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What's behind Germany's obsession with doctorates?

Sarah Magill
Sarah Magill - [email protected]
What's behind Germany's obsession with doctorates?
Graduates sit in a tent on the grounds of the University of Mannheim during a Master's graduation ceremony. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Silas Stein

Germany has by far the highest number of doctoral graduates in Europe every year and the doctor title is particularly revered in the country. We speak to an expert in the field to find out why.

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In Germany, around 29,000 graduate students complete a doctorate every year – far more than in any other member state of the European Union. 

As well as the high number of graduates gaining doctoral degrees, there is also a certain level of prestige afforded to those with the title "Doctor" in Germany, and more so than in other countries. In Germany, it is not uncommon for title holders to add the initials "Dr." to their doorbells, ID cards, bank cards and even train ticket reservations.

In the world of work and even in politics, having a doctorate also seems to be a contributing factor to success. For example, a survey from 2019 showed that over 80 percent of German MPs have a doctoral degree while another survey from the same year revealed that the average starting salary for those with a doctorate is 12,907 euros more than those with only a bachelor's degree.

READ ALSO: Working in Germany: 7 factors that can affect how much you’re paid

In recent years, there have also been a number of scandals involving German politicians who have committed plagiarism to gain their doctoral titles.

To try to find out what lies behind Germany's fixation with the doctorate, we spoke to Christiane Schmeken, Strategy Director of DAAD German Academic Exchange Service.

The Local: Why do you think there are so many more doctoral students in Germany every year than in the rest of Europe?

Christiane Schmeken: This is mainly because a PhD is highly valued in Germany when it comes to professional careers outside academia. 

On the one hand, there are certain subjects in which a doctorate is not compulsory but still expected (especially medicine and chemistry). On the other hand, a doctorate also increases income and prestige in other subject areas.

Funsho Fakuade, PhD student "Molecular Pharmacology", sits at a microscope during the inauguration of the Heart Research Centre Göttingen (Lower Saxony) in 2017. Photo: picture alliance / Swen Pförtner/dpa | Swen Pförtner

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to boost your career chances in Germany

A second point is that in Germany, unlike in other countries, it is not mandatory to be enrolled at a university while doing a doctorate. Many doctoral students acquire their doctorate in this way, often over a longer period of time.

Why do you think so much value is placed on the doctorate in Germany? Are there particular historical factors that play a role in this?

Before the introduction of the Master's Degree (Magister) in 1957, there was no other degree for humanities students in Germany who did not want to become teachers, apart from the state examination and the doctorate. 

On the other hand, in many other countries, there has never been a time when studies could only be completed with a doctorate. In France, for example, 'La licence' (an equivalent to a bachelor's degree) has existed continuously since the Middle Ages, and the doctorate was always just reserved for those who aspired to an academic career.  

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Also, there remained some short-cuts to gaining a doctorate in Germany until the 1990s. For example, some humanities faculties allowed outstanding students to begin doctoral studies without a previous final exam until the 1980s. At the same time, the so-called "undergraduate doctorate" - in which only the doctorate was sought as a degree from the beginning of the course – was only abolished by most German universities in the 1990s.

A street sign with the inscription "Dr.-Helmut-Kohl-Street" in Loddin (Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania) in 2017. Photo: picture alliance / Stefan Sauer/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa | Stefan Sauer

Do you think this will change in the coming years?

Experience has also shown that doctorates have retained their importance in many fields - such as engineering - with higher starting salaries and promotion prospects for those with a doctoral degree. In fields like law, medicine and the humanities, professional standing in the field is also generally higher for those with a doctor title. 

In fields that are directly or indirectly related to higher education and science, a doctorate is still an important attribute, and it is more difficult to be accepted by university representatives without this title.

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In Germany, a total of 24,172 people were awarded doctorates in 1999, 27,711 in 2013, and 28,690 in 2019, so there is an upward trend in the number of people gaining doctorates.

READ ALSO: Essential German words to know as a student in Germany

Furthermore, the importance of the doctorate to this day is also shown by the numerous cases of plagiarism that have been uncovered in recent years, the most prominent representative being Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who faked a doctorate in order to be able to work better as a lobbyist in politics.

Have efforts been made to modernise the procedure for obtaining a doctorate in recent years?

Whereas doctoral students used to finance themselves mainly from scholarships or their own funds, there are now many more (paid) positions, and often part-time positions, available.

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The so-called cumulative dissertation also makes it possible to submit several smaller individual publications instead of the magnum opus, which is particularly attractive for those who are already working.

There is now also a strong trend towards a more formalised doctorate, so that doctoral researchers conduct research on related topics and regularly exchange ideas, and often also have a job at the institute. This strengthens the will to do a doctorate and reduces the number of dropouts.

Do you think there are certain professions or fields in Germany which you can only work in if you have a doctorate?

I don't think that there are any professions in Germany in which one can only work with a doctorate, but in many fields, you are more in demand with the title and can earn more. 

Ultimately, a doctorate is still seen as proof that someone can deal with a subject in depth and in a concentrated way and come up with their own original research results.

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