'Promotion', PhD and MD

Differences between 'Promotion' (Germany), PhD (English-speaking countries) and MD.

Globalisation means that we are increasingly coming across various titles in an academic context. We have therefore listed the three most common titles and explained the differences between them below.

A doctorate in Germany, known as ‘Promotion’

In German-speaking countries, the term ‘Promotion’ refers to achieving a doctoral degree in a specific subject and the right to use the term ‘Dr.’, confirmed by a doctoral degree certificate. It documents the ability of the person awarded the doctoral degree to conduct in-depth academic work.

In this case, a doctoral degree is achieved not via a structured programme of study with lectures and examinations but takes the form of independent academic research on a topic chosen by the doctoral candidate and conducted under the mentorship of a supervising professor. The following doctoral degrees are awarded at FAU 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.

These doctoral degrees consist of two parts:

  1. The doctoral thesis which documents independent research
  2. The oral examination (known in Germany as the ‘Rigorosum’ or ‘Disputation’ and often referred to as the defence or viva in English-speaking countries).

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 apply for admission to a doctoral degree at a central office. The path to a doctoral degree requires the candidate to first find a supervisor AND a topic. Doctoral degrees at FAU can take the form of an individual doctoral degree 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 countries, and in English-speaking countries in particular, doctoral studies are completed as a PhD (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). In Bavaria, you have to study a formalised course of studies to achieve a PhD. You cannot study for a PhD at FAU.

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’.

A PhD consists of three parts:

  1. Attending specialist courses on a regular basis and acquiring specialist skills
  2. Writing a doctoral thesis on independent academic research
  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. In these countries, postgraduate study begins after students have obtained their Bachelor’s degree. After completing a Bachelor’s degree programme, students can choose to study for a Master’s degree, before then deciding whether to stop after completing their Master’s degree or to carry on and obtain a PhD. Providing admission requirements are met, students can move on smoothly from one stage 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 degrees that are the standard in Germany. In English-speaking countries, it usually takes at least five years to complete the consecutive 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 in Germany 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 already included in 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.

Holders of a PhD may carry the title ‘Dr.’ without any restrictions. However, for doctoral degrees gained in the USA, the university at which the title was obtained must be on one of the two Carnegie lists ‘Doctoral Universities – Highest activity’ and ‘Doctoral Universities – Higher research activity’. Researchers who have been awarded a doctoral degree in Australia, Israel, Canada or Russia may only carry the German title ‘Dr.’ with an addition.

The statement of the Max-Planck Society provides a good summary of the topic.

Whether the ‘Dr.’ title can be used with an international doctoral degree in Germany or if a doctoral degree gained in Germany can use the title commonly used in the other country depends on whether both countries have an equivalency agreement. The ANABIN database from the Central Office for Foreign Education is a useful place to start researching.


The title MD (Doctor of Medicine) is an academic degree title, which is referred to as a professional degree in some countries. Professional degrees are doctoral degrees that are awarded, for example, in the USA, Austria and in some other countries on completion of a degree programme without a thesis. This is not common practice in Germany. In the USA, the title of MD is awarded as a degree qualifying the holder for the medical profession (professional degree) after completion of a degree (exam) without an additional thesis.

Professional degrees cannot be equated with the more research-based doctoral degree (Dr.). Professional degrees such as these are roughly equivalent to the Staatsexamen (state examination) in medicine. The holder of a professional degree in medicine may only use the title in the original form in which it was granted. The title Dr., Dr. med., or any other alternative German translation may not be used as the holder has not completed a doctoral thesis.

How to use the title

The MD title is written after the name, as in ‘Franziska Mustermann, MD.’