The culture that is German, a continuing series

Economic protectionism, linguistic protectionism, status protectionism, or all three?:

Americans with PhDs beware: Telling people in Germany that you’re a doctor could land you in jail.  At least seven U.S. citizens working as researchers in Germany have faced criminal probes in recent months for using the title "Dr." on their business cards, Web sites and resumes. They all hold doctoral degrees from elite universities back home…Violators can face a year behind bars.

Here is the full story.  And get this: "A male faculty member with two PhDs can fully expect to be called "Herr Professor Dr. Dr. Schmidt," for example."

Update: They just changed the law.  I guess I should have titled this post "The earthquake that is Germany," etc.  Sadly there is no medium for telling The Washington Post that their front page story this morning is wrong but of course we have a very keen reader willing to leave comments.


When I attended a German university for a semester, I was very, very careful about using the correct title. Addressing my emails with "Sehr geehrter Herr Professor Doktor So & So" made me feel like I was announcing the arrival of a king to court, however.

Of course, academics in Germany go to school much longer for their degrees (compared to their American counterparts) and for virtually no financial premium, so that allows me some sythmpathy for their salutory sticklerism.

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"Herr Professor Dr. Dr. Jingleheimer Schmidt,
His name is my name too...."

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Strange that those who get a PhD but go to work for industry or a pure research academic position (often called "research associate" or "research scientist") are entitled ( intended) to neither "professor" nor "doctor".

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As a German with a Ph.D. from an American university I know this problem. But fortunately, just this week, this regulation has been changed! One can now use the title Ph.D. See this article (in German).

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Silly me, all this time I thought Herr Professor Dr. Dr. Schmidt was Siamese twins.

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Here is the full story. And get this: "A male faculty member with two PhDs can fully expect to be called "Herr Professor Dr. Dr. Schmidt," for example."

So *that's* what the Thompson Twins were singing about!

...can't you see I'm burning, burning.

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I think the whole idea of mandatory honorifics (which sounds like a portmanteau of "honor" and "terrific") is patently absurd. Authority should always be questioned and never automatically deferred to, which is what mandatorily recognizing someone for their degree(s) multiple times amounts to.

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Same ridiculous custom in my homecountry of Austria, though I'm not sure if there's a similar law there as well. Anyway, this even goes beyond doctoral and professoral titles. Masters titles also give you the right to use "Mag." in front of your name, plus there are some technical degrees such as "Dipl. Ing." for certain types of engineering degrees, among others. So if you have multiple titles you may combine them at will. I've met people with 6 masters degrees, and 2 or 3 doctorate degrees. Conveniently, they sometimes use the abbreviation "DDr." or "Mmag." to denote their multiple degrees. It gets really pedantic. Especially when you consider that at least in Economics, it usually takes two or three years of work in Germany/Austria, while American PhDs require at least four years and are usually more demanding in other ways too. I believe all of this has some form of monarchical roots.

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Maybe it's necessary to mention that monsters like "Herr Professor Dr. Dr. Schmidt" usually are limited to formal letters. That doesn't make them less funny in the view of Non-Germans or Non-Austrians, though.

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While we're at it, why not another anecdote from The Land of Poets and Thinkers:

A friend of mine once met a few friends of her colleague's and one of them intoduced himself as "(name), lawyer"

To which she, quite cleverly, replied: "(name), Dipl.-soz, Dipl.-crim."

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I doubt if much of the Germen academic world was aware that foreign degrees were not supposed to count. For example, a secretary specialising in protocol once asked me - in excellent English - if I should be introduced at an academic conference in Munich as Herr Professor Doktor or as Herr Professor Doktor Doktor. She was completely nonplussed when I insisted that I was neither Professor nor Doktor, though she was aware that it was almost my first trip to Germany.

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A perhaps apocryphal story relates that an American consultant who helped people set up American corporations received a request from a German company for a corporate name in the form "XYZ Corporation Doctor". He set it up but asked a German friend why in the world anyone would want such a funny name for his company. The friend said this was not unusual. The head of the company probably did not have a doctoral degree but wanted to be able to answer the phone by saying, if his name was, say, Johann Schmidt, "XYZ Corporation Doctor ..." slight pause "Johann Schmidt" so that callers would think he had a doctoral degree. Note that he didn't try this in Germany.

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I don't think the Post story is wrong. It refers at the end to the same decision by state education ministers that the story from Die Zeit is talking about; it just describes it as a recommendation (to the Bundestag, I guess), not the final word.

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My friend who recently completed his law degree (in the United States) recently changed his e-mail signature to "Name, Esquire". When I mocked him mercilessly about it, he had no idea why anybody would consider it funny.

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All countries' norms are pretty weird from the point of view of outsiders.

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"Being German, I don't understand what's so funny about that [a male faculty member with two PhDs can fully expect to be called "Herr Professor Dr. Dr. Schmidt]."

Hmm, I wonder if a German would find it funny if an American practitioner of polyandry decided to call herself "Mrs. Mrs. Jones."

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"I'd say the use of "Dr." is reversed in the U.S.
“There are so many second rate degrees (eg, in the social sciences) and second rate "universities" in the U.S.that about the only people I meet using the title "Dr."are glib but otherwise have no more abilities than a high school graduate."

I can understand a German (or someone who identifies with Germans) being touchy when others make fun of their society --- which is exactly what the tone of the Washington Post article amounted to; nothing more. But the poster of this comment reveals way too much surging indignation, not to mention a noticeable lack of humor . . . which seems, from my own experience studying in Germany in the 1960s, to be a widespread national trait, alas. Unless, that is, you find some Germans who have drunk lots of beer or schnapps and engage in silly half-inebriated jokes that often involve anal references.


That said, let me drop my sense of humor and note two or three problems with the poster's comments:

1) The average German university student gets his first degree at roughly the age of 29 (and it is still rising). Not because the undergraduate curriculum is demanding: it isn't, not by the standards of the University of California where I am an emeritus professor --- just the contrary. Rather, because professors ramble on who aren't particularly well-trained in too many cases, because students don't read a great deal (they memorize lecutres), because libraries are very inadequately financed, and because classrooms are inadequate to the demand. But above all, because there aren't lots of jobs in most fields, and the welfare state keeps first-degree students nicely subsidized as a form of "outdoor relief".

Not to forget that, over time --- as is a trend in the rest of the EU --- the once legendary German work ethos has collapsed, and students just don't work steadily and diligently on their studies.

2) In that recent comparative study put out by a Singapore professor who ranked universities around the world in research prowess, the first German university to appear on the list was listed as no. 45. Virtually all the universities were American (a handful, to the British credit, were in that country). A different updated study --- published in 2006 --- didn't rank a French university in the top 100 worldwide!)

3) The problems that beset German universities are particularly vivid in research areas of the social sciences and natural sciences as well as mathematics. One example: back in the late 1980s, the most famous young German mathematician, who had a Ph.D. from Princeton, was lavishly funded to start a new department at a fairly new German university. After two or three years, he resigned: he said it was hopeless to find world-class German mathematicians for his department and decided to take a tenured post at Princeton, where, he said, each and every professor was among the top 5 or 10 mathematicians in their specialities.

If I remember, his name is Gert Faltings, and he won the most prestigious math prize of all --- the Fields medal --- not long after he took his Princeton post.

If you look at the Fields prize-winners --- the honor is awarded every 4 years --- you will find not only lots of American names the last 40 o5r 50 years, but to their credit lots of British and French mathematicians.


One other example, this time in chemistry . . . a field in which, earlier in the 20th century, the Germans were the major research innovators. The paucity of first-rate German chemists led the German chemicals industry to transfer virtually all their research facilities to US institutes and universities in the 1980s and 1990s.

Not surprisingly, come to that as a tack-on observation, German has had a big shortage of IT specialists. A few years ago, earlier in this decade, German university associations and unions were up in arms, indignantly opposed to letting the German government give residency to 15,000 or so Indians fully qualified to fill those posts. What! Give the posts to those inferior foreigners?

4)Bad as the standards are in many US high schools these days --- mainly due to drawing in urban areas from inner-city populations and immigrants from Latin America (the drop-out high school rate in L.A. alone is 60% for Hispanics and 55% for blacks) --- German high school students earlier in this decade were way below American students in their reading comprehension, a finding brought out in a wide-ranging exam administered in dozens of countries. Der Spiegel, the weekly pulpit of politically correct hokum for the educated classes in Germany (it specializes in virulent anti-Americanism and hatred of the Israelis, with veiled anti-Semitism to boot), featured a cover story that was entitled, "Are German Kids Idiots?"

American high-school students who live in the states near or bordering Canada score in mathematics and sciences at roughly Korean and Japanese and Singapore levels.


As I say, just some ruminations off-the-cuff in reply to the hoked-up, humorless edgy indignation expressed by the poster. Our educational system is riddled with problems, especially below the university level. The same is true of all the European systems, especially now that they too are experiencing a rapid population growth among under-18 of Muslim and African immigrants.

-- Michael Gordon,
the buggy professor:

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'Hmm, I wonder if a German would find it funny if an American practitioner of polyandry decided to call herself "Mrs. Mrs. Jones."'

I rather like it.

Seriously, it seems that the cultural difference here is that Americans see "Dr." mainly as a way of addressing people (like Mrs.), while Germans put the emphasis on it being the name of a title. So, in Germany, calling someone with two Ph.D.'s "Dr. Dr." is like calling a two-time world cup winner "two-time world cup winner" rather than just "world cup winner".

By the way, in Germany, Dr. is officially a part of the name, so calling someone with two doctorates only "Dr." is probably formally incorrect.

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Ahem, Michael (or should I say Dr. Gordon?),

could it be you're offtopic?

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For rehabilitation a quote aboute the affair from German newspaper "Der Spiegel"Polizei und Behörden sind in Thüringen nicht von sich aus aktiv geworden, vielmehr steckt hinter dem Ganzen nach Erkenntnissen der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft ein frustrierter Mensch mit ausländischem Doktortitel, der sich in Deutschland eben nicht Dr. nennen darf. Aus Rache überzieht er Max-Planck-Direktoren mit Anzeigen - und trifft dabei auf willige Beamte.

(somewhat buggy) Translation: Police and public authorities did not initiate the process. Rather, according to findings of the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, a frustrated individual with a foreign degree is behind the actions. This individual, who is not allowed to call himself "Doktor" sues the directors of the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft out of revenge. His lawsuits are met by willing public officials.

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One thing that really surprises me about the WP article is the brief note that the investigation started because of an anonymous tip to German authorities. This is off-topic, but I seem to recall that many German companies selling stock in the United States objected to provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act that required companies to set up anonymous tip lines to the boards of directors at companies so employees could rat out senior executives engaging in financial fraud. The claim was that European (and German) privacy laws prohibited anonymous complaints because such complaints were so widely abused during the Nazi era. What gives?

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I was always saddened by the old American Negro custom of naming one's child Prince or Count because no one down south would ever call them Mister. It was nice if they could have even one title.

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