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Amrita Chakraborti is a 2nd year M.Sc-Ph.D student in the Energy Sciences Department.
I had decided to apply for foreign internships to explore the theoretical fields of material sciences before I started my PhD – and yes, the ‘foreign’ part of it did play a role in it.
For starters, as a PG (that too M.Sc.-PhD) student, securing an internship is a tad bit more difficult, as the internship cell doesn’t cater to us. But thankfully, my Masters’ supervisor was super accommodating, and that made things much less complicated for me. As I started applying, initially, I listed down some universities in which I would have liked to work in, then found out groups that shared my interests and made sure that I wrote individual mails to them, with attention to why I would like to work with them and how I could contribute – essentially, the standard one-size-fits-all mails sent by students to profs abroad which usually find their way into the prof’s spam folders. I had been warned against it and I worked painstakingly hard to avoid that. In addition, a friend who was travelling to Paris in January had agreed to drop around 5 applications in hard copy to the respective universities and it worked wonders – I got a mail back from 3 of these 5 Profs. I finally chose Ecole Polytechnique because 1) they are the highest ranked university in France 2) I got to pursue a topic I really wanted to explore and 3) it was the highest paying offer. A word of advice: if you are thinking of an internship in France, especially Paris, you should apply to French government scholarships like Charpak before April. Most universities pay interns a bare minimum of 550 euros a month and living in Paris is expensive – room rents are 400 euros at least. Thankfully, Ecole Polytechnique is one of the higher paying institutes which offered me 750 euros + accommodation at 200 euros and airfare. This, coupled with the Charpak scholarship, made my stay here very much easier. Ecole Polytechnique is also a partner institute of IIT Bombay and so, undergrads and 1st year M.Sc. students can directly apply through the internship cell – but the selection process and the grants offered will most probably differ.
So coming to my internship experience, I have to warn you that since it is my first trip to Europe, I would be suitably gushing, so take all my superlatives with a pinch of salt! Firstly, the people here are the politest I have ever met. I had to get used to smiling and wishing ‘Bonjour’ to random strangers, holding doors for unknown passers-by and ‘Merci’ went on to get ranked as one of my most oft-used words! Be warned that Google translate is your saviour if you don’t know French – it is a nightmare to get people here to understand English. Also, I had to pull up my socks a bit when it came to dressing for work or leisure – the people here are always dressed well and I stood out like a sore thumb in my IIT-B outfit of t-shirts, track pants and a ponytail. Having the experience of working in an Indian lab, I was somewhat used to the strict hierarchy in our labs and the absence of it over here took me by surprise (a pleasant one at that) here. Profs and interns were seated in the same office in the same kind of workplace and you could call everyone by their first name. My supervisor herself took me around, introduced me to everyone and helped me open my bank account. Also, even though I was relatively inexperienced, she took efforts to teach me whatever was needed and then paid a lot of attention to any suggestion I had – I had the independence to figure out what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. The French are generous with both their criticisms (albeit phrased politely) and praises – I have got both aplenty. The rules here are also a little strange compared to India –Nathalie (my supervisor), strictly told me that I can’t stay in the lab beyond 8pm or on weekends – in fact, my access card to the lab became invalid then- but then the 7 hours of work every day were spent wholly working. I didn’t find anyone just whiling away their time during work hours.
Coming to food, French food, though widely revered, might need a little bit getting used to – most of the Indian interns had a hard time. Especially for vegetarians it can be a horror story – the French include eggs in vegetarian food and vegan i.e. without milk or butter is the closest you can get to the Indian definition of vegetarianism. In fact, one of my vegetarian friends had to make do with just boiled spaghetti and grated parmesan when we visited a traditional French boulangerie. The scenario is not too good for non-vegetarians either – the tastiest dishes I had here were escargots (land snails) and boudin noir (sausage with pig blood) – though they taste really awesome, I could count on my fingers the number of non-vegetarians I know who would be comfortable with this. But people planning to come here, take heart – the desserts are absolutely incredible. A case in point – I have been here for 30 days and each day I have tasted a new dessert and there is none that I didn’t love – tarte tartin, macarons, crepes, saint honores, ile flottante, charlotte, religieuse, eclairs, flan, Paris Brest – the list is endless and equally yummy.
Coming to travel, of course the city you get to stay in for 2.5 months is the 2nd most visited tourist destination of the world. Paris is beautiful and you can visit other equally beautiful places from here. There are occasional troubles like the strikes that happen often – but usually nothing comes to a standstill, things just slow down – and you can go about your daily life relatively unaffected. I have visited Belgium, Italy and French Alps already – French Riviera, Munich, Amsterdam and Spain are up next. Just a note here: airlines are convinced that staying in Paris equals to being rich, so one can cut down their costs a lot by booking tickets from other nearby destinations. For example, a flight from Barcelona to Paris costs 145 euros, but only 60 euros to Amsterdam. Yes, geographical distance means nothing in the crazy world of flight pricing!