Received My Degree Certificate

Doctor At Last: Title, Prestige and Ettiquette

What does a doctorate mean in Germany? How should it be displayed?

Well, after some years, I am finally legally allowed to call myself a doctor. I came close to titling this post “Doctor No More”, just as a reference to that awesome quote by the war doctor in Doctor Who. But that would have been a bad case of style over substance. “M.Sc. No More” could have been an alternative and still inaccurate choice. But enough of that.

The Title

Talking about the title, this is exclusively a post about the title. The doctor title. Which every knowledgeable person in Germany keeps on insisting actually is not a title but an academic degree. Surprisingly, the degree certificate literally states that it

awards the title and honor of a Doktors der Ingenieurwissenschaften (Dr.-Ing.).

Probably it should state that it awards the title (in a non-legal sense) and honor of X in order to satisfy connaisseurs and angry newspaper article commentators.

Sorry if the denglish looks a bit strange, but that’s what the English part of the bilingual certificate states as they do not translate Dr.-Ing. given that it is not literally a PhD but a PhD equivalent.

And if there is one thing I have learned about the title/degree/whatever, then it is that nitpicking-proof accurateness is important. For instance, accurateness with respect to what you call yourself. If you have been awarded the degree Ph.D. abroad, you cannot call yourself Dr. in Germany without having German authorities recognize the degree as an equivalent. If you passed the defense, but you have not received the certificate yet, you cannot make use of the title either. In Germany, consequences are serious, that is, you may go to jail for up to one year. The idea is that the felony is similar to wearing a police uniform without being a police officer. Surprisingly, it is also the same as if you are wearing a uniform of the German Red Cross. I never thought the latter would be punishable so harshly.

The Prestige

But now that you have gotten the title, what is it that you have received? Translated literally from Latin, doctor means “teacher”, that is, it means that somebody has acquired enough knowledge on a subject such that he can act as a teacher to others. In contrast, from what I have heard from my international friends, in their home countries doctor predominantly means “somebody who did not find a real job after his studies”. Well, that is less flattering, despite this surely is a motivation for Germans to pursue a PhD as well.

In Germany, a doctorate is still reputable, despite the prestige coming with it has severly declined in recent years. I am not quite sure, why Germans have the doctor in higher regards than other countries. My feeling is that in Germany, scholarship is surrounded by a certain romantic aura. Goethe’s greatest protagonist Faust was a tragic scholar who lived his life for science just to realize at the beginning of the play that all his efforts to come closer to the truth have been in vain. Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World celebrates two great scholars in the era of enlightenment which could not be more different from one another and which both had a lasting impact on the image of scholars. Even the depiction of a mad scientist goes back to a German movie (although Victor Frankenstein, also German, can be considered the origin of the archetype). Or is the prestige a remnant of wealth of university teachers in earlier times when students paid lecture fees directly to their professors and after each lecture?

Well, one problem with the doctorate is that some do not pursue a PhD in Germany because of their scientific interest in a subject or because it seems the best option if they cannot find work in their field in industry. Particularly politicians often undergo half-hearted PhD programs (our chancellor may be an exception) for earning a title that makes them appear more knowledgeable and credible. Although we should all be aware that a person with highly domain-specific knowledge and achievements is very well capable of producing unknowledgeable and incredible statements (inecredible as in “I cannot believe he would utter that in public”). The most famous case of a politician stumbling over his thesis is that of former minister of defense Karl-Theodor Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg (who you would expect has enough nobility titles already). He had to step back over a scandal involving his thesis which was not only rich in pages but also rich in plagiarism. A green party member saw this as a chance to finally put the doctor title back into its academic position and have the possibility erased to put it onto your id card.

The Etiquette

Yes, that’s right, in Germany you can put the title onto your id card. And you can still do that as the aforementioned politician did not succeed (maybe a cucumber time proposal). Furthermore, people may be addressed as “Herr/Frau Dr. X” and some people use the title as if it belonged to their full name (be it in their signature or at their door bell).

Still, as mentioned the prestige has declined thanks to some famous offenders. Although the medical doctorate (Dr.med.) appears to be affected far less than it should be (it is not even recognized as a PhD equivalent by the European Research Council).

All of this may be a reason why recent graduates feel that prominent display of the title is not considered good taste. Stating the title in an social self-introduction or when answering the phone is too much. The latter may only be acceptable, if it serves a purpose, for instance, in a hospital when a medical doctor answers the phone. Entering “Dr. FirstName” into the field for first name at LinkedIn just because there is no field for it but you want to show it off anyway? Dangerous levels of too-much-ness have been reached!

From what I have gathered, it is okay to make use of the title in written form (particularly the more formal the occasion). Maybe your business card, door bell if you must and that’s it. Lucky me, Bloomberg as an American company is so anti-title that they do not even put my job title on my business card.

I guess, if you want to make full use of the degree you earned, you have to migrate to Austria. A country which still suffers from a post Danube monarchy syndrome and where title usage is so prevalent that even spouses of people with lower academic degrees than the doctor are addressed as “Frau Doktor” or “Frau insert-title-here” (I would change it to Herr/Frau, but I think this does not apply to husbands).

I am reminiscing about the thesis itself in a the next post.

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