Let's be real, the world of internships is a game of chance. The stereotypes about fetching coffee and making copies sadly don't exist for no reason. If you want to be sure your internship is going to be a worthwhile learning experience, Germany is the place to go.
In Germany, an internship -- or praktikum -- is an integral part of the education process, and it's not just something to look good on a resume but significant practical training. This means there are plenty of internship opportunities and they are often well-established and challenging (in a good way!).
Interning overseas is in Germany is sure to be a profound professional and cultural experience, but here are a few insider tips for interning in Germany to make sure you it's the best it can be.
1. Know Your Industry and Internship Expectations
In Germany, students start focusing on their majors, or more like career concentrations, in high school. By college they have a career path and it is expected that they will do an internship that exactly fits their university major. That means that your German supervisor will expect that you, like a German counterpart, will be able to jump right into things at the workplace.
One German stereotype that generally does hold true is their regard for timeliness. Be on time to work. Be on time for meetings and appointments.
Once you know what your internship is and generally what it will encompass, make sure you know the basic ins and outs of how the industry works and the basic skills you'll be expected to have. It would also be beneficial to make sure you know the basic German vocabulary for any technical terms that might be used in your position or industry.
2. Study Up On The Language and Culture
Even if you've been in German classes for years, it is still worth doing some research on the local culture, especially once you know what city you'll be living in.
Many German stereotypes are just that -- stereotypes -- and many are only representative of certain regions to begin with. (We don't recommend showing up in Berlin and asking why no one is wearing lederhosen!)
Like any international experience, you'll likely face some culture shock and things that don't meet your expectations, but educating yourself and preparing as much as possible for what you'll encounter will help immensely in your adjustment phase.
3. Be Respectful, But Prepare To Be Surprised
Your research will probably tell you that German workplace culture is formal. Many will tell you that you'll need to dress ultra-professionally, address your colleagues or superiors with the formal "Sie" rather than the informal "du" and that the workplace is less friendly and inclined to small talk than, say, many American workplaces.
It is definitely better to play it safe and enter into your first day at your internship with these expectations. Dress well, address people by titles and surnames, and perhaps reign in yourself if your inclination is to make a first impression by standing out with your chatty and chummy personality.
Maybe that will be how your workplace is, but don't be surprised if it is nothing like that at all. Just like anywhere else in the world, every workplace is different. Many German workplaces will be much more warm and welcoming and much less formal than stereotypes lead us to believe. So be sure to pack more than just suits for your office wardrobe options!
Contrasting workplaces in Germany
To give an example of the various types of workplaces in Germany, two interns describe their differing office environments while interning abroad in Germany on the Cultural Vistas Fellowship.
"I was very surprised at the workplace culture. Contrary to the stereotype that the German workplace is more direct and formal relative even to the United States, the atmosphere at my internship site is informal, relaxed, and welcoming." -- intern at a think tank in Berlin.
"I’ve noticed that there is a lot expected of me when I walk through the door, and I’m given the task of enforcing my work ethic and hours. During work hours, conversations and attitudes are all business, but after standard work hours, even emails go unanswered. I kind of like that." -- intern at a research center in Berlin.
4. Be On Time
One German stereotype that generally does hold true is their regard for timeliness. Be on time to work. Be on time for meetings and appointments. Just be on time!
Map out and, if possible, practice your morning commute before your first day in the office. Thankfully, German transportation tends to be extremely reliable and on time, but even still you might want to allow time for (your) error or delay on your first day's commute.
5. Ask For A Training Plan
Internships are meant to be educational opportunities, especially in Germany, so you should be learning just as much as you are performing work.
If you have any concerns about this, or feel that you are performing too much busy work, take the initiative and ask your supervisor for a training plan.
It doesn't necessarily have to be something formal, it could be as simple as sitting down with your supervisor and discussing the skills you want to build and kind of tasks and achievements you want to to accomplish. Or if you feel you already have a good plan, create a proposal to show to your supervisor, but just be sure you don't overstep your boundaries.
6. Take Every Opportunity To Practice Your German
Most Germans speak English, and you may even find yourself in an internship where English is the predominant language in the office, but being able to speak German will make your experience living in Germany a thousand times better. You may find that your colleagues or other Germans want to practice their English with you or ask you translation questions. Take that opportunity to ask for the favor returned!
Tandem language partnerships are also very common in Germany. A quick Google search will likely turn up some resources in your host city, or ask around at the local university if there is one. A tandem language partner will meet with you regularly to practice language skills -- you'll speak in German and they'll speak in English. It's a win-win!
Find a tandem partner:
7. Take Time To Explore
While you should never forget that you are in Germany first and foremost to gain professional experience, you are also there for a cultural experience. And with such a fantastic and reliable transportation system, there's little excuse not to get out and explore a bit.
As we mentioned before, Germany's different cities and regions vary greatly and have a lot to offer, so take the opportunity to compare and contrast them and gain a wider view of German culture. Berlin, Munich, Cologne, Frankfurt... These are all incredibly different cities worth seeing!
8. Get Paid
Unlike many other countries around the world, paid internships are quite common in Germany, even for international interns! Also, because of the strong, longstanding strategic partnership between the United States and Germany, there are a number of fellowships and scholarships available for internships in Germany. To name a few:
Reap The Benefits
The benefits of interning abroad are vast, and choosing to intern in Germany -- and abiding by these insider tips -- will ensure you get the most out of your international internship. Viel Glück!