The perfect mix of city and country living

Rui Almeida studied engineering in Portugal and came to Aalen in 2012 on a year’s Erasmus. He now works in Oberkochen in Swabia at the semiconductor division at ZEISS.

Rui Almeida still has vivid memories of his first day in Aalen. He was 24 at the time and was walking through the streets with a college friend. It felt like a ghost town – all the shops were shut, and there was hardly anyone around. Occasionally a few people could be seen going in and out of the bakery. He wondered what godforsaken place he had landed in!

He soon solved the mystery: “Where I come from, all the shops are open on Sundays. I didn’t know that was different in Germany”, he remembers, smiling. Almeida comes from Braga in the north of Portugal. He spent his year abroad as part of the Erasmus program at  Aalen University in the southwest of Germany − a University of Applied Sciences. “For anyone who studies engineering, Germany − and particularly Baden-Württemberg − offers the best conditions”. That’s how he explains his decision to come here.

A good social life for students

It wasn’t long before he got involved in the lively student scene. There was always something going on in the student residence he moved into. On his floor, there were students from all over the globe. By the afternoon, once the first lectures and tutorials were over, there was always hustle and bustle in the shared kitchen. “We cooked together a lot or went on trips”, recounts Almeida.

He also joined the local badminton club. Almeida loves badminton and has been playing it since he was a child. Not only did he make new friends at his training sessions, he also met his girlfriend there.

First a master’s degree, then a doctorate

Things were also going well for Almeida professionally. At his alma mater in Braga, he had earned enough points for the master’s degree. This meant he was able to focus entirely on his master’s dissertation in the Engineering department in Aalen, under Prof. Dr. Markus Merkel as his supervisor. Almeida successfully finished the dissertation a year later and started applying for jobs.

He got his first job in his girlfriend’s father’s engineering firm. After two months, Almeida returned to his former university as a research associate. He attended German courses alongside his work. “I understood the language and was able to speak a little German, but I was a long way away from a level that would allow me to progress professionally”, he explains.

Soon after, Prof. Dr. Rainer Börret, head of the Center for Optical Technologies (Zentrum für Optische Technologien: ZOT) of Aalen University, offered him a PhD project. But the topic was a really interesting one for the Portuguese engineer, namely Computer Controlled Polishing or ‘CCP’. Almeida explains it like this: “It’s about turning rough, matte surfaces into polished, smooth surfaces in a very precise way”.

Unlimited possibilities in the lab

One example in use are cast steel molds into which is poured fluid plastic for lenses for glasses. These molds used to be polished by hand. The drawback with manual polishing is that the process is very difficult and it can never be reproduced in exactly the same way. For his doctorate, Almeida’s task was to automate the process further using computers and robots. The possibilities available to him for his research surpassed his expectations: “We just had access to everything in the lab: robots, measuring and milling machines, interferometers”, recalls Almeida excitedly.

At the time it was not possible to do a doctorate at the universities of applied sciences in Baden-Württemberg without collaborating with a university, so a cooperation with Glasgow Caledonian University was arranged. Between 2014 and 2018, the young doctoral student traveled to the Scottish university once a year to meet with his supervisor there, Prof. Dr. David Harrison, and discuss his academic work. He completed his doctorate successfully in 2018.

From the university to ZEISS / ZEISS Semiconductor Manufacturing Technology

Initially, Almeida remained at the ZOT as a research associate after completing his doctorate. As part of a cooperation project within the new research network SmartPro, funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), he became aware of ZEISS as a company and the Semiconductor Manufacturing Technology division at ZEISS, which develops and manufactures products and services for the production of microchips. This was a door-opening and in no way unusual encounter for researchers at universities of applied sciences, which have close links to industry thanks to their applied approach. Almeida quickly discovered that his polishing knowledge and skills were in great demand at the division. He simply applied for a job there and started working just a month later as a process engineer at ZEISS in the neighboring Oberkochen. “This was exactly the job I wanted to do”, says Almeida.

Living a successful life in Baden-Württemberg

Almeida is fully at home in Baden-Württemberg now, not just professionally but also personally. His girlfriend from the badminton club is now his wife. They have three children together and live in a semi-detached house in Aalen directly next door to his parents-in-law. Almeida completely refurbished the house with the help of his family. “It was a lot of work, but in this part of Germany, Swabia, there’s a really strong culture of working to build a house”, he explains with a smile.

Almeida loves the rural feel of the place and likes to go walking or jogging in the woods nearby. It’s just 10 minutes by car to his office. “Everything is close by here, it’s the perfect mix of city and country living”, he explains. “Everyone says hello to each other on the street. Even my mother noticed that when she came to visit.” Of course he sometimes misses his family, but he has never regretted his decision. “You need some courage to take the first step”, he says, “but when you do, all of the opportunities open up to you”.

Tip for students: To learn more about doing a PhD at a university of applied sciences in Baden-Württemberg, go here.

Tip for researchers: Visit our  job search to find the perfect academic post in the German Southwest!

Author: Claudia Doyle