If a doctorate is overrated


People, society and science

One academic scandal is currently following another. Examination of dissertations brings to light questionable conditions in scientific education. For me the answer is: Get rid of the archaic doctoral system!

Many see a doctorate as a necessary step in academic training, as proof of the ability to do one's own academic work. Once the dry spell, which in many cases has lasted for several years, is behind you, some feel wrongly rewarded with the acquisition of a "doctorate". In Germany, however, titles are - with a few obscure exceptions - awarded by the Federal President. What you acquire with the completion of the doctoral procedure is, correctly expressed, an academic degree, i.e. in principle nothing other than a Magister, Master or Diploma.

The confusion is supported by the fact that in Germany you can have your doctoral degree entered in your ID card by law (cf. § 5 (2) 3. and § 9 (3)) - a law whose abolition has already been discussed in the Bundestag. From then on some believe them were called now actually "Mr." or "Mrs. Doctor Anyway". They confuse the fact that a doctoral degree is an addition to a name and not part of a name. If it were part of the name, no law would be required to include it in the ID card, because the name is already there.

The way of approaching others with a doctorate degree, which is widespread in certain circles, is pure politeness. There is no legal entitlement to this - with a few exceptions under labor law known to me, for example when issuing a job reference - when dealing with one another. In principle there is no reason to address someone as a “doctor”, but not someone else as a “master's degree” or “master baker”. In fact, it was still common in the past to address people with their position (“Herr Studienrat”) or their level of education (“Frau Magister”). Incidentally, the latter is still widespread in Austria. I am for courtesy in dealing with one another, but then please for all people equally and not just for doctors.

In some cases, the confusion goes so far that some academics invent their own doctorate degree. I am referring to the so-called “Dr. des. “: Unusual internationally, but a strict obligation in Germany, is the publication of the doctoral thesis at the end of the doctoral procedure. This means that you do not receive the certificate when you pass the examination, but only with proof of publication - which in some cases can take years - and you are therefore allowed to use the doctoral degree. This especially German intermediate state is unsatisfactory for some, after all, the work has already been done and passed, even a grade, but no certificate. Therefore, some academics have come up with their own doctoral degree for this, the Doctor designatus (abbreviated as "Dr. des."), for example to appear as a doctorate when applying for a job. Experts make fun of this invention, and the self-proclaimed doctors are even punishable by law (Section 132a (1) 1. StGB), unless the doctoral regulations expressly allow them to use this degree.

Away with the dependency system!

In the reporting on the most recent cases of fraud, not only are existing misunderstandings - like the thing with the titles - cemented, but fundamental problems of the doctoral system in Germany are also ignored. In contrast to other countries, the doctoral candidate is dependent on the supervisor from start to finish. This means that the person who has accompanied the work over the years will ultimately also judge it - in other words, not only about the finished scientific work, but also about the result of his own supervision; and who wants to give themselves a bad grade?

Of course, arbitrariness should also be avoided in Germany by consulting additional expert opinions. However, if you have some experience with committee work, you know that you can already determine the result to a certain extent by selecting experts. Ideally, those people who are known to support your own opinion are chosen. As a colleague from Great Britain or a friend from Australia told me, there are separate care and assessment: those who distribute the grades at the end were not involved in the process beforehand. If a doctoral thesis is to be awarded with distinction in the Netherlands (here simply “cum laude”, which is “good” in Germany at the moment), another committee must confirm this opinion in addition to the first assessment committee.

The perhaps more personal supervisory relationship in Germany does not always have to be bad. I do not deny that there is support that deserves this name and that for some people the doctoral period is the best of their lives. However, I know numerous examples of people who have had bad experiences during this time. In representative surveys, for example by HIS GmbH, poor support is actually the most common reason for dropping out. Scandal cases like the one at Guttenberg make it clear that the isolated doctoral supervision in Germany also goes hand in hand with the risk of not only getting through a largely written-off work, but even of receiving it with distinction in the end.

In the case of employment as a research assistant, the dependency is even doubled. Here you are not only facing a boss who tells you what to do, but also the person who ultimately bears the doctoral degree. Anyone who has some expertise about the human psyche, for example acquired through historical study, knows that dependency and power are often exploited. Since a career in today's academic system cannot go on without a doctoral degree, professors have a lot of leeway here - because in an emergency, the doctoral student is left with a change of supervisor and thus a career-damaging loss of time (for an illustrative example at a higher level, see also the Report from plagiarism professors and other "individual cases" by my Kobloggerin Trota).

What is all this for? Many would probably reply that demonstrating the ability to do scientific research independently. In my experience, the doctoral degree only plays a formal role - something that you have to have on the way. Instead, to check academic qualifications, the résumé is looked at: what has someone already published, organized, where has he or she got involved and so on. I think the academic world would do itself a favor by saying goodbye to the archaic doctoral system, which is also prone to abuse and deception. The decisive factor would then not be what someone calls himself, but what someone has achieved.

The discussions here are free and are generally not moderated. Treat each other respectfully, orientate yourself on the topic of the blog posts and avoid repetitions or monologues. When exchanging ideas, things can get hot, but not be offensive, and above all never go below the belt. Stephan Schleim is a studied philosopher, psychologist and doctorate in cognitive science. He has been at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands since 2009, currently as Associate Professor of Theory and History of Psychology. The author also writes for numerous other media.