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I recently completed my Ph.D. in Germany. I believe my dissertation was evaluated extremely unfairly. For my dissertation, I published seven papers in high-impact international medical journals (IF from 3 to 6). I used four of them as core papers and three of them as additional publications. I also have six conference papers. My seven papers have been cited about 34 times so far. The first one was published in Oct 2017.

For the written theses, I had two main reviewers and one of them suggested my grade to be “strong magna cum laude” and the other one said it should be cum laude¹. Then, I was very much prepared to change the second reviewer during my defense. I did an excellent presentation and defense (that is what everyone who was there told me). The second reviewer asked only four questions during the defense. I them properly although one was unrelated to my work.

After the defense was over, I was told to go out with the entire audience until the review committee decides my grade. They took a long time and I was sensing there must be something they didn’t agree with. Finally, I was called to go in and one of the reviewers said: “Congratulations, you passed. Unfortunately, your grade is cum laude. We are stuck in the middle.” This was extremely disappointing to me and I believe the whole process was totally unfair as everyone else also think so.

As I heard from the student members who sat with the committee, this reviewer said I didn’t include a reference for the animated graph that I have produced myself, and insisted that I don’t deserve more than cum laude. They were fighting for a long time until the first reviewer gave up. I, my wife who also has a Ph.D. many years ago, and the entire audience didn’t expect my grade would be like that. In fact, many believe that I am unfairly treated because of my skin color. This is the most difficult situation for me. I am very much stressed and I don’t know how much impact it will have on my career at least to get a postdoc position. What bugs me is that this reviewer doesn’t have a major point.

I am now considering to appeal to the university. But, I am scared. I also wish to retract my thesis and submit it to another university in Germany and defend it again. Please advise me on what to do.


¹ There are usually four passing grade for a PhD in Germany: summa cum laude, magna cum laude, cum laude and rite (from best to worst).

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    I don't know if grade in PhD degree really matters....Does it? – Praphulla Koushik Nov 4 '19 at 5:57
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    I think it is very important for the academic job market in Germany – user115916 Nov 4 '19 at 6:14
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    You only have two reviewers? Did you already have a look at the written reports? My own advisor gave me the worst mark for my phd (cum laude) while two other gave me magna and another one summa. Now guess who understood the most of my topics? The one who gave me summa and I think my own supervisor understood the least. This is not his problem, of course not, my research just got more and more complicated and mathematically over time, that's why I tried to fill my panel with as many mathematicians and computer scientists as possible. But I was only allowed to select one.. who gave me summa – Ben Nov 4 '19 at 6:23
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    That's a terrible situation, I'm sorry that you have to go through this. You should talk to your advisor and to the doctoral examination board about the situation and check for your options. Also, consider that outside of Germany, your PhD grade doesn't mean very much. – lighthouse keeper Nov 4 '19 at 7:48
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    Not sure about Germany. In science nobody really care of those marks. In medicine a kind of phd might be sort of mandatory so I am not sure if is the same as well. If it would be chemistry or physics I would tell you to forget and relax. – Alchimista Nov 4 '19 at 9:10
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Why it matters

In my field, cum laude or rite (the two worst German PhD grades) are rarely ever awarded and if they are, it’s usually a sign that there were major issues and a strong hint that the PhD should not consider any career aspirations in academia. Such PhDs often end in positions which mainly care about the title for its own sake (e.g., to impress customers). Your field may differ a bit, but even in law (which is known for using the entire spectrum of grades), such grades would not bode well on an academic career.

I would be careful with taking the position that the grade does not matter. As already said, the vast majority of PhDs that stay in academia have either summa cum laude or magna cum laude (the two best grades). Since getting a summa requires at least a bit of luck in many examination rules¹, many people do rightfully not care about the difference between the two. On the other hand, not having either is likely to raise some eyebrows and may prevent you from getting your desired position without you ever knowing why. Even if you find stories of people who had a successful academic career in your field with a cum laude, beware of survivor’s bias.

Moreover, many job offers in Germany (in particular at government agencies) explicitly require a very good PhD². This includes professorships to the extent that it is in the text of the respective laws (Landeshochschulgesetz), e.g., the one for Northrhine-Westphalia states (translation mine):

Einstellungsvoraussetzungen für Hochschullehrerinnen und Hochschullehrer sind […]: […] besondere Befähigung zu wissenschaftlicher Arbeit, die in der Regel durch die Qualität einer Promotion nachgewiesen wird; […]


Preconditions for being hired as a professor are […]: […] an outstanding qualification for scientific work, which usually is evidenced by the quality of the doctorate; […]

Now, this does say “usually”, which means it is technically not impossible to get a professorship with a bad PhD, only more difficult. But that already can be a severe disadvantage and may mean that you are ending up with a considerably worse position.

One function of such rules and phrases in job offers are things like avoiding nepotism or having to hire a bad candidate due to lack of better ones. Still if the criterion is phrased respectively, it may be legally impossible to hire you since you fail a hard criterion. If I found out that the successful candidate for a public job I failed to get only has a rite, I would certainly suspect foul play and consider legal action.

All in all, this grade may very well be career-ending.


¹ I know of cases where somebody did not get a summa only because they did not perform top-notch in a one-hour oral examination on their field of study that was unrelated to the topic of the PhD. Consider a theoretical cosmologist PhD being asked about lasers.
² Including your grades on your CV as well as providing a copy of the actual PhD certificate is the default in the hiring process, so you cannot really hide it.

What to be scared of

I am now considering to appeal to the university. But, I am scared.

… of what?

It sounds like you have little left to lose here. If your PhD gets re-evaluated from scratch, you are very unlikely to end up with a worse grade. There is a small risk that you earn a reputation over making a fuss about this, but those who care about this will also likely care about your grade. On the other hand, if I were to consider you for a position and asked you for the story behind your grade (and I probably would), I would rather be negatively surprised if you hadn’t made a fuss.

What to do

Now, every faculty in Germany has its own PhD rules and therefore it is difficult to make any general statement here. However, there are several aspects of your story where my PhD rules could have kicked in:

  • There would be two further members of the committee who can intervene in case of major disputes or grades being given with questionable reason or an accusation of academic misconduct (using material without a reference) against which you could not defend yourself.

  • The entire committee (four professors) grades the defense.

  • If the two main examiners differ by more than one grade, a third examiner would have to be consulted.

  • If your thesis is deemed to have major flaws, you have to be given the opportunity to amend it.

  • Grades for the thesis have to be given independently and cannot be changed afterwards. (It sounds like the “bad” examiner wanted to give a cum laude, so it cannot be the middle, unless he changed it to a worse grade later.)

  • There is a written record of committee’s decisions.

  • Nobody else would have been admitted to attend the committee making the decision. It is particularly weird that students can attend, but you cannot.

I recommend that you thoroughly read your faculty’s PhD rules and consult with whoever oversees the process (usually the dean). Also talk to the “good” examiner (your supervisor, I presume) to get a more detailed story of what happened.

Note that most PhD rules also forbid you to just submit your thesis to another university.

Caveats

Beware that you very likely did not get the full story so far. For example, attendees of the committee’s decision tend to primarily report the most egregious aspects even though other points had been made.

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    Excellent answer, just a small clarification: "All in all, this grade may very well be career-ending." (for a career in Germany). – lighthouse keeper Nov 5 '19 at 9:06
  • So basically Cum Laude is misleading. Big surprise. It should be something added at the top. – Alchimista Nov 5 '19 at 9:24
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    Indeed, career-ending (for a career in Germany) -- because a substantial part of the rest of the world doesn't have grades in PhDs and will likely not care one way or the other. In fact, I would suspect that if you have a 3-year postdoc and publish lots and in good venues, nobody will care any more about the PhD grade when it comes time for a Juniorprofessur. No "foul play" involved, just looking at a candidate's trajectory. – Wolfgang Bangerth Nov 5 '19 at 15:04
  • Thanks for this detailed response. I have started approaching the Prüfrungsamt and will continue proceeding for justice. The Prüfrungsamt hasn't so far received the protocol written during the defense. If re-evaluated fairly, I am very confident that I will win. Most of that reviewer's points were plain wrong! – user115916 Nov 5 '19 at 19:33
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    @user115916 -- Don't get your hopes up yet. In the end, the grade is a judgment call: It relies on the evaluators' experience, comparison with other candidates, etc. You will find that by and large, unless you can prove concrete misconduct, the Pruefungsamt will generally defer to the evaluators in their judgment. If they say that "in their professional judgment", the grade should be X, what should the Pruefungsamt do? Say they know better? – Wolfgang Bangerth Nov 5 '19 at 21:23
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Let's come to the important point first: Nobody will ever ask you about your grade, and if they did, it would have no impact at all. The point of a PhD is to show that you're a capable researcher, and you've made that point. Beyond that, it's about the concrete accomplishments -- papers, presentations, where and what you published, etc. You have a bunch of papers in good places already, and so anyone who evaluates you has plenty to work from.

In other words, you worry unnecessarily. In the 17 years since I got my PhD, nobody has ever asked me how it was rated, and I've never asked anyone that question either. So just let it go and move on: focus on the things you can affect (your next publication) and not on the things where you feel like you didn't get a fair shake.

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    Nobody will ever ask you about your grade, and if they did, it would have no impact at all. – Given the vast inhomogeneity of academia, I would not accept such a bold general statement without very good evidence. Many job offers in Germany (in particular at government agencies) explicitly require a very good PhD and including your grades on your CV as well as providing a copy of the actual PhD certificate is the default in the hiring process. This includes professorships to the extent that it is in the text of the respective laws (Landeshochschulgesetz). – Wrzlprmft Nov 4 '19 at 23:26
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    Therefore, hiring somebody with a rite (worst-grade) PhD for such a position sounds next to legally impossible. Mind that I totally agree that the difference between summa and magna is overrated and acquiring a summa requires at least some luck, but if I were facing a candidate with a rite PhD in a hiring process, I would certainly expect them to have some good answer what went wrong there, no matter the publication record. At least in my fields, this grade is rarely ever given, and cum laude is already regarded as an award of tenacity rather than skill. – Wrzlprmft Nov 4 '19 at 23:28
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    At least in the US world, no grades are attached to PhDs. I bet that half of my colleagues here wouldn't even know what the grade terms mean. In fact, I didn't know: I have a summa cum laude PhD and have always known that that was a distinction, but cared so little about it that for 17 years I've never looked up what the other grades are. Goes to show how little importance the issue has in my world. – Wolfgang Bangerth Nov 5 '19 at 14:59

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