International Internships: From Darmstadt to Seoul and Back

What is it like to live and work in another country? At Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, even apprentices can find this out — for example, Fabian Koch, who is fascinated by South Korea.


This is how Fabian Koch tells the story, as he strolls through the Gwangjang market in the heart of the capital of South Korea. Koch, who is 22 years old, is doing a dual course of study: He is completing an apprenticeship as a chemical laboratory technician at EMD in Darmstadt while studying process technology at the University of Applied Sciences in Bingen, Germany. 

But in the summer of 2013, he spent ten weeks abroad as an intern in Seoul. Since 2001 Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany has offered apprentices the opportunity to gain experience at one of its subsidiaries located outside Germany. The program is very popular.

In 2012 a total of 57 apprentices took advantage of these internships. With this program, Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany is preparing potential employees early on for a career in a global company. “The main objectives of the program are to promote personal development, improve the participants’ English language skills, and help them develop their intercultural skills,” explains Nina Klement, who heads the project.

From Darmstadt to Seoul and back

Fabian Koch explains his internship and life in South Korea.

The main aim of the program is to develop intercultural competence.

Nina Klement

Project Leader

International Program for Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany apprentices

Thinking outside the box

This combination sparked the interest of Fabian Koch, who was more than ready to take advantage of the opportunity to spend time abroad. He believes that in a world of globalized trade it is important to have close working relationships at international level early in one’s career and to get to know the lifestyles and working cultures of colleagues from other countries. 

“That way, you can avoid committing a faux-pas later on in your career,” he says with a chuckle. Moreover, Koch has experienced for himself that his English is becoming more and more fluent through daily use. He is also building a network of contacts that could be useful to him in the future. And of course the chance to have a broader overview is ultimately the factor that has made these ten weeks in South Korea so attractive to him.

Here he works at EMD’s own liquid crystal production site in the Poseung industrial park, which is located about 80 kilometers south of Seoul. His trip to and from work takes almost two hours each way. “That is a typical commuting time in South Korea,” he says. Although this is not what he is used to, he is happy to make the daily commute. 

“Here I’m working in an engineering department for the first time and I’m responsible for my own project. It has to do with the process development and optimization of liquid crystal production,” he explains. During his apprenticeship in Darmstadt he mostly performs syntheses and analyzes substances in the laboratory. This work in South Korea in the area of production technology is a new challenge for him. 

Moreover, he is gathering practical experience that will support his studies. On Koch’s very first day on the job, an expert gave him intensive instruction in “Lean & Six Sigma,” a management system for process improvement and quality assurance. For Fabian Koch it was a good investment. “The program is used all over the world, not just at EMD,” he says. “Even later in my career I will always be able to make use of these concepts.”

Kimchi with chopsticks

In Poseung Koch works alongside nine engineers in an open-plan office. They give him more than just expert advice. “They also help me with communication problems — for example, when I talk to employees in the production unit,” he says. The friendliness and helpfulness of the Korean people have also made a strong impression on him outside the workplace. The young European is regularly approached and asked if he needs any assistance. 

People also ask him about his home country, what kind of work he is doing in South Korea, and if he has settled in well. “South Korean food takes a little getting used to. It is either very spicy or almost tasteless,” says Koch as he skillfully uses his chopsticks to pick up some kimchi — the Korean national dish. Kimchi is made of Chinese cabbage that is fermented, like sauerkraut, and can have a variety of seasonings including chili. Another specialty, raw octopus tentacles, is not really to his taste. 

Back in Germany: After his stay in South Korea, Fabian Koch will complete his apprenticeship as a chemical laboratory technician at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany in Darmstadt. Back in Germany: After his stay in South Korea, Fabian Koch will complete his apprenticeship as a chemical laboratory technician at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany in Darmstadt.

Back in Germany

Back in Germany: After his stay in South Korea, Fabian Koch will complete his apprenticeship as a chemical laboratory technician at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany in Darmstadt.

A career building block

The climate is also different from what a western European is used to. In the summer, the heat is accompanied by very high humidity. “Fortunately, almost all of the buildings are air-conditioned, and so are the trains and the buses!” Koch has quickly become accustomed to people’s helpfulness and also to the high standard of technology in Seoul. 

There is free wireless internet throughout the whole city; routers are even hanging in the subway. “That’s something I’m going to miss in Germany!” he exclaims. On the other hand, even though the working conditions at a global company are similar all over the world, there are some things that Koch considers to be better in Germany. One of those things is “work-life balance,” which is (still) unknown in South Korea. But thanks to the country’s rapid economic development, Seoul, with its impressive skyline characterized by skyscrapers, is a very western city. “Above all, the younger generation here is strongly influenced by the lifestyles of its contemporaries in the United States and Europe,” Koch says. 

What awaits Fabian Koch in Darmstadt after the internship is over? His first priority is to complete his Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany apprenticeship and get his bachelor’s degree. And then? “I’m not worried about that,” he says. “After all, my internship in Seoul will be an important building block of my career.” 

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