Today the University of Düsseldorf in Germany has revoked the doctorate of the German Federal Minister of Education and Research, Annette Schavan, following accusations of plagiarism. She denies the accusations and has announced to continue the fight for her degree in court. This is the second case in two years of a German federal minister losing their doctorate based on accusations of plagiarism, the other being Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the former Minister of Defence.
I don’t want to comment on these specific cases, but focus on the broader issues here. To me these cases are a reminder that in some countries (such as Germany…) doctorate degrees mean far too much, and in some cases are sought after also because they give considerable social recognition. They are used to advance careers in completely unrelated careers, and in this way create entrance barriers based on unnecessary criteria. This is very wrong.
At its core, the doctorate is a qualification that allows to teach at universities. As a qualification for an academic career, in the context of scientific research it has its uses. Ideally, it shows that a candidate is able to conduct a research project independently, making their own independent scientific contribution to a research field.
However, beyond the world of academia it just doesn’t make sense to put too much emphasis on a doctorate. In Germany it is even common practice to include the doctorate in the passport, as part of the name. Why?
Sure, getting a doctorate is a great accomplishment that usually follows after several years of hard work and a lot of sweat and tears. But people in other careers also work hard. So why the desire for going through a doctorate without the intention of ever working in research? For example, neither Schavan nor Guttenberg, as far as I am aware, held any notable academic position at university after they obtained their PhDs. Indeed, Guttenberg then already was a member of parliament.
Sure, people always change their mind and leave academia, given the difficulty of pursuing a career for young researchers. However,obtaining a doctorate to advance a career outside research (whether in academia or industrial research) to my mind is not only unnecessary, but also creates a glass ceiling for those without. But why should a doctorate make any difference to someone’s skills as a politician?
The sooner we limit the career benefits of a PhD to academia and related careers, the better. It will remove unnecessary entrance barriers to other professions, and will allow people to focus on the actual qualifications needed for their careers.