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I am enrolled in a Master's program (Computational Science and Engineering) in Germany and currently I am looking for a Master's Thesis abroad, preferably in the US or in Canada. Unfortunately, I am not sure how to apply for a thesis and to be honest I am walking around in a vicious circle.

What I've done so far: My first step was to visit the international office at our university. The lady there told me that I should have a look at some university/institute websites, look for specific research areas/topics of my interest and write application letters to the respective persons.

Additionally, I went to one of my professors who gave me a list of people that he has worked with in the past and which probably might have interesting topics available. However, after carefully working through the list and writing down what looked interesting to me he told me that there's a 99% chance that my application will be ignored or denied if I don't explicitly describe what work I want to do. So actually his attempt to help was not of much use to me.

My main concern is: How can I know what I want to do if I don't know what is being offered? Most departments do not explicitly offer positions, in particular I haven't found a single offer for a master thesis at US/Canada department sites.

My area of interests involves fields such as the numerical treatment of partial differential equations (e.g. finite elements, solvers for hyperbolic problems...), numerical linear algebra, etc. However, if there is no disclosure of potential necessities for a master student I don't see a chance to describe my interests more specific than that. On the other hand, I am afraid that my applications will be interpreted as "bulk letters" if I just write down everything that I would like to work with.

I also thought of reading through some publications/papers of the respective persons, which would be very time consuming. But regarding the fact that I can have at most a slight insight into the respective topics and that I don't even know if there is any need for further work at a master student's level I don't think it is reasonable to spend too much time with that without a gleam of any success.

I would appreciate if someone could help me with some hints on how to come across that. It would be even better if someone who faced the same situation and succeeded could share her/his approach.

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    You need to tell why you must do your master thesis in US/Canada. – scaaahu Nov 18 '14 at 10:00
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    I did part of my own Master's work in the US (coming from Austria). In my case, I arranged to do a thesis with a professor at my university who then offered this possibility (it may be worth noting that the topic of my thesis was really only decided upon after I came to the US). I think this kind of “unofficial” path may often be easier than to apply on your own. That said, my current boss (back in Austria) does take unsolicited applications from abroad seriously also for prospective Master's students, and has invited applicants for interviews. – xebtl Nov 18 '14 at 10:13
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    @scaaahu Besides personal interest there is no actual need for doing it there. I want to broaden my cultural horizon and have the opportunity to see how research works in other countries. But doesn't that hold for almost every exchange activity? I mean, there is also no "need" for doing an exchange semester, still a lot of people do it. But I will think more about it, thank you. – andreee Nov 18 '14 at 10:16
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    My two cents Re "broaden my cultural horizon", as a French student who has spent one year in the US (albeit at the undergrad level), I haven't found it very different culturally. My three months in Japan have been much more instructive in that regard. – fkraiem Nov 18 '14 at 16:03
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    in the US, when people enter graduate school (i.e., the program to get a Master's or PhD), it is not necessarily decided yet whether they will do a Master's, or directly a PhD — This varies significantly from one department to another. It is true that in the US as a whole it is not necessarily decided, but in many US departments, transferring from MS to PhD or vice versa is difficult to impossible. – JeffE Nov 18 '14 at 17:17
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Master's have a different meaning in North-America than in Germany. While the Master's thesis typically closes the university studies in Germany, it is considered 'graduate studies' in North America (the Bachelor is considered the 'university degree' and the majority of students join the workforce with it). Masters are either specializations or given to graduate students who wish or have to stop graduate school before completing a PhD. That is the reason why you didn't find any offers for 'Master's theses' on institution websites there.

You approach of asking a local faculty for contacts is probably your best shot, don't give up. Narrow down to a few options and write them an email, explaining your skills, interests and field of study. Ask if they can think of a possible project for you. In your inquiries explain the requirements for a foreign Master thesis host at your university. Stress out the fact that you are merely asking for the right to use the local facilities and a co-supervision of your work. In my case, a professor told me about a project he had in mind, and I expanded it in a short proposal that was accepted by the local faculty and my program.

North-American professors have to worry about funding for their local Master students. You have to make clear that you want to be a visiting student and thus you will most likely be able to waive tuition fees (with some exceptions, like MIT). Along that line, explain that like Masters students in Germany, you will pay for your ramen noodles yourself and don't necessarily need a stipend if it can't be provided (on that note, Canada and the USA require that you prove you have sufficient means to support yourself while on their territory, so start a piggy bank).

With this in mind, there are few reasons for a group leader abroad not to consider your project, since you might contribute to their research while not costing anything. These few reasons include: too much supervision burden already.

  • Thank you very much for your answer! I didn't know about this particular circumstance regarding the Master. I will try to consider the points you mentioned, especially in the last paragraph. Let me give it a first try before I mark the answer as accepted though. – andreee Nov 19 '14 at 18:28
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    I had an appointment with my professor last week and he gave me different options. So we discussed about pros and cons and eventually decided that he would write an email to a colleague in the US. The US professor almost immediately replied and seemed very willing to support me with my plans. He told us that he will start gathering information about organizational things that might need to be accomplished. As by now we haven't talked about a specific topic, but as soon as I have more information I will post it here. – andreee Jan 30 '15 at 18:15
  • @andreee, is everything went well? let us know what happened after that? I am also in the same situation. Let me know if that works for you. – Jyotirmay Jan 22 at 1:00
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I recently applied for my final Master's thesis at institutions in the US and got accepted at the MIT. Without having a warm contact such a professor giving you an introduction to some former research collaborators abroad it is definitely a more challenging task. As I didn’t have these strong ties in the research area of my interest, approaching the research faculty was the option I chose. It is important to note that writing your thesis in US/CA is formally being a visiting researcher / visiting scholar. That’s what you should refer to in your application.

In general what you want to do is to draft tailored messages to members of the faculty and show that you are interested in THEIR particular research AND why your could be valuable for him.

In general my application approach was the following:

  1. Find a research area of interest: I identified a broad research area that I am passionate about and a few sub branches that would provide room for thesis topics.
  2. Choose some preferred universities: For the first application round I chose 3-5 different Universities in the US and UK. I was planning to do the following steps iteratively but got a positive response in the first round.
  3. Identify research groups: I browsed through the websites of the different chairs and research groups of the preferred universities to find out which group was working recently on topics in the research area of my interest. Mainly the section of publications combined with Google Scholar and current projects they are working on were helpful here.
  4. Find a topic: Based on their research, I came up with rather broad topic. Inspiration can come from “future work” section in their published papers.
  5. Identify potential advisors: Within the research group I looked for specific persons working on the topics. Usually, there is a staff website or a list of names on published papers. As professors are usually super busy, my main focus were PhD students or Post Docs, who usually are also the main authors of the papers.

  6. Hand-craft an individual email: Faculty members at reputable universities get hundreds of emails every week from students all around the world wanting to collaborate. So the message really needs to be individual (not a mass email) and short (quick to read). I tried to show that I familiarized myself with his specific research. Aspects of the message were mainly motivation, the research idea/topic and how I can contribute. As already mentioned your chances increase significantly if you state that they don’t need to fund you.

Of course this is not an easy process and you might need a few tries to get a response. But if you convince them about the value you can create being a free research support is a good value proposition. Once I got my acceptance I looked for supportive professors in similar / adjacent research areas at my universities who would possibly supervise it.

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