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My European Master’s: An EMA-zing journey

By: Saurav Jha


On 5th of April, 2019, I received a conditional acceptance to the Erasmus Mundus Joint Master’s Degree (EMJMD) in Advanced Systems Dependability (DEPEND) program — the third of the three Erasmus Mundus master’s programs I had applied to that year. Fast forward two years and I have wrapped up my master’s having studied a year each in the

UK and France. As it happens, it was not merely by chance that I applied to DEPEND despite having applied to couple of other EMJMD programs beforehand.

That said, my aim in writing this blog post is two-fold: (a) pointing every generic “guide me on Erasmus Mundus” spam in my social media circle to this post, and (b) briefing the key takeaways from my EMJMD experience while answering bunch of FAQs (that I receive) along the way. My target audience groups remain the prospective applicants as well as the students already pursuing their master’s. Though the technical details mostly adhere to the domain of Computer Science, I have tried making sure my account is generic enough to readers from other domains. So let’s get going: first the FAQs!

What is an Erasmus Mundus scholarship?

It is a fund covering your participation costs to an EMJMD program. An EMJMD program is hosted by a consortium of two or more European universities which may or may not be situated in the same country. Given the geographical diversity of the consortium, an EMJMD master’s provides you with a refreshing opportunity to pursue your field of study while getting to know the people, landscapes, culture and history of Europe.

The maximum amount of the scholarship is 49,000 Euros (EUR) which covers your tuition fees, health insurance as well as travel and relocation costs. A breakdown of the scholarship can be found on DEPEND’s website. The structure remains the same for other EMJMD programs too.

Who can apply for an Erasmus Mundus scholarship?

TLDR; every national with a bachelor’s degree. However, the scholarship criteria might be different depending on whether you are a program country or a partner country student. Further details about these alongside the description of the scholarship fund can be found here. At the moment, I can recall having met students from: Albania, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Brazil, China, Colombia, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Georgia, Honduras, Indonesia, India, Iran, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, United States, Uzbekistan, and Zimbabwe. Borders barely matter!

How do I choose which program(s) to apply to?

The European Commission’s website maintains an online catalogue of all such EMJMD programs that have received a grant for the upcoming academic year. Your task as an applicant boils down to navigate through the websites of the programs that interest you, check the relevance of your background, and follow their online application procedures. While doing so, you should bear in mind that: (a) you can apply to a maximum of three such programs for a given academic year, and (b) most of the programs start accepting applications from mid-November all the way till late-February (though you should check with the individual websites to confirm the exact dates).

For instance, I went on to choose DEPEND because of its unique half taught — half research curriculum with the possibility of centering my focus around a range of Computer Science domains including but not limited to Artificial Intelligence, Formal Methods, Cryptography, Quantum Computing, and Software Engineering. Moreover, the program required undertaking two dissertation projects (one per year) which could either be research-based or industrial. This seemed to offer me a degree of freedom (unlike a conventional taught master’s) at exploring my topic of interest apart from the coursework each year.

What are the essentials for my application?

This is the age-old question. And I am not even going to try answering it. There are plenty of detailed resources on the Internet guiding grad school applications including how to write your motivation letter and prepare for English language tests, reaching out to your referees, proper scheduling of your application timeline, etc. For example, this blog post is a good starter on what to avoid while writing a cover letter.

A point worth mentioning here is the students who get in touch with some form of consulting organizations who manage to convince them in securing a scholarship. Not only is this a waste of money but several EMJMD programs might go as far as cancelling your scholarship if once found that you were involved with such firms. In short, be genuine with your application.

Can I still apply if I am in the last year of my bachelor’s studies?

Yes, you can. As long as you expect to finish your bachelor’s before the starting date of your master’s program. Your scholarship offer will then be subject to the condition that you present your bachelor’s degree at the time of registering for the first university in your mobility track.

Alright, done with the FAQs. Now, only good things. Let me walk you through my personal journey to give a glimpse of what your life might look like while pursuing an Erasmus Mundus master’s.

Year I

I kicked off my first year at the University of St Andrews — the oldest university of Scotland located in the seaside town of St Andrews. Besides its astounding beauty and popular golf culture, the town is well known for its student life and university culture (one third of the town’s residents are affiliated to the university).

A snap from my raisin weekend (with my academic parents) post the annual foam fight at St Andrews!

How to survive an expensive place on the Erasmus Mundus scholarship?

With a lively university culture (45% of its student/staff population being international), St Andrews has all it takes to put a dent in your wallet if you are not careful about your living expenses. The housing, in particular, is very expensive with the cheapest of university dorms starting at 550 GBP.

One trick I found useful (and so did my classmates) was to ask the university to distribute my travel and installation costs (which amounted to 6000 EUR for the first year) around the year instead of handling the amount at once in the beginning. And turns out, it did help me keeping a check on my primitive impulses over the year. You can make a similar request to your university’s finance department to see if they can distribute your installation costs over the year rather than a lump sum payment.

My student life there..

Ranking within the QS top 100, St Andrews lives up to its expectations of enriching your student experience in numerous ways. The best thing that happened to us (DEPEND classmates) was to share the lectures with the rest of the Master’s students from the school of Computer Science. This in turn helped us getting acquainted to a good number of genius minds. Further, the computer science labs are shared among the undergraduates and the postgraduates, and are usually bustling with key strokes thriving to meet weekly deadlines.

From Hack the Burgh VI at the University of Edinburgh. Our team of four from St Andrews won the Barclays chatbot challenge.

What’s more exciting about St Andrews is its location — a two hour drive from Edinburgh and an overnight drive from the Scottish highlands. It is very well a sin to not have enjoyed the best of the highlands whilst there.

From our trip to the Scottish highlands.

Year II

My second year was based at the Université de Lorraine in the French city of Nancy (situated midway between Paris and the French-German border). Coming from St Andrews, the living expenses in Nancy was of course a relief. Plus, the French government’s reimbursements for student’s accommodation costs (through the CAF services) was well in my favor.My student life there..

A merit of studying Computer Science at Lorraine is the university’s collaboration with the Loria lab — which hosts both INRIA and CNRS, the elite French national and state research organizations. As a part of our master’s dissertation in the second semester, the DEPEND program offers an internship at the Loria lab. My internship, in particular, was based in the MULTISPEECH group within the Inria lab, which is the biggest research group of Inria working on speech processing. This indeed remains one of the greatest perks of my student experience at Lorraine.

From our last class dinner in Nancy.

Being a host to at least five different Erasmus Mundus programs (DEPEND, DENSYS, LCT, GENIAL, EMLex),¹ Nancy truly stands as the capital of EMJMD studies. And this can be a boon to one’s student life here since it means meeting a lot of mobility students who are precisely in your shoes. Further, as a university with more than 40,000 enrolled students, the Erasmus Students Network (ESN) of Nancy is quite an active community with a good number of international students.

Bumping into the students of the DENSYS program in Strasbourg —we happened to have boarded the same train from Nancy that morning. Nancy hosts students from at least five different EMJMD programs.

Putting it together

Overall, the two year span of my EMJMD program turned out to be neither too long nor too short. Among the perks of my master’s journey include the breadth of knowledge about computer science domains gained from my coursework / internships, and about global culture and traveling gained on so many international dinner tables.

On a side note, the stars were aligned and I got opportunities to participate and win a leading British hackathon, present my opinion on Digital Ethics for EU (my poster stood out first in the competition), work on the projects I cared about, and volunteer as the program representative for my EMJMD program. However, the experience overshadowing all these has been meeting a bunch of international friends — some of which turned out to be very special. I must admit that the past two years of my stay abroad have shaped me (and continue doing so) as a learner, a professional, and a human. That’s it on my journey. Wishing you the best on yours!

Footnote

[1] Five different Erasmus Mundus programs to the best of my knowledge. It is rumored that several others could be staying camouflaged in the city.

P.S., In case you’re wondering what the “EMA” in the title of this blog post stands for — it’s the Erasmus Mundus Students and Alumni Association. They offer a range of volunteering opportunities which include serving as the representative for your program/country as well as in the domain of finances, IT, legal and internal affairs. Further, you might be invited to attend the annual EMA’s General Assembly in person — a great networking opportunity! This blog was originally published on Medium and has been reproduced with permission.

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