Finance: Research, Policy and Anecdotes

The German obsession with titles and academic rules

For the first time in post-World War II Germany, three parties have put forward candidates to be the next chancellor that have a serious chance of also taking over this position from Angela Merkel this fall. The candidate that has drawn most attention so far is Annalena Baerbock, not only because she could be the first Green chancellor of Germany, but also because of her rather young age. As any candidate for high political office, she has also drawn more scrutiny to her biography – so far, so good and understandable. Where this has become very German is when commentators started to focus on her educational achievements.  Unlike other leading German politicians she has not been accused of plagiarising her PhD thesis, rather that she went to study for a Master of Public International Law (LLM) at the London School of Economics without first having obtained an undergraduate degree (non-existing at this time in Germany) or the traditional Diplom. Nobody has doubted that her admission and her degree (with distinction) have been obtained legitimately. And she certainly is not pretending to be a professional lawyer, i.e., having passed the German equivalent to the bar. What critics have been focusing on is her unusual educational path, combining studies in Germany and the UK and the fact that she has not followed the conventional and traditional German academic path (to get a flavour of how upset this makes some people, see the comments on this website - though all in German).


Behind this seems to lurk the German antipathy against any non-German academic degrees. I cannot call myself Dr. in Germany, as my PhD is from outside the European Union. Actually, until some years ago, anyone with a doctoral degree from outside Germany was not allowed to use that title in Germany  (with penalty of up to one year in prision)– a law going back to the 1930s.  While it might seem like a protection against lower-qualification-degrees from abroad, one can also see it as an entry barrier (though this barrier has reduced significantly). Any short-cuts must be wrong. Anyone who has not gone through the formal procedures and done his or her academic duties must be an impostor.


This contrasts a lot with my own experience outside Germany – at my PhD defence in Virginia, my main supervisor told my second and third supervisors: “Thorsten has a job lined up, he has written three papers; let us give him the degree, so he can go out and prove himself.” And that’s what I did. It is only when I change jobs that I have to take out my PhD certificate to prove that I really have this title.   At the World Bank (as in other international financial institutions), doctor titles are not used (unless medical doctor), so it was not until I joined academia in Europe that I encountered the practice of using doctor and professor titles. Unfortunately, too often these titles seem more important than the actual academic or professional achievements. Too often, academic degrees seem an objective in themselves rather than a starting point.  Too often, the question is asked by prospective students: how much more can I earn if I get a PhD?, rather than asking: would I be more successful in a certain job or profession if I have a PhD?


Turning back to the political campaign in Germany, the saddest part about this focus is that it takes away from the real discussions that should be had: is Annalena Baerbock qualified to be chancellor, what are her and her party’s policies? This is what this electoral campaign should be about, not about the way she has been obtaining her education.