Smart people are usually messy

Survival kit study "I do not understand why mathematics should be the peak of intelligence"

Blanca moved to Germany from Spain to do a doctorate here. In our survival kit studies, she tells us why Germans are weird sometimes, why it can be very frustrating to work on a doctoral thesis and how bad TV shows often save their day.

Sometimes it helps to take a break. Then the inspiration comes back quite unexpectedly, says Blanca | Photo (detail): © Karina Garosa


Surname: Blanca
Age: 27
Degree course: Doctorate in mathematics and aerospace engineering
University: University of the Federal Armed Forces Munich

The biggest cliché about your degree program - and what was right about it:
That people are super intelligent and competent and have a very complex mind. There are of course some mathematicians who are very smart, but many of them are completely normal and just happen to be good at math - like me, I think, too. There is little special: you go to the office and sit in front of your computer like everyone else. I don't understand why math should be the top of intelligence. In my opinion, people have different forms of intelligence in very different areas - one of which is math, and the subject is just very poorly taught in school. No wonder people think math is an obscure thing.

What is your everyday life like?
I usually get up around eight o'clock. When I go to the office I am very productive and stay there until four or five in the afternoon. Now, during the pandemic, I only go to the office twice a week so I'm not there with someone else at the same time. Sometimes I talk to my doctoral supervisor and exchange ideas with him. In the home office I am a little lazy and start working later. I find it difficult to be productive from home. I usually work on some software I've developed and try to apply it to an aerospace problem. Otherwise, I write scientific articles or work on my doctoral thesis. Sometimes what I do doesn't want to work. Then I let it sit for a couple of hours and don't get back to work until I clear my head. After work, I either go to my hip-hop dance class, watch TV, or cook.

What could you not have done without?
For my work, all I really need is my laptop - and in general the following are indispensable for me: my friends, my cell phone to communicate with my friends at home in Spain, good roommates, good food and bad TV shows.

To be honest, that was really weird. I had a total culture shock.

Which day at university will you never forget?
I have to think of something weird. In my first month here at university, my department organized a barbecue evening. I thought everyone brings a little bit of everything and we share it - that's how I know it from Spain. But when I got there, I noticed that everyone had only brought one bratwurst or one steak for themselves and no one was sharing their food. Unfortunately, I didn't have anything with me, but luckily a couple of colleagues offered me something so I didn't have to stay hungry. But to be honest, I thought it was pretty weird. Overall, I had a big culture shock.

If you could start your studies all over again: What would you do differently?
In my first year, I spent a lot of time being very stressed because I wasn't doing much. But then I found out that it is the same for all PhD students. In the first year you just have no idea what you're doing, you don't even know what your topic is. I think I would have spent my first year feeling a lot less guilty.

Apart from that, I'm not sure if I would have even gotten a PhD in retrospect. I thought it would be exciting to go back to college, but I don't think I will continue my academic career. In addition, it is very different from a regular Bachelor or Master degree. It's nice to have a PhD, but the knowledge you acquire is focused on a very specific topic. In my opinion, this only makes sense if you are passionate about it and want to dedicate your life to research and science. I sometimes wonder if I could have developed differently professionally and acquired more practical skills if I had worked in a company.

What annoyed you the most?
There were some aerospace engineers who were a little condescending in their way. Often times they would talk to me as if everyone immediately understood what they mean. Then when you asked them to explain something to you, they just repeated what they said before without going into further detail. In short, communicating with some people in this area can be difficult.

What was your salvation often?
Good question. It was often very frustrating to end up in so many dead ends. Sometimes the things I was working on just didn't work out. Then it was good to take a break from work, take a break, or end the day entirely and watch TV to switch off. Sometimes the inspiration came back quite unexpectedly.

What did you eat on the last day of the month, when was it all about saving?
I don't have to save. Doctoral students in my field are often paid very well here. That goes for me too, so luckily, money was never a problem for me.

What question do you hear every time at family gatherings?
Is it very cold there? Are you eating enough Are the Germans weird? Do you need anything from Spain? These kinds of questions. Often they are also interested in how my doctoral thesis is going. I never know how to answer that, and it's kind of weird to talk to relatives about complex research on mathematical optimization for aerospace.

What are you proud of
I learned how to bake a really good sourdough bread. No, to be honest, I'm proud that I got this chance and that I'm going to pull it off, even though it's really difficult. I will probably be ready in the normal time. And I'm proud that I managed to arrive in Germany. Before I moved here, I was very scared because I didn't know what to expect. But I've built my own life here and made great friends.
What was the most expensive price for a good grade?
I don't get grades in the classic sense. But the first few conferences I had to speak at were very nerve-wracking. I prepared a lot and observed myself very much and felt myself being put to the test. Writing an article is always a lot harder than you think. For example, there are the graphics that I have to create for it. It is assumed that it will be done quickly, but then it will take hours because it should look nice in the end. And then sometimes you realize that the data was wrong and you have to start all over again.

Uni also means: learning for life. What did your field of study give you for your future path?
I've learned a lot about what I like and what I don't like to do. For example, I hate to work alone, but I enjoy programming. For me, my doctorate was a balancing act between wanting to study again and move away from Spain and trying to find out what I want to do with my professional life - and I think I made it. I've thought a lot about my future career path. I was able to experiment with a lot of things, meet a lot of different people. I also learned how to deal with really annoying people while being patient at the same time. That is a very valuable skill.

Survival kit study

Where in Germany can you study well? How can you live well as a student? And how do you survive the first student union party and the questions at family celebrations?

Students from different disciplines talk about their experiences at universities in Germany, their everyday lives - and what sometimes makes them desperate.