More doctorates are being awarded in Germany than ever before - but quality is falling by the wayside.
© Dmitry Kalinovsky - 123rf.comTo all intents and purposes, it shouldn't be hard to answer this question. How many people in Germany are sitting on a doctoral thesis? Yet the German Federal Statistical Office, which appears to measure everything from the annual wood harvest to beer sales, waves the question aside with the assertion that statistics for doctoral students are "not a statutory requirement". And even those who ought to know - the professors and university rectors - only give a vague answer: "There must be very, very many." For a long time, these astounding knowledge gaps hardly seemed to bother anyone, even those in the academic establishment. But since the Guttenberg affair shook the country, unease and mistrust of academic qualifications, which for many still represent the apogee of education and scholarship, have been growing. How can it be that the people who award the title cannot even say how many people want it? The official statistics can at least say how many doctoral students ultimately successfully complete their dissertation: around 25,000 in Germany in 2009. This corresponds to around three percent of a year group - the highest in the world. "Anyone who wants to be seen as successful these days needs a doctorate," says Jan-Hendrik Olbertz, President of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. He speaks of a "reflex for general levelling in our society".
A medical dissertation can be done in half a yearThe approach used to be different. The dissertation should represent the peak achievement in the life of a young academic. Especially in the humanities, the consummation of the much quoted "Humboldtian ideal" of free and solitary research should be the privilege of devoting oneself to a subject one cares about passionately independently of economic considerations - in dialogue solely with one's doctoral thesis supervisor who oversees everything. The goal: a life in and for academia. However, the doctorate (which, strictly speaking and contrary to popular linguistic usage, is not a title) has long been a mass-produced item. The extent to which it has lost its value is shown by the failure rate of less than one percent and the fact that "magna cum laude" has become almost the standard grade - not a sign of rigorous quality control. How could things have gone this far? Why do so many Germans want the title of Doctor? And what do the two letters in front of the name count for nowadays?
It is obvious why someone who wants to start an academic career aspires to a doctoral thesis after their Bachelor's and Master's theses. The dissertation proves that the candidate is able to perform academic work independently, and is the first step to a professorship. Yet the universities only have places for very few. Professorship positions, 40,000 in total, number less than two year groups of doctoral students. The rest of the doctors need to look for work outside the university. Some industries do indeed value this academic qualification gained through research. In other industries, the academic qualification is attractive because it promises a monetary advantage, or at least intellectual kudos. "The best thing to do would be to remove the titles from the business cards and door signs," says elite researcher Michael Hartmann from Darmstadt. "Then the only people wanting to study for a doctorate would be those for whom it has real academic value."
Medicine is still the subject where the most doctoral theses are written, around 7,700 in 2009. Eighty percent of medical practitioners have a doctorate, but the rest are also referred to as Doctor by respectful patients. The Doctor title in its original form, i.e. as the title of a medical practitioner, is really a "professional title", as the biochemist Ulrike Beisiegel who recently became President of the University of Göttingen points out. The medical dissertation is little more than a final study assignment and is not written after the course of study, as in other subjects, but mostly during it. Some medical practitioners of course undertake thorough research in which they explore a subject in depth for several years, but many spend no longer than half a year on their doctoral thesis. The doctorate therefore says little about the research achievements or medical qualifications of a medical practitioner. However, for someone who wishes to perform research as a natural scientist in a chemical or pharmaceutical company, a doctorate shows that he or she can perform experiments independently. He or she has spent at least three years in the laboratory. In this field, the doctorate demonstrates scientific rigour and academic maturity. "I am proud of my title," says Elisabeth Kapatsina, Training Coordinator at the German Chemical Society (GDCh), "because I value all the work I put into it."
There is yet another reason why 86 percent of chemistry students want to gain a doctorate, as a study by the Verband angestellter Akademiker und leitender Angestellter der Chemischen Industrie (Society of Academic and Management Employees in the Chemical Industry) shows: large companies require the qualification as a condition of employment. "In general, you can only start working as a laboratory manager in the industry if you are a Doctor," says Elisabeth Kapatsina. The corresponding positions are advertised to people with doctorates from the outset. Their prior academic achievement is also suitably financially rewarded: the difference between the annual starting salaries of a chemist with a doctorate and a chemist without one is around Euro 10,000. A doctorate is equally useful for a career in the humanities, for those who want to work in the sought-after guild professions and end up in museums, specialist publishing companies, archives or management positions. Here too, a high level of academic education is required, as demonstrated by a dissertation of 300 to 500 pages. No one goes to that much trouble unless they are academically committed, says Nora Helmli, Managing Director of the Verband der Historiker und Historikerinnen Deutschlands. While in these cases the desire to research is combined with enjoying the kudos of the letters in front of one's name, in other industries the career is the primary motivation. Around 1,200 economists and 1,600 legal specialists gained doctorates in 2009. Out of these, the majority did not remain at university, says Ekkehart Schäfer, Vice President of the Bundesrechtsanwaltskammer (German Federal Bar).
A doctorate is a frequent requirement in the job advertisements for the major chambers. In banks and management consultancy firms too, it affirms the "high potential" image. The title may not make a better lawyer, says Schäfer, and for good client relations, research ability is irrelevant, but naturally it still has a certain impact. "The Doctor title radiates an aura of seriousness and therefore also has a certain marketing effect," says sociologist Michael Hartmann. The academic value, however, is next to nothing. Why do the universities have anything to do with it? The answer is depressing. For many professors and faculties, doctoral students are synonymous with personal power and economic gain. The result is that, especially in the humanities, the number of so-called "external doctoral students" is high. Like Guttenberg, they write their doctoral thesis alongside their job and family duties, are self-financing and almost always have no plans for an academic future. Whether they take ten years to do it or tire of it in the end and give up is something that many professors take very little interest in.
What counts is the external image. The more doctoral students a professor takes under his wing, the more respected he is among his colleagues. He can also hope for better funding of his academic chair, explains Hartmann. "The number of doctoral students is therefore increasing due to financial interests." It is a lucrative cycle. The more doctoral students work for a professor, the more research projects he can start. With these, he can apply for more money from outside and employ even more doctoral students as assistants. Very few professors lose sleep over the fact that most of these academic dogsbodies have no professional future within the university. Doctoral students are grown-ups and they should know what they're doing, is the general consensus. But is that enough? The Guttenberg affair showed that the universities ought to do something too, says Andreas Keller of the GEW Union for Education and Science. HU President Olbertz puts it like this: "Not every doctorate has to culminate in an academic career, but every doctoral thesis must be written and assessed according to precisely this standard." If this kind of academic rigour was imposed, the problem of half-cooked dissertations written with the sole aim of furthering the writer's career would be automatically taken care of.
"Academia should be grateful to Guttenberg"The weapon for reversing the trend has long been in the universities' arsenals. It is called "structured doctorates". This is a system whereby individual professors are in future no longer at liberty to decide, according to their own personal preferences and barely transparent criteria, who to admit to doctoral studies. "The relationship of dependency between the doctoral student and the doctoral thesis supervisor has become obsolete," says Keller. Objective and demanding selection processes, as already practised today at graduate schools, must become the rule instead. The assessment of work must no longer be left primarily up to the doctoral thesis supervisor. And in the event of cheating, consequences must ensue immediately and without hesitation. It is evident that all this involves a much greater supervision workload for the universities. "We have enough intelligent young people, and we have an urgent need for first-class young academics," says the President of the German Rectors' Conference (HRK), Margret Wintermantel. "What we don't have is money to integrate them into the necessary structures." Which, conversely, also means that, as long as no money is available for this, more quality in the education of doctoral students is synonymous with less quantity. Once the heat from the Guttenberg affair dies down, the next move will be up to the universities and academic policy-makers. "Actually, we should be grateful to Guttenberg," says Jan-Hendrik Olbertz. "His misconduct has launched a social debate about the quality of academic achievements that we should have had a long time ago - and academia was evidently not able to launch this discussion itself."
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