The curse of the obsession with doctorate degrees

February 5, 2013

Science Policy

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.

Too much of an academic club? Bestowing the doctorate degree at the Complutense University of Madrid. Photo via wikipedia

Too much of an academic club? Bestowing the doctorate degree at the Complutense University of Madrid. Photo via wikipedia

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.

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8 Comments on “The curse of the obsession with doctorate degrees”

  1. eugen axinte Says:

    Is one of the reasons that Germany is the leader of EU and Romania is what is….


    • Joerg Heber Says:


      Yes if course, having a mix of people with different degrees and experiences is important. Scientists in leading positions as is the case in Germany or China. But as I mentioned, some maybe feel to have to get the degree simply to advance the career. This then becomes a pointless exercise, especially if you feel the need to cheat.


  2. Ron Murphy Says:

    Hi Joerg,

    I agree. My degree specifically requires that I don’t use out of context.Though that doesn’t stop my mother telling her friends “He’s a doctor.” Sadly, after being immediately impressed by this her friends appear to be quite disappointed when they discover I’m not a proper (medical) doctor; and become quite dismissive when they learn that my degree is in computer science and not physics. “So, you fix computers then?” Which ranks me somewhere below surgeon, MD, vet, and probably below washing machine repair man since at least the latter has some utility.


    • Joseph J Jarfas Says:

      This reminds me of the – to me – general European ‘title huntig snobbishnes’ which even existed here in the good ol’ US of A. When I started work with a famous computer company 40+ years ago I received the title “Customer Engineer” – and I was fixing computers!:-) This was, I guess, to impress our customers.
      But many (European) countries I know of automatically give a ‘Dr.’ title for a law degree!? And the listing of titles – all over Europe – in front of names on letterheads, publications and even in job positions and descriptions imply the importance of any title as an ‘achievment’ for life.


  3. Manuel Bibes Says:

    Hi Joerg,

    In France, the situation is very different. Of course in academy and research, a PhD clearly represents an added value, but in the rest of the society, and notably in the industrial world, it may be detrimental to be a doctor. For some people in industry, having embarked on a PhD thesis after your university or engineering degree can mean that then you did not know what to do, or that you just did not have the guts to enter the “real” world… It is strange to see how two countries very similar in many respects can still have strong differences in others. Not to mention the quality of football midfield players ! Hopefully all this will change in the near future ;-)




  4. Kind Says:

    Hi Joerg,
    Interesting ideas. However, these ideas are completely wrong. The two politicians had to vacate their posts, because the credibility was gone. So it has nothing to do with the doctorate, but that the information in a font (here thesis) was incorrect and even more intellectual property was stolen from other people.


    • Joerg Heber Says:

      Hi there,
      well, I am not really concerned why the politicians had to leave office, but why they felt they had to obtain a doctoral thesis in the first place. So I am not even that interested in potential cheating. Take Guttenberg’s case. He already had a successful political career when he wrote the thesis, so the question is why there should be a need for an academic title in a career path where the original intention of having a doctorate plays not much of a role to begin with? Typically, elsewhere such titles are not that sought after by politicians…


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