Some thoughts on studying in Vienna by Anna Whitehead.
There is a wonderful passage in the late travel-writer Jan Morris’ book Europe: An Intimate Journey in which she describes the buildings along the Ringstrasse in Vienna. She writes of “a titanic Opera House”, “museums as overwhelmingly museum as museums could be”, and of “a university more utterly academic than Heidelberg, Cambridge and Salamanca put together”.
As much as I do love an afternoon admiring the masterpieces at the Kunsthistorisches, it’s her sweeping claim about the Universität Wien that I thought I’d turn my attention to. Writing as one who also applied to study in Heidelberg, has completed two years at the University of Cambridge, and has now made it to the end of one semester at the University of Vienna, I think I’m just about qualified to shed some light on the matter!
The past semester has evidently presented its fair share of challenges but has also been enormously rewarding and eye-opening. There are however quite a few things that would have been helpful to know before I started this adventure, so I’ve summarised them for you here!
The concept of year-groups doesn’t really exist in the same way it does in the UK – students have great flexibility over what they study, how long they can take to graduate, and can even start in the Summer Semester – and while I still find this a little odd, I think it does give each student more responsibility for their learning and progress.
And when each semester costs less than €30, and you can work part time, you can see why taking five years to complete your degree becomes quite the norm. I remember being incredibly confused as to why the median number of semesters taken to graduate from Germanistik lay at 8.6, but my Viennese friends were equally confused when I explained that my school friends were all graduating this year after just three years at university (and at the age of 21) …
ECTS nightmares – it’s a 5 from me.
The whole ECTS - European Credit Transfer System - business has caused me many an administrative headache, for despite the idea being to have a standardised European system, they are far from standardised, and British universities chose not to adopt it (of course). While friends on exchange at other European universities appeared to rack up a surplus of 30 credits, I seem to have completed a mere 18 despite working about twice as hard as them.
A weekly hour and a half seminar which entailed preparatory reading, delivering presentations, and a final spoken exam was only worth a pitiful 3 credits. Perhaps another reason why it takes students so long to finish.
The Austrian grading system, numbers between 1 and 5, 1 being ‘excellent’ and 5 being ‘failed’, also took a while to adjust to, but seems much simpler than the ‘starred first’ or ‘high/low 2.1’ or even published rankings that I’m used to.
I was also surprised by the level of formality at the Universität Wien, and especially because my friends at Cambridge often remarked that I was a stickler for formality, always addressing our professors using ‘Dr’ of ‘Professor’, rather than just calling them by their first names like they do. During one of my first classes I was emailing my work to the Professor, and asked the girl sitting next to me to help me, hoping she might be able to navigate the confusing email system. Instead, she seemed horrified that I had gone for a “Liebe ...” and immediately rectified it to a “Sehr geehrte Frau Professor”.
Given that this Professor signs off emails using “Ao. Univ.-Prof. Dr.”, I’m not sure why I was so surprised. The formality does however extend the other way too, and I certainly enjoyed being spoken to as ‘Frau Whitehead’, even if it did make me feel like an indomitable German language teacher.
Dare I ask about the workload?
If I’m totally honest, I wasn’t quite sure what exactly what my studies would look like but was pleasantly surprised! I completed a great variety of assignments each week, which I found a pleasant change from churning out thousands of words worth of essays. It ranged from reading articles on Migration Policy for Politikwissenschaft, to collaborating and presenting on literary theorists for Germanistik, and often felt a lot more like school (except a lot harder and in German).
I also found not having a major deadline each week quite liberating. The level of online provision was also impressive; everything was conducted ‘live’ and you had to have your camera turned on throughout. One of my literature exams was deemed so important it went ahead in person, and instead of just asking for an essay, I was interrogated over Zoom instead. Lectures were 90 minutes instead of 50, complete with animated questions to the lecturer at the end, and students regularly posted on the online forums – both of which you would definitely get weird looks for back in the UK!
Despite all these differences, there were however some reassuring similarities; the unspoken dress-code of humanities students more or less translated across (dark turtleneck, statement jumper, big scarf), as did the fact that I still left my work to the last minute, although more likely because I was busy eating strudel or something, rather than drowning under piles of work.
So, was my first semester at the University of Vienna “utterly academic”? Well, the phrase ‘academic rigour’ certainly does come to mind, but so do the words “Kaffeehaus”, “Almdudler” and “Sturm”. I did my fair share of studying, but the knowledge that this was one semester (and not 8.6) and that I always had the excuse of being a non-native speaker to fall back on both relieved the stress and quashed any pressure I might have felt.
And while it was a shame it ended up online, I’m still glad I chose to do it all in the first place. So glad in fact that I’ll be coming back to do it all over again – see you for Sommersemester!
About the author
I'm Anna Whitehead and I’m a newcomer to Vienna, having made the decision to trade the dusty bookshelves of the University of Cambridge for all the Kaffee, Kuchen und Kultur that an Erasmus year at the Universität Wien would offer! I’m interested in Austrian literature and politics, enjoy learning languages and telling questionable puns. You can find a couple of stories over at https://annaw51.wixsite.com/annadventurelog, as well as a few snaps on the gram - @anna_whitehead11.