Blog: Applied Geophysics, Aachen Semester

MonschauSince 2006 the IDEA League universities have been offering a joint master’s programme. The Joint Master’s in Applied Geophysics is a two-year joint degree programme offered by three of Europe’s leading science and technology institutions: Delft University of Technology, ETH Zurich and RWTH Aachen University.

Mahfuj Ali, class of 2017, wrote a blog about his experiences as a second-year Applied Geophysics student. You can read his blog about the fist year here.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not represent the views of the IDEA League nor of its affiliated programmes.

I am now in Julich, Germany, about to start my thesis next week. Having completed my third semester in Aachen the last one with the whole class together, all of whom I will dearly miss having around, I’m reflecting my first time of living and studying in Germany. If you have not done so already, I would recommend reading my previous blog post about my second semester at Zurich before reading this one.

First impressions

The summer holidays in between the second and third semester were the longest time I have ever had off; three months! I did a summer placement at ETH Zurich doing some research in Palaeomagnetism and then had a short break to Portugal before flying to Cologne and moving into Aachen. I was eager to meet everyone and catch up with all of their stories from their travels as well as celebrate my birthday.

Lake_houseThe next day (Friday), we all met up for some brief introductions about the semester and advice on how to deal with the German bureaucracy which we would soon find out to an absolute pain. Next, we were off to the Forschungszentrum Julich (science centre) for the first part of our short weekend trip organised by the department to welcome all the IDEA League students to Aachen. We were guided around the campus and shown various projects out on the field using borehole GPR and also the server room where supercomputers were used to process powerful algorithms for inversion and modelling. That night we retreated to the RWTH Aachen lake house near the Eifel mountain range at Rur Lake to enjoy pizza and celebrate being back together; not knowing a month later fourteen of us would return here to complete a half marathon.

In the morning we hiked around the Eifel range; equipped with our tools we familiarised ourselves with the local geology and its historical importance as a coal mining city which are still operational today. In the evening we visited Monschau and finished the trip off with a BBQ before heading back to Aachen. My first few days in Aachen were off to a great start, but the fun was over and the real work began with lectures on Monday, or so we thought.


Aachen was different from Delft and Zurich in the sense that there were so many more modules to choose from; previously most of us were sitting in lectures together everyday doing the same modules, but in Aachen, sometimes it would be weeks before I saw some of my classmates at social gatherings as we had no common modules. There were three main course tracks to choose from, geophysics, geology and computing as well as some other modules which didn’t fit into these categories. Almost everyone did one of the core geophysics modules including Borehole Logging, Geothermics and Hydrogeophysics; with the remaining credits covered from modules in the other two tracks.

Having already competed two semesters, by now most people knew their likes and dislikes and had a rough idea of what they wanted to research for their thesis. I chose some finance, economics and management modules as they provided an opportunity to study a new topic which had not been previously offered, while others chose modelling courses to strengthen their Matlab knowledge or learn a new computing language entirely. This meant while some had plenty of free time, others had many assignments throughout the semester.

We also had a thesis selection day where all the supervisors from the three universities came and gave presentations about the projects on offer. We had the opportunity to ask questions and have interviews for those of us who had chosen projects with companies. It was a very insightful day, as a result I ended up completely changing my preferences for the thesis.

Social life

Bulgaria_skiingAachen was a major relief from Zurich where we were limited to house parties purely due to the cost of going out. Armed with our Erasmus grants, which we weren’t eligible for in Zurich because it’s not in the EU and soon to be followed by the UK, we could finally enjoy all the bars and clubs Aachen had to offer and there were many! With 45,000 students from RWTH and another 11,000 from FH Aachen (technical college), there was a proper student vibe and great night life atmosphere.

Unfortunately, because it was the winter semester with most of weather consisting of rain, freezing temperatures and strong winds; we were not able to explore the outdoors. Fortunately, as students we received travel tickets which allowed us to use all public transport anytime within the entire state of Northern Rhine Westphalia for free. This meant we could go to Cologne and other cities for special occasions such as carnival and the Christmas markets.

The three-point border between Germany, Netherlands and Belgium was only a twenty minute bike ride away and had lovely scenery along the way. Going further to other cities such as Maastricht and Brussels was also easy from Aachen by train or bus. Aside from neighbouring countries, many budget airlines operated from Cologne airport and I was able to fly home to London many times throughout the semester for only 20 EUR return trip. Another highlight was when 14 of us flew to Borovets resort in Bulgaria and spent an extra-long weekend skiing and snowboarding, it was one last major excursion before revision started for exams. During the Aachen semester I did more trips outside Germany then inside the country, something which was not possible in Delft or Zurich either due to expensive travel costs or the heavy workload.

Aachen and Germany

Aachen was a very cool city, limited by the amount of activities available, but compensated by its close proximity to other cities and countries. The medieval city takes you back in time to the middle ages with its cathedrals, fortifications, cobbled streets and beautiful architecture. It’s a small city with everything within a ten minute bicycle ride, however, the miserable weather meant I couldn’t go as far to say that it was gezellig.


Of the three countries I have lived in, I definitely felt the biggest culture shock in Germany, but I grew up in London and maybe others may disagree with me. The Dutch people in general are very laid back, open minded and always up for a good time. The Swiss people are very down to earth, sociable and have a high level of integrity. The German people are extremely organised and very direct in their approach; sometimes this means passing through several obstacles when getting things done or being taken aback slightly when confronted by criticism. Also, you will never see a German crossing the road unless it is green.

I should also mention everything works well despite its difficulty to set up initially, once a process is in place there are rarely problems down the line. Germany has the best social welfare system I have ever witnessed, something I am envious of in the UK where most of our public institutions have been privatised and the remaining few such as healthcare and education and being cut of funding at an alarming rate. In Germany there are virtually no university fees and plenty of financial aids for those who are less well off. The railways are state owned and run efficiently with free travel as a student. Housing and rental prices have not spiralled out of control. Lastly, I trust the government to make the right decisions for the benefit of its citizens and not for its own private agenda; Germany has an incredible social mobility etched into its foundation.


GeoShowMy semester in Aachen has been a mixture of great times, but also many problems which have caused much stress; I would still say Zurich has been the best semester, but I would expect nothing less of a university that is ranked 13th in the world. Ultimately, what I will remember most of this semester is the last few months I spent with my friends before splitting up for our thesis. Before we left, we hosted a ‘GeoShow’ celebrating each individual’s quirks and character, we did performances including a Bollywood dance and an original rap song. The 30 strangers that started this master’s programme have virtually become my family over the course of one and a half years across three cities, these have been the best times of my life and I will dearly miss them all. I eagerly wait to meet everyone back in Delft for our graduation in September, in the meantime I will focus on my thesis and enjoy my time in Julich and hope everyone else enjoys their time wherever they are.

31cbca7Mahfuj Ali
Student Applied Geophysics
TU Delft

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