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Herr oder Frau Doktor

Falk Bretschneider, History PhD, EHESS

In Germany, where there is no "grande école" system like in France, the elites are primarily formed through doctoral training. As result, anywhere from 24,000 to 26,000 doctoral dissertations are defended each year. What are doctoral studies like in Germany and how do PhDs find their way onto the job market?

First of all, the title of "Doktor" has a high social status in Germany. It precedes a person's name and appears on all identification. It is virtually indispensable in order to attain a senior position in the professional world, not so much due to the skills that certifies, but for the renown and the seriousness it confers. However, although this title has maintained its social status, the conditions for obtaining it have changed little up to now. In fact, doctoral training remains a prerogative of universities – which therefore largely excludes graduates of Fachhochschulen, higher learning institutions mainly geared toward technical or applied knowledge and that have more business-oriented curricula. Given that higher education depends almost exclusively on the Länder, Germany has no specific legislation regarding the status of PhD candidates. Therefore, a thesis still often remains a matter between doctoral student and thesis advisor.

Old young PhDs
This gives rise to a number of problems. Although to some extent it is easy to become a PhD candidate in Germany, it is not at all easy to get a PhD. The wealth of foundations offers young doctoral students many funding opportunities. But as regards completion of the thesis, the situation is far from satisfactory. Depending on the estimate, the defense rate varies between 69% in chemistry and 9% in law and economics. Moreover, the average length of time it takes to complete a dissertation ranges between four years (mathematics) and seven years (human and social sciences). Once the young PhD graduates, the degree holder is often well into his or her 30s – an age considered too old for many private-sector recruiters.

Welcome to the private sector
Unfortunately, little is known about the career paths of young PhDs. A study published in 2001 showed that young German PhDs usually had a good chance of finding a job. This observation should, however, be qualified. First, professional integration depends, at least in the period immediately following graduation, on the discipline. For human and social science PhDs, the situation is not so easy. Many of them thus remain in academia, stringing along short-term teaching contracts until a rare tenure position comes along (usually reserved for professors).
Second, moving into the private sector is still worthwhile, because those who do not choose the academic route do much better. 10 years after receiving a degree, many more of them had attained a management position, whatever the discipline. Their salaries were moreover much higher than their colleagues who remain in academia waiting in vain for a professorship. The biggest risk, one might conclude, is thus not leaving the academic job market but remaining in it because only one-sixth of the PhDs managed to land the long-awaited professorial chair.