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I’m currently receiving my bachelor’s degree in Sociology from am American university and have no clue how the process for applying to Master’s programs in Germany works. I’m not sure if it’s okay to email professors directly about their research as it would be here. I guess my questions are:

  1. Are they generally okay with responding to international students who want to work with them on their research (I do intend to clearly state that if it’s some kind of process- like an application- I would gladly apply)?
  2. Is it appropriate to request a meeting with them (or with the department manager) to get a tour of the department/meet some of the professors and/or students?
  3. How would I address this professor in an email? Her webpage says “Prof. Dr.” so should I use that title? I saw somewhere that Herr might be appropriate? In America, we just say “Dr.” or “Professor” that’s why I’m asking.

In America, there’s this unspoken rule that asking for meetings/ reaching out via email will help your chances when applying. At least, the professor will remember your name/face, especially if your research interests coincide with theirs. Also. This program is in English, so there’s no worry about proficiency in German (yet).

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    If it is "her" webpage (i.e. the professor is female), definitely DO NOT address her as "Herr" (meaning "sir"). – mmeent Feb 5 at 9:21
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    Oh! Thank you. I had no clue! That would’ve been embarrassing. – Savannah Feb 5 at 9:28
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    If you're applying to a "normal" university or university of applied sciences there will definitely be an official application process you will need to go through. Those applications are usually also available in English. Nevertheless, I think some personal contact with the "Dekan" (dean) can be helpful, especially as an international student. – GittingGud Feb 5 at 20:16
  • There's a substantial difference in whether they'll respond to students (as in the title of this question) i.e. master's students at their institution; or to potential students (as in the body of this question) i.e. people who are neither masters students nor students of their institution. Those are two very different things. – Peteris Feb 7 at 17:35
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Generally, there is nothing wrong with sending e-mails to professors which demonstrate some interest in their research, also in Germany (where I work). It could help you get in contact with research groups you are interested in. However, it could also happen that you will get no response.

One reason is that most students starting with a Master´s program will not make contact to the professors, you just enroll and that´s it. During the typically two years of the studies, you will get to know the professors and other people involved in teaching and research. Then, as soon as you have to do some research related thing (some small project or your Master´s thesis), you make contact asking professors or other approriate staff if they would support you with this. Again, trying to make contact earlier probably will not harm, but do not expect too much of it.

Tours with individual students who are early in their Master´s program are unusual in my experience. But if you show some genuine interest, it might happen. Again: There is no harm in asking! There might also be some organized tours in the beginning of your studies.

As far as the title is concerned, I would always go for the formal version which is "Prof. Dr." (unisex) in your case. Many people will not even notice if you write "Herr" (for men) or "Frau" (for women) or only "Prof." (unisex), but enough professors will, so it is better to be on the safe side. I recommend to drop the formal part only after some personal contact which justifies it, e.g. if the professor offers you to address them with their first name.


It would however be strange to use "Herr" or "Frau" in an e-mail which is otherwise written in English. Use them only when you write in German.

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    In fact you are not supposed to use the abbreviation "Prof." and only use the highest degree if you apply the German rules of address. knigge.de/themen/kommunikation/briefe-11616.htm – Benjamin Feb 5 at 18:07
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    I think the chance of a response is increased by the fact that OP would be an international student. The professor probably acknowledges the increased difficulty of the application process as a foreigner and will be more helpful. International students are generally quite welcome/encouraged to boost the image of the university. – GittingGud Feb 5 at 20:10
  • I think it is relevant how interesting it is for the Professor to communicate. If you contact him being interested specifically in the topic he is doing research in (or did earlier), you can expect some attention and genuine interest to communicate with you. But even that does not mean he can allocate time and attention to you. And in general: you can expect him to be professional (for example not to care much about things you do strange, being foreign.), as he may expect that from you: That you do not take it personal if you do not get an answer or so. – Volker Siegel Feb 6 at 17:43
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You might already know this, but just to be sure, keep in mind that the US and the German system are structured differently. In Germany, Master's and PhD are almost universally distinct, successive programs. I.e after you finish your Bachelor's, you apply for a Master's program, where after two years of coursework (and a small thesis at the end) you get your Master's degree. With that in hand you then apply somewhere for a PhD which will consist of a few years of research and a proper thesis, but generally no coursework.

As a result, applications for a Master's is rather similar to the application for Bachelor's, i.e. acceptance is mostly depending on your grades (in this case those you had in the Bachelor's, which obviously is required to apply) and you are not expected to decide anything about research yet, since there won't be any except for maybe your Master's thesis, which usually is constrained into 6 months, so just a short project, for which you generally only start to contact people maybe a year into the program. So emailing professors directly is a bit unexpected, since it is unclear what you would want of them. If they are not in the admission committee, there is nothing they can do, and if they are, then you are approaching them through the wrong channels, which could be interpreted as trying something improper. In any case, most programs are quite open anyway, i.e. they effectively take any applicant with the right Bachelor's degree (usually determined via a list of courses that need to be in there) above a certain grade average.

In contrast to that, applying for a PhD afterwards is different in the opposite direction. The focus is solely on research, so you are expected to contact a professor. In fact there usually is no program to apply to, instead you directly ask a professor, if they want to take you as a student, the two of you have a small chat about possible topics and then the rest is just the paperwork (Which is sometimes the only point where you need show your Master's degree). Keep in mind that this depends on the amount of funding and other students the professor has though. If it is a professor that knows you from before, this can be an extremely short, informal process.

With regards to funding keep in mind, that while studying is basically free in Germany, that is the rule only for EU-citizens, if you are not, there might be fees for your Masters. They will generally be smaller than in the US though. You also might not be eligible for any living allowance (Bafög) as a German student might be. In contrast to that, as a PhD-student you are usually paid and expected to do some teaching in return. Sociology is however one of those topics notoriously short on funding, so don't expect to much, but beware of any promises in the form of "work for free now and I'll get you a position later". If you can get any kind of scholarship (German, European or possibly even American), try to do so, professors love people who bring their own funding.

Finally, those are the standards, there are many non-standard programs, even some "graduate-schools" which try to incorporate parts of the American system, but they all differ in what parts, so it is impossible to say anything about them, except read their descriptions.

Edit: As mentioned in the comments, during the Master there is also sometimes the possibility of doing some extracurricular paid research as a Hiwi (Student helper). But those positions are often not advertised and sometimes only offered directly to some of the better students in a class, so there is no use in looking for them at the point of admission. However they can be a great stepping stone into a PhD with the professor you are working for.

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    Spot on. However, since OP seems interested in doing research, I want to add: While it's not required to do research during the master's course (except for the thesis at the end), it's not unusual for a master's student to do some research as a "Hiwi" under the supervision of a PhD student (approx. half a day per week). But since most PhD students like to pick their Hiwis from students they know from a lecture or exercise, looking for a Hiwi is a thing to do a few months after the course has started, not now, before even applying. – Sabine Feb 5 at 16:23
  • @Sabine, thanks, that's true. I've added it to the end. The question was about sociology, so I guess they often might need someone to conduct all those surveys. – mlk Feb 5 at 18:50
  • Just looked up "stepping stone" (Trittstein), and it is actually an english expression. Awesome. ;)) – Karl Feb 5 at 20:17
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    @Sabine: "it's not unusual for a master's student to do some research as a "Hiwi" under the supervision of a PhD student" - maybe it should be pointed out, especially for those not acquainted with the system in Germany, that this research is not necessarily an independent research project, but more like the "footwork" for the supervising PhD student's research. – O. R. Mapper Feb 6 at 11:51
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    "While it's not required to do research during the master's course" for the sake of possible future readers that are not sociologists: other fields may very well have research practica as part of the Master studies coursework. I'm chemist and we have that also with the secondary function of being able to "try out" one or two groups to have a better basis for the decision where to do the Master thesis. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Feb 6 at 20:49
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IMHO you probably have the wrong impression of the master application workflow in Germany (which you already said might be the case)

You are confusing two things:

  1. Enrolling in a program [as in "How to do it"]

  2. Finding a professor to do research with [If you're looking to see if a certain program is for you then ignore everything about point 1]

For the first point: you do NOT want to contact professors, they usually cannot help you with it. Who you need to contact is either the universities international coordination office (or however that's called, but most Unis have a small department especially there for onboarding or helping international students). If your Uni doesn't have such a thing (which would be weird), you need to contact the specific departments "examination board" ("Prüfungsamt" in German, I don't trust Google Translate here). Or some other counselor related to your subject of choice.

However any helpfully inclined professor probably can tell you the correct person to talk to.

For the second point: Since you mentioned wanting to research etc. I sense that you also want to get to know a program or at least one prof before choosing to enroll in a specific masters program. For that you can absolutely email a professor whose work interests you. For elite programs with very limited spots this MIGHT help you a bit in actually getting enrolled, but for any bigger program I doubt it'd make a difference.

Just don't be too sad if they don't reply, some (I'd say like 10%?) are just too busy with their current students / research etc. to talk to random Bachelors around the world.

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I looked for a PhD in Germany several years ago and I was told it was quite normal to email professors directly. Your success rate may vary but I did receive a good number of responses within a reasonable timeframe, even though I did not end up with any offers. It may help your chances if you express genuine interest in with their work and outline what you would like to work on.

I wouldn't advise requesting a meeting out of the blue, it's better to exchange some emails to see if you are a good fit for each other. Replying to long emails with many requests is also quite exhausting so you're better off breaking it down to several exchanges.

Germans do like their titles but a simple 'Dear Prof. X' should suffice, particularly since you're an international student and the conventions in English are different.

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    In Germany there is a big difference in applying for a PhD or for a Master's. – mmeent Feb 5 at 9:07

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