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Doctoral degrees in Germany and PhDs.

Differences between the doctor title (Germany) and the PhD (English-speaking countries)

Doctoral degrees in Germany

In German-speaking countries, the term ‘Promotion’ refers to achieving a doctoral degree in a specific subject which is recognised by a doctoral degree certificate. This documents the ability of the person awarded the doctoral degree to conduct in-depth academic work.

A ‘doctoral degree in this sense is not structured programme of study with lectures and examinations but takes the form of independent academic research on a self-selected topic conducted under the mentorship of a supervising professor. The following doctoral degrees are awarded depending on the faculty and subject: Dr. phil., Dr. theol., Dr. rer. pol., Dr. jur., Dr. med., Dr. med. dent., Dr. rer. biol. hum., Dr. rer.nat. and Dr.-Ing.

Doctoral degrees consist of two parts:

  1. The dissertation which documents independent research
  2. The oral examination (also known as the ‘Rigorosum’ or ‘Disputation’).

People looking to study at this level and whose intention and suitability has been acknowledged by the Office of Doctoral Affairs at FAU are described as doctoral candidates (‘Doktoranden’, ‘Doktorandinnen’, ‘Promovierende’ in German). To be admitted to a doctoral degree, candidates need to hold a Master’s degree or an equivalent qualification. You cannot simply apply for admission to a doctoral degree. The path to a doctoral degree requires the student to FIRST find a supervisor AND a topic. Doctoral degrees at FAU can take the form of an individual doctoral degree programme or a structured doctoral degree programme (see below).

How to use the title

The doctoral title is written before the name, as in ‘Dr. Franziska Mustermann’, with the subject specification (such as .phil) often omitted.


In many english-speaking countries, doctoral studies are completed as a PhD (philosophiae doctor, Doctor of Philosophy). Unlike doctoral degrees in German-speaking countries (see above), PhD programmes often take the form of a specific study programme, the PhD programme, that requires the candidate to attend specific lectures and examinations and has a standard duration of three to five years (depending on the admission requirements, see below).

Despite the name, a PhD is usually not a doctorate in philosophy, but is the standard form of doctoral degree awarded for most subjects. The subject is normally appended to the title, e.g. ‘PhD in Economics’.

Obtaining a PhD In this case, there are three parts to the doctoral programme:

  1. Regular attendance of specialist courses and obtaining certain qualifications
  2. Writing an independent dissertation
  3. The oral examination ( known in Germany as the ‘Rigorosum’ or ‘Disputation’ and often referred to as the defence or viva in English-speaking countries).

In English-speaking countries, a PhD is the doctoral degree awarded in virtually all subjects and is the highest postgraduate qualification that can be obtained. Here, postgraduate study begins after students have obtained their Bachelor’s degrees. They start by studying for a Master’s degree and then decide whether to stop with the Master’s degree or carry on to obtain a PhD. Thus, assuming all requirements are met, they can pass readily from one phase to the next. To be admitted to a PhD programme, candidates require a Bachelor’s degree and usually also a Master’s degree or need to have successfully completed a four to five year Bachelor with Honours course with a cum laude distinction.

In general, PhD programmes that continue on from Master’s degree programmes involve a higher proportion of taught courses and seminars compared to the individual doctoral degree programmes that are the standard in Germany. In English-speaking countries, it usually takes five years to complete both the Master’s and PhD degree programmes.

The period of study following on from a Master’s degree required to obtain a PhD is similar to that of a structured doctoral degree programme at FAU, which is normally completed after three to four years. The shorter period of time required is due to the differences in the educational systems. In Germany, the specialisation courses that have to be attended to obtain a PhD are usually provided during the Master’s degree programmes. Therefore, it is possible to obtain a doctoral degree in Germany and at FAU through a shorter structured programme. This represents a viable alternative to the more common individual doctoral degree and is also fairly widespread.

How to use the title

The PhD title is written after the name, as in ‘Franziska Mustermann, PhD.’ In line with standard academic conventions, a PhD graduate is addressed as Dr. and the holder can also use the Dr. title before their name.

PhD and title ‘Dr.’

Holders of a PhD may carry the title ‘Dr.’ without any restrictions. However, US doctoral degrees must have been awarded by one of the universities listed in the Carnegie Classification . Researchers who have been awarded a doctoral degree in Australia, Israel, Canada or Russia may only carry the German title ‘Dr.’ with an addition.