When I started my Master’s program at Potsdam University, I knew that I wanted to include a semester abroad as part of my experience. By the time I looked into the possibilities halfway through my first semester, it was already too late to apply for the more distant partnerships. That’s why when the partnership with Macquarie University in Sydney was announced toward the end of my first semester, I jumped at the chance. As I was the only one in my program who expressed interest, the internal selection was easy and the Akademisches Auslandsamt officially proposed me to Macquarie University. Macquarie also required an application form, copies of previous transcripts, copy of my passport and a list of research interests – after they processed the application, they put me in touch with an advisor at the department where I’d be studying (Computing) to help me decide on courses to take during my semester there. I didn’t know this at the time, but the list of courses was a prerequisite for applying for a student visa to Australia.
Studienfach: MS Cognitive Systems
Aufenthaltsdauer: 08/2015 – 11/2015
The MRes program at Macquarie is slightly different from a normal Master’s course, as the focus is much more on research and less on coursework (after all, MRes stands for Master’s of Research). As such, the courses that are offered in a given “session” are somewhat limited. In my field, there was only one traditional course that fit – a general introduction to computing methods for research. My advisor and department were very accommodating, however, and suggested turning their regular machine learning reading group into a kind of seminar for me, and also advising me on a medium-scale individual project. With those options, I was able to complete courses at Macquarie that would directly transfer to required modules at Potsdam.
With the courses decided, Macquarie sent me a special form with an acceptance number and offered to arrange health insurance for my stay (another prerequisite for the visa). When I applied for the student visa (online), I just had to enter some personal information and that acceptance number, and a few days later I received a notification that my electronic student visa was granted and no physical visa would be issued. I never had to go to the Australian consulate, which made the process easy and exceptionally fast.
When I arrived in Sydney, I had arranged to stay at an Airbnb for one week. I knew that it was possible to stay in student accommodation at Macquarie, but the university is about 45 minutes from the Sydney CBD (central business district) in a mostly residential area, and the prices didn’t seem any better than if I just found my own room. So during that first week, I looked on flatmatefinders.com.au for short-term stays and made a few visits. I was very quick to find a room in a central neighbourhood with two Australians around 30 years old, but only for a few months. After for the remaining time I took the more expensive but much easier way by staying in Airbnb shares, which was also useful for traveling as I wasn’t tied down to one specific place.
At the university, I found everything clearly communicated and straightforward for attending classes, registering for online systems, getting a student ID, etc. As a graduate student, you also have special access to study areas in the university library, which came in very handy as I was working on my
projects. I only attended one normal course, but the style seems a bit stricter and more didactic than in a typical course in Germany – attendance is mandatory and is counted, assignments are regularly submitted and graded, and all coursework has to be completed before the end of the semester so that grades can be submitted centrally within a few weeks after the semester ends. Having to finish everything by the end of the semester was in fact a benefit as I could then go traveling without having the spectre of exams or projects or papers haunting me.
Traveling around is of course a must – there’s a lot to see in Sydney, but after a few weeks you might just have seen all the charming “terrace” houses, dramatic beaches, and endless suburbs that characterize the city. It’s extremely easy to pop over to Melbourne, which is highly recommended. A bit farther would be tropical Queensland or laid-back Perth, both of which I would also highly recommend.
Overall, I had a very positive experience. Academically, I was able to work with some very bright people and even practical celebrities in my field. From a cultural perspective, I was most surprised by how familiar everything felt (I’m American). In many ways, Sydney could just as easily be seen as a version of LA – but with better infrastructure, less disparity, and a different accent. I’m sure from that perspective it would be much more interesting for someone who hasn’t already lived in California.
The only downside, and this could be a dealbreaker for many people, is the cost. Overall, for the 4 months I was there, I spent around 10,000 EUR for travel and living expenses. Here’s an overview of the basic living costs per month:
Beyond that there were these one-time costs:
And then you can add the cost for traveling around, if that’s something you want to do. In the end, it was certainly expensive, but absolutely worth it.