.  If I just walked through the city looking confused someone would almost certainly come towards me and offer help.  It gets even better, when one is holding a map in one’s hand.  Then one would risk starting off a hand-to-hand fighting over who may tell the right direction.  And Glaswegian girls appeared to be very cold-resistant.  Even in freezing winter it was possible to watch groups of them walking home from the club, only wearing a top and a really short skirt. Barefoot!

Although in general the weather was not as bad as many pessimistic Scots claimed (cf. my flatmate: “This was the whole summer now, from now on there will be rain only!” after two nice sunny days in March), it was usually still rather wet.  That did not stop me from catching some pretty bad sunburn in the end, however.  No one back home wanted to believe that this could actually happen in Scotland.

Finally, at the end of my year, I walked the West Highland Way, a 150 kilometre long distance hike through absolutely stunning scenery.  In nice weather, this was one of the best trips I have ever done in my life, especially as it was legal to wild camp in Scotland.  The only drawback was the plague of midges in late June.  These were really evil and attempted to eat me up alive and close to nothing helped to protect from them.  But often enough I forgot about them just by enjoying the view.3

So whether you kept up reading all the way until here or just jumped forward to the last paragraph, let’s put it short: I can only recommend an exchange stay in Glasgow without any restrictions.  I for my part enjoyed it a lot and I decided to make a visit in the future again, and if it only is to climb Ben Nevis, the highest mountain, on one of the few cloud-free days, which I did not succeed to do so far.

I hope this report can be helpful to prospective international students, either those deciding if they should do it or those already preparing their stay, and of course everyone else as well.  In the case of any open questions do not hesitate to contact the office and ask for my email address!

An Exchange Semester at Strathclyde

I’m Martin Buschmann, a physics master student from Graz, Austria, and I decided to spend an exchange semester at Strathclyde, Glasgow. There are several reasons, why I chose Strathclyde. Firstly, I wanted to improve my English, which works best in an English speaking country. Secondly, UK universities have a good reputation in research and teaching.  The procedure for applying and getting a place in the Erasmus program was relatively simple at my home university.
P1000033So, finally I arrived in Glasgow on the weekend before the second semester started. I used the time to explore the city on my own and I was surprised how compact the city centre is, although Glasgow is one of the biggest cities in the UK.

On the first week of the semester, an introduction and orientation sessions for exchange students were held, which gave the most important informations for us international students. On the first day I also picked up my students card from McCance building and met my physics supervisor, Dr Francesco Papoff. I was surprised how fast and easy all those admission procedures went. But I was also lucky to meet a lot of other exchange students on the first day, who had to go through the same procedure.

Next, I had to find suitable classes for my study programme. Although I had already checked classes at Strathclyde before I came here, I had to make changes to them because not all of the classes were available. I soon found three interesting classes to take. In this case it’s good to be a physics student, there aren’t that many students and so you can have individual advising by Dr Papoff.

The semester began and I soon found out that the way of teaching and learning is a little different from what I’m used to from home. Here the students are expected to do more reading at home and do assignments in form of essays and presentations. I found this very interesting. I can’t say if this system is better than the one in Austria, which is more centred on hard math skills and oral exams, but I’m glad to have seen both worlds.

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The social life at Strathclyde seems very active. There are many clubs and societies and clubs to join for sports, cultural life, languages etc. Even if you’re just here for one semester you can use the opportunity to join them. It’s also a very good way to meet local Scottish students. I became a committee member of the Erasmus student network and joined the Mountaineering society for an amazing trip to the Isle of Skye.

In overall Strathclyde seems like a very international orientated university. Some of my lecturers come from other countries than Scotland/UK and there are a lot of foreign students doing their full degree here.

Of course, I didn’t spend all my time around university and used my free time to explore Glasgow and beautiful Scotland. Many of the museums in Glasgow are for free and make a great opportunity to learn about Scottish art, culture and history. Glasgow has many parks and green spaces for recreation or sports.
P1000847With my new exchange friends I did a lot of trips in Scotland. I visited historical cities like Edinburgh and Stirling, but also saw beautiful nature at Loch Lomond and the Highlands. My personal highlight was a hiking trip on the Isle of Skye.

The whole exchange semester is an exceptional experience and I’m very sad that it’s over.

Life in the lab

I’m in my fifth year, the last year of my Master degree, and I came to Strathclyde primarily to work on my diploma thesis. So, what does life in a Strathclyde physics laboratory look like?

IMG00201-20120925-1304The group where I’m doing my project is the Photophysics group of Professor David Birch. The main focus of the group is interdisciplinary molecular research using fluorescence methods. Everything revolves around fluorophores, biomolecules, colloids and nanoparticles.

 

IMG00199-20120925-1303

Some of the current projects are concerned with aggregation of biomolecules (peptides linked with Alzheimer’s disease), melanin, gold and silica nanoparticles.

There are various devices and techniques which we can use for measuring/imaging, ranging from spectrofluorometers to atomic force microscopy.

DSC_0069 (2)Some of the devices (especially for time-resolved fluorescence) can get quite busy, but we have booking sheets for planning things out.

IMG00197-20120925-1301The seat of the group is on the 6th floor of John Anderson building with a number of offices and laboratories. I have a nice big desk and computer in the PhD office and I must say, my favourite thing about it is the beautiful view. I can see a pretty large part of Glasgow and when visibility is good, I can even see some mountains in the distance, snowcapped in winter. Right under my window there is a green patch where people are picnicking, barbecuing and throwing frisbees when the weather suggests it.

Every Monday afternoon the Photophysics group gathers for a meeting. First of all there is a presentation given by a member of the group. There is a different speaker every week, so everyone has an opportunity to present his or her work to the rest of the group, including project students. The presenter gets to choose the topic, but it should be related to the project he or she has been working on. During the presentation the other group members are listening, taking notes and afterwards there is a slot for questions. This can make you nervous and uncomfortable, but in fact it isn’t that bad! On the contrary, you get new insights from the listeners and ideas for your project. When the presentation and questions are done, there is the more relaxed second part of the meeting with cookies and coffee in the 8th floor common room. Anything can be discussed- visiting researchers, conferences to attend, broken or fixed instruments, the weather etc.

DSC_0656 (2)Every now and then the group also has an informal meeting outside the university to grab a drink and talk about physics-unrelated things. The photo is from the Photophysics Christmas dinner.

Talking about dinner, something worth mentioning is the fundamental question, where to go for food. Normally a couple of us meet for lunch at Todd’s diner, where there is usually a quite good selection of hot meals ranging from typical Scottish/UK dishes to Indian curries and pizzas. If we don’t go to Todd’s, the fridge/microwave/toaster in the PhD room may provide something edible. The kettle supplies endless numbers of coffees and it is probably one of the most important devices of the group, along with all the fluorescence spectrometers.

My First Impressions of Scotland

My first impressions of Scotland (as a student on exchange):

  • Scottish people are very kind. Most of the time I can’t understand them, they drive on the wrong side of the street and sometimes the men wear skirts (kilts, of course). But they are really nice and helpful.
  • Scottish weather isn’t as terrible as I had expected- there are sunny days as well! When the sun is shining, no matter which month it is and what the thermometer says, it’s summer time and Scottish people wear short sleeves. Sometimes you get spring, summer, autumn and winter all in one day. Don’t try to fight the weather with an umbrella; the wind will immediately punish you. Just face defeat and you will get used to it.Glasgow Weather
  • Glasgow has many pretty places. Kelvingrove Park, the Necropolis, Glasgow Green… no wonder the name of the city comes from the Gaelic words “Glas Ghu”, dear green place.

    The Necropolis, Glasgow

  • All those unhealthy, strange and tasty things they have here… ranging from shortbread cookies, full Scottish breakfast, Irn Bru, tablet, haggis to deep fried anything- fish, haggis, pizza and even Mars bars. Considering what haggis is made of, I would have thought it would taste horrible, but it’s actually delicious.Full Scottish Breakfast
  • Glasgow is quite expensive, especially accommodation. However, there are many student discounts, especially if you are a member of some student organisation or club. Bar Home, for example, is a great place and sponsors several student clubs with free food and cheap drinks.
  • Glaswegians love traffic cones. The symbol of Glasgow is a statue of the Duke of Wellington, and what do you think is on his head? Obviously, a traffic cone. If the police try to take it down, students (usually a bit tipsy) will put it back in place overnight. In the student halls there are even signs saying you aren’t allowed to store traffic cones in your room. I’m wondering how many people have done it and what they did with the cone in their flat.Duke of Wellington Statue, Glasgow
  • Museums are usually for free, so it is great to explore them. My personal favourite is the Riverside museum with a fantastic realistic street from around the year 1900 with many shops and even a tram.
  • The taps. I haven’t figured out why the invention of a tap joining hot and cold water hasn’t reached the UK. Until then I will have to keep alternately burning and freezing my hands.
  • Ceilidhs are so much fun. Strip the Willow, the Orcadian, Flying Scotsman, Gay Gordons are just a few of all the fun dances that you can enjoy with your friends.
  • The word BEAUTIFUL is not enough to describe Scottish nature. I love the majestic snow-capped peaks, rocky island shores, peaceful glens with grazing sheep, many different shades of green. The West Highland Way and other long-distance walks are like heaven for people who love trekking and hiking. After returning to civilisation from the windy-rainy-muddy-chilly outdoor activities, a fish ‘n’ chips supper and a nip of whisky or some cider work a treat to warm you up again 🙂Scottish Mountain View

Best regards,

Marketa

A year in Scotland

Since last summer, the first time I came to Scotland, I have spent almost a year studying in University of Strathclyde. Glasgow is a beautiful city, full of culture, lots of green spaces. People living here are so kind and generous. So I’m quite enjoying living and studying here.

Young and energetic is my first impression of Strathclyde, though it is an old university with more than 200 years history. The lecturers and students here are all passionate for researching and studying. Regardless of background, teachers are so kind, explaining problems for me, inspiring me to get further understanding. I learnt a lot from them during the last year.

As an undergraduate student of physics, in the 4th year project, it’s my first time doing an entire experiment independently from learning, preparing, experimenting, modifying, to analyzing and presenting. This is quite a valuable research experience. And therefore I’d like to spend one more year studying here for the 5th year project, where I will study new techniques and applications that will help build my future business in China.

Although leaving my hometown makes me homesick sometimes, my new foreign friends always bring me pleasure. We share the same joy in games; we experience different cultures from different nations, we also suffer the revision week before exams togetherL. In our traditional spring festival, I invited them to have dumplings to celebrate the New Year; in turn they sent me Easter eggs as gifts. I really appreciate that I spent the last year with them.

What to do when you’re not studying

Since the spring holidays just ended last week, this is usually the time of the year when everyone (or at least me) realizes how many activities and fun things they still wanted to do before summer and how little time they have left thanks to upcoming exams in May.

While I have resigned myself to hoping for dry weather and lots of barbecues this year, there are actually many more things to do, not least many events offered by the university and the student union (most of which run throughout the whole year, so you don’t have to wait until Easter to get involved).  The student union (for everyone who is as lost as I was in the beginning) is an association of students who represent Strathclyde’s student body when dealing with university or more general education issues and organize events, clubs and societies (for more detail: http://www.strathstudents.com/). Furthermore, the building where the student union has their offices is called student union as well and at least for Strathclyde University it also includes several bars, cafés and multi-purpose rooms distributed over 8 floors.

So, anyway, the student union – besides offering cheap drinks – organizes and subsidises a lot of sports clubs and societies. The latter are almost free, as far as I know, and there are nearly a hundred different societies, ranging from charity and fundraising clubs to politically engaged groups and societies for students of certain subjects (such as the physics society). There are also societies for people from certain countries to meet fellow countrymen and –women which might be especially helpful in learning to find one’s way around after arriving in a new uni environment.

As for the sports clubs, they are a bit more expensive, as you have to become a member of the sports union (about £22 per year, I think) and usually pay for facilities or any extra equipment, depending on the sport. But again the range is pretty wide. While I’m not a big sports fan and have only tried one or two of the sports offered, you can basically find clubs for any common sport as well as martial arts and several outdoor activities, such as sailing, mountaineering and skydiving (see http://www.sportsunion.co.uk/).

The fun thing is that you can try as many clubs as you want in Freshers’ Week (first week before start of lectures in September) and even if it turns out you’re not a total sports enthusiast, most clubs include a lot of social events and nights out.

Finally, there are many events organized for international students, especially by the International Society (surprisingly) (also see http://www.strathstudents.com/international). They run trips to other places in Scotland, movie nights, pub crawls, etc. One weekly highlight is the international pub night where tens to hundreds (depending on the season) of international students meet at a different pub every week. The pubs are chosen by the organisers and usually include pretty nice places in the city centre, so there’s a good chance you’re going to find your new favourite pub on one of these nights. But, of course, it’s also a great opportunity to get to know new people and a few of my “non-international” friends liked it so much, they also started going there regularly.

Another great place to meet international students is the international café organised by the Christian Union (CU) which is actually where I met many friends from my first year.  Every Thursday evening you can get a warm meal for £2 at the chaplaincy centre (on campus) together with other internationals and members of the CU. As the name suggests, it is mainly an event for international students and everybody is welcome to join, no matter which religious views you might or might not have.

Finally, the chaplaincy centre itself, together with an organisation called Glasgow Internationals (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Glasgow-Internationals/55844921694), is quite active as well when it comes to events for international students. In my first two years here, I participated in several of their hiking daytrips and Scottish cooking lessons.

While all of these international events are great to get to know people at the beginning of the year as well as to get opportunities for travelling around in Scotland, unfortunately, most “non-international” students (those considered as home students by the university, e.g. Scottish, English, Northern Irish) don’t know about them and so you’ll really just meet other foreign students there.

As a small addition, I found the following quite interesting website, while roaming the internet for some useful links: http://www.friendsinternational.org.uk/. The tips and pieces of advice it gives on living and studying in the UK might be especially helpful for anyone from a non-European country.

A quick overview over what your physics course could look like

As I pretty much left out any details on the University of Strathclyde or my degree course in my last post, it is probably now time to catch up with that and mention a bit about the physics department and the different study options (for which there is also lots of information on the physics department website which you probably came across on your way to this blog).

In general, there are two types of degrees one can receive: a 4-year bachelor honours and a 5-year integrated master’s degree. While the former has different possibilities of specializing either on physics with teaching, physics and maths or just physics, the latter follows the same structure as the physics bachelor honours, but involves two years, instead of one, for specializing and gaining research experience through projects. I am currently in the master degree programme, as I am planning to continue with a PhD and go into research, but the degree system is pretty flexible and one can switch between degrees up to the beginning of 4th year.

At least during the first three years, teaching is structured relatively similar to school with most subjects being compulsory and only a few classes to choose in the form of electives in first year and as extra credits in second and third year. I chose introductory astronomy and a course on flight and space flight engineering as electives in my first year, but there is a wide range of possible classes from languages, history and psychology to science courses with tempting names like “Everything you ever wanted to know about physics, but were too afraid to ask”. Compulsory courses, on the other hand, comprise the most important areas of physics, e.g. mechanics, optics, quantum mechanics, electromagnetism, solid state physics and computational physics, as well as the necessary maths whereas many classes are part of the curriculum every year but deal with increasingly difficult and complex aspects of the subject.

In 4th and possibly 5th year (depending if you go for bachelor honours or master), from what I have heard and seen, most of the curriculum is free to choose from a set of subject areas, whereas one of the only compulsory parts in both years is a research project which you work on in both semesters. Obviously the choice of topic is not totally free, as there are about 80 other people also wanting to choose, but the physics department has a broad range of research focuses, especially in photonics, plasma physics and quantum information, so there are many possibilities in both theoretical and experimental physics (let’s hope my words will still turn out to be true when it comes to me choosing a project…).

Most courses involve exams at the end of each semester (January and May), but also class tests or assignments during the semester which count towards the final mark. During the first two years, there is also the option that one can be exempted from exams if the class test or assignment marks are good enough, with which you can help yourself to incredibly long summer holidays (amazing 5 months!).

Especially first year is rather easy for anyone who has done advanced highers or any equivalent advanced courses in physics, and there is the possibility to enter straight into second year. I personally decided to start in first year which gave me time to get used to the whole new university environment and also to learn and talk about the course material in English.

One of the most important aspects of the physics course, which I haven’t mentioned yet, is labs. From first year on all physics bachelor and master students have to do a few hours of laboratory work per week whereas the format varies from year to year. While in first year we were doing pretty easy experiments, such as determining the viscosity of a fluid and finding the speed of waves on a guitar string, in small groups for 3 hours per week, in third year we have 8 hours per week to perform about four to six experiments in a year, alone or with a partner, from a whole selection of experiments, e.g. analysing gamma rays from different radioactive samples or generating and examining the second harmonic of laser light of a certain frequency from nonlinear optical effects (which basically means fun with lasers). Although I’m not the greatest of experimentalists and unfortunately all experiments also involve writing reports in which you summarize your results, I have quite enjoyed lab classes, especially in third year, as many of the experiments are actually tasks that one could be doing as part of “real” research work.

For exchange students who only stay for one semester or one year the whole system of course choices, etc. as mentioned before is usually less restricted (or maybe more, but from their home university) since they do not have to follow any curriculum requirements, but can choose from all courses from 1st to 5th year (again following the restrictions from their home university). From the physics Erasmus students I have met so far, most were in third year, but found that they could take fourth and fifth year courses without having difficulties with the course material.

In any case, there are really nice and helpful people in the physics department that can assist with any sorts of problems (visa problems, course problems, other preferably uni-related problems), so there is nothing to really worry about.