In higher education, most graduate degree programs have traditionally focused on one distinct area of study. German students who were interested in adding a new dimension to their undergraduate studies were therefore somewhat limited in their options. Today, while it is true that discipline-based programs are still the main option for German undergraduates, there are now many programs with interdisciplinary or thematic approaches. This is especially true with English-language Master programs, many of which seek to add an additional dimension to their appeal by offering more flexibility to their students.
For students interested in shifting away from the focus of their undergraduate studies, thematic programs afford a unique opportunity to use one's previous knowledge as a jumping off point into a new field of study. For example, a student could use a history degree to gain access into a program focused on European Studies, and once in the program, shift their focus to political science or sociology. There are limits, of course; a jump from history to political science through a thematic program combines two similar disciplines with significant overlap. A jump from English literature to electrical engineering, on the other hand, would not allow for the same thematic continuity.
There are generally three types of thematic programs: geographic, topical, and interdisciplinary.
Geographic programs are for students who have a location on which they'd like to focus their academic or professional energies, but are unsure of the exact field their studies would be categorized in. A prime example of this is the European-American Studies Master of Arts program at the University of Regensburg. This program and others like it offer three different focal areas: language relations, literature & culture, and history, politics, & business. Students don't need to choose their path, however, until the second or third semester. Student are therefore given at least a semester to converse with professors, reflect on career options, and pin-point exactly where their research should focus.
Topical programs are focused on a certain institution, movement, or concept rather than an actual discipline. These types of programs are ideal for students who are focused on working in a particular field. An example of a topical program is the Roads to Democracy(ies) Master of Arts program at the University of Siegen. Instead of focusing on the scientific approach of a single academic field, this course of study combines the methodologies used in history, political science, and sociology to study democratic institutions and the democratization process. Interdisciplinary programs like this allows students to experience a variety of styles and approaches while working towards a unified thematic aim, giving them the opportunity to pivot away from their undergraduate degree studies into a different field.
Interdisciplinary programs are not defined by a geographic or topical focus, but still feature the combination of two or more disciplines within a unified program. This is ideal for students who seeks the flexibility of cross-faculty research, but who aren't sure what to focus on. An ideal example of an interdisciplinary thematic-based program is the Politics, Economics, and Philosophy Master of Science at the University of Hamburg. As is often the case for these types of programs, applicants must have a degree relevant to at least one of the disciplinary-components.
Thematic programs offer students a great a great amount of flexibility in the content of their degree studies, but it's important to remain realistic about how far afield you can go. Drama majors aren't able to become Math grad students. But considering the multitude of programs offered in English and the variety of programs available, anyone interested in pursuing a graduate degree should seriously consider the possibility of taking their talents across the Atlantic.