American PhDs Can’t Call Selves ‘Doktor’ in Germany

American PhDs Can't Call Selves 'Doktor' in Germany American PhDs working in Germany are suddenly being visited by the police for using the title “Dr.”

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 résumés. They all hold doctoral degrees from elite universities back home.

Under a little-known Nazi-era law, only people who earn PhDs or medical degrees in Germany are allowed to use “Dr.” as a courtesy title. The law was modified in 2001 to extend the privilege to degree-holders from any country in the European Union. But docs from the United States and anywhere else outside Europe are still forbidden to use the honorific. Violators can face a year behind bars.


The proper use of honorifics is no small matter in Germany, a society given to formality where even longtime neighbors insist on addressing each other using their surnames. Those with advanced degrees like to show them off, and it is not uncommon to earn more than one. A male faculty member with two PhDs can fully expect to be called “Herr Professor Dr. Dr. Schmidt,” for example.


The German doctor rule has been in effect since the 1930s, but it has been only sporadically enforced in recent years. That changed last fall, when an anonymous tipster filed a complaint with federal prosecutors against seven Americans at the prestigious Max Planck Society, which operates 80 scientific research institutes across Germany. Federal authorities forwarded the complaint to prosecutors and police in at least three states, who decided to take action.


The criminal investigations have alarmed higher education officials in Germany, where U.S. researchers are in high demand and treated as blue-chip recruits. Last week, state education ministers met in Berlin and recommended that the law be modified so anyone holding a doctorate or medical degree from America could be addressed as “Dr.” without running afoul of the police.

“This is a completely overdone, mad, absolutely ridiculous situation,” said Barbara Buchal-Hoever, head of Germany’s central office for foreign education. “We are talking about highly acclaimed researchers here. . . . The people who have pressed charges must be gripers or troublemakers who wanted to make a totally absurd point.”

Even if the proposal is adopted, however, it would extend the privilege only to people with degrees from about 200 U.S. universities accredited by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Anyone with a PhD from Canada, Japan or the rest of the non-European world would still be excluded.

For now, the old law remains on the books. It is unclear when, or if, Germany’s state parliaments will change it.

Hilarious. It should be noted that charges are being dropped in all cases, so no one is going to jail here. But it’s still a ridiculously antiquated law that needs to be changed, schnell.

Presumably, the law had its origins in Nazi-era xenophobia. Given the German love of heirarchy, though, they’ve likely kept it on the books because there are indeed plenty of foreign institutions which grant PhDs of dubious merit and one wouldn’t want to remove the value of legitimate degrees by placing them all on equal footing. A blanket ban, however, is overkill.

Incidentally, the recognition of European degrees but not those from the United States and elsewhere was not an academic judgment but rather a requirement of European Union membership.

via Tyler Cowen

UPDATE: The Germans are not known for their efficiency for nothing. Despite this being page 1 news in today’s Washington Post, the law has apparently been changed. I say “apparently” because here’s the relevant portion of the report in Die Zeit as translated by Babelfish:

But made appointed title defender a principal error now. It planned the professors of the Max-Planck company, one of the prominent national research establishments, which are dependent on the international inflow of brilliant scientists. And those are sour: Didn’t Germany want to along-play in the first league of the science locations? They can go also elsewhere!

That convinced then finally also the conference of Secretary of cultural affairs (KMK), which is insulted of its critics in friendly moments as epitome of the Braesigkeit. The Ministers decided past week a reorganization, unbureaucratically surprisingly and quickly, how KMK president announced Annegret Kramp Karrenbauer also proud then.

In the future graduates of outstanding US universities may lead their doctor without Clammy ones. Joerg Draeger went with the crucial tuning before the door.

Mark Twain would understand perfectly.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mister Biggs says:

    When I was last over in Austria, I met a guy who was from Ventura and had his BA and MA from UCLA. He was working in Bavaria teaching English at a university in Nuremberg, when it came to getting paid he was classified as a tutor, because the wouldn’t recognize his degrees to make him a adjunct or assistant professor. He explained it mostly had to do with Bavarians having a very high opinion of themselves, cited the example that if you went to law school in Germany, but outside of Bavaria and wanted to practice law in Bavaria, you’d have to do another year of law school at a Bavarian University.

  2. yetanotherjohn says:

    On the other hand, I have interviewed people for positions with degrees from foreign countries. I had absolutely no internal judgment on the quality of education that I could expect given the grade point they presented. I almost shudder to think what it would have taken to verify the GPA and degree. Fortunately, these were not entry level positions, so I had about ten years of work history to base the hiring decision on (and quite frankly after ten years of work history the degree is just a check box to keep the HR department from hassling me).

  3. Mister Biggs says:

    You reminded me of a story that cracks me up, where I went to engineering school one of the professors joked that with the school’s focus on hiring PhDs to improve stats he’d never get hired with just a MS, even though he had 30+ years of experience designing and building water and wastewater conveyance and treatment systems.

  4. James Joyner says:

    he’d never get hired with just a MS, even though he had 30+ years of experience designing and building water and wastewater conveyance and treatment systems

    The insistence on a PhD for the vocational-technical departments of the university always struck me as silly. It probably makes sense in a graduate program, if the desire is to teach cutting edge critical theory, but not in a basic undergraduate program.

  5. Jeffrey W. Baker says:

    On one hand, I find that people who aren’t medical doctors who refer to themselves as “Dr. So And So” are about to tell you a whopping great lie, perhaps as part of a scam or sales pitch. On the other hand, I am equally annoyed by medical doctors who run for elected offices and campaign as “Dr. Blah Blah”. Both uses are pretentious.

  6. James Joyner says:

    On one hand, I find that people who aren’t medical doctors who refer to themselves as “Dr. So And So” are about to tell you a whopping great lie, perhaps as part of a scam or sales pitch. On the other hand, I am equally annoyed by medical doctors who run for elected offices and campaign as “Dr. Blah Blah”. Both uses are pretentious.

    The title “Doctor” comes from the Latin for “teacher.” It was used for roughly half a millennium by learned academics before it was adopted by physicians who were, at that point in history, relative amateurs.

    I used the title “Dr.” when I taught college to differentiate myself from the students and used it as a defense contractor where everyone else had a title before their name. I don’t use it in the think tank world because it’s simply not customary, likely because pretty much everyone has a PhD or comparable expertise in the policy world. (I do have the degree suffix PhD on my business card but that’s pretty standard.)

    I agree that it’s pretentious to use it out of context of one’s expertise. Otherwise, though, it’s a hard-earned honorific.

  7. Alex says:

    Cowen, James…Cowen.

  8. James Joyner says:

    Cowen, James…Cowen.

    Fixed. My brain knows his name, but my fingers are decidedly more familiar with “Cohen.”

  9. yetanotherjohn says:


    Of course the difference was I was hiring in the market place for people to produce things in sufficient quantity and quality that the company would make more money than the salary. If I hired because of a degree and not capability, both of us would likely be gone. In academia, it is the reverse that hiring for capability over the degree would likely cause both to be gone.

  10. Jeffrey W. Baker says:

    Joyner, your simple guideline for use is right on the money. Honorifics should be used in context. When I was at university it was commonplace to say I had just been visiting Dr. Smith. But I’m sure Dr. Smith didn’t sign in as “Dr. Smith” at the starter’s booth down at the country club.