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As far as I understand,

  1. In the USA, they use "X, PhD."

  2. The rest of the world use "Dr. X."

In Germany, they use the latter form.

If someone completes an interdisciplinary (chemical sciences and computer science) PhD in Germany, can they use #1 in Germany, if they want to?

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    Actually Germany is pretty formal (or was). And don't let Dr. X seem to imply a medical doctor. That usage varies and is some places regulated.
    – Buffy
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 19:47
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    Your understanding is incomplete. Both forms are used in the US in different situations. So if you want to ask "Can I call myself user366312, PhD in the US after getting a German PhD?" the answer is trivially "yes," but you might be after something different. Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 20:12
  • The question was edited to reflect OP is asking about using what they call the "US form" in Germany. I don't know anything about that, but bullet #1 is still imprecise. Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 20:56

5 Answers 5

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+50

I assume that the academic degree in question as granted by the faculty is “Dr. rer. nat.” (or similar). There are some faculties in Germany which grant you a “PhD” either exclusively or in addition to a “Dr.”, in which case the situation is clear.

First of all, we have Section 132a of the German Criminal Code (Strafgesetzbuch) which says:

Whoever, without being authorised to do so, uses domestic or foreign […] academic degrees […] incurs a penalty of imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year or a fine.

Since PhD is clearly an academic degree, you can only use it when authorised. Usually, this authorisation can stem from the degree itself or the nostrification process, which can authorise you to use a foreign doctoral degree. Apart from such individual processes, there are state-wise laws governing the automatic conversion of degrees and similar. Unfortunately, there are sixteen of them and their content and structure differs. For example:

While I haven’t checked all sixteen state laws, they are usually homogeneous in such respects.

This is confirmed by this article from Der Spiegel about PhD vs. Dr. from 2004, which mentions (translation mine):

[…] So wird aus Dr. Heinzel wie selbstverständlich Heinzel PhD.

[…] "Das ist nicht okay", hält Holger Conrad von der Kultusministerkonferenz dagegen. "Akademische Grade dürfen grundsätzlich nur in der Originalform geführt werden, wie sie an einer Uni erworben wurden." Zwar kann beispielsweise ein PhD aus England oder USA hier zu Lande in den Dr. umgewandelt (im Fachbegriff "nostrifiziert") werden. "Umgekehrt läuft das aber nicht", so Conrad. "Wer das nicht beachtet, begeht eine Ordnungswidrigkeit oder Straftat und riskiert eine saftige Geldbuße."


[…] This way, Dr. Heinzel naturally becomes Heinzel PhD.

[…] “This is not okay”, conters Holger Conrad from the Kultusministerkonferenz [conference of ministers of education]. “You may only use academic degrees in their original form in principle.” There is a way to convert a PhD from the UK or US into Dr. here (“nostrification”), but Conrad says: “This doesn’t work the other way round. If you do not adhere to this, you commit an infraction or crime and risk a hefty fee.”

Now, this article is from 2004, but I could not find anything that changes this.

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Degrees that were awarded as PhD are styled as such in Germany and written after the name. Doctoral degrees that are awarded in Germany or the EU can permit you to shorten from "Dr. rer. nat." to just "Dr." before your name. Using a doctorate that you have not been awarded is a serious crime in Germany and can bring stiff fines and even a year's jail time. See StgB § 132a.

Doctorates awarded outside of the EU have to be formally recognized by the state education ministry and then the name of the granting university has to be appended. For example, our Russian instructor uses:

Dr. (Staatliche Kuban-Universität)

If you have defended your doctorate but haven't published your thesis yet (mandatory for using the doctoral degree in your name) you are permitted to write "Dr. des." (designated). You also don't have to correct people who mislabel you "Dr." anymore.

If you went to the Czech Republic or Slovakia and got one of their PhDr degrees thinking it was a doctorate, you lose. For bizarre reasons, it is only recognized in Bavaria and Berlin as being worthy of the "Dr.", not in the rest of the states. The former Minister of Transportation was thus "Dr." when leaving home in Munich, not "Dr." during the flight to Berlin, and "Dr." again when he landed.

If you have two doctorates, then Dr. Dr. is used. If you have a professorship (and only then, not when you are just an instructor) then you may use Prof. Dr.

At Universities of Applied Sciences you may still encounter the style "Prof. Dipl.-Inform.", which is what I was until I got my doctoral dissertation published.

When speaking German, you research and use the proper titles. People on the same level (i.e. professor to professor, doctor to doctor) do not use any titles. Speaking English will vary by field. In Computer Science we generally try to avoid using titles, if we have to and are speaking "up" we would use just "Dr." or "Prof.". If you read German, there is a nice long article, and of course many more at sites that sell phony doctorates.

Some relevant comics for English: PHD Comics - What should I call my professor?

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    Very cool. Weird, but cool.
    – Buffy
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 20:19
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    @Buffy: One might be tempted to believe that the German fetish about academic titles is as weird as it can possibly get - but then, at some point in time and completely unsuspectingly, one happens to travel to Austria... Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 20:31
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    @JochenGlueck, I've heard that too. Also you get ostracized by your neighbor tenants if you don't have enough geraniums on your balcony.
    – Buffy
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 20:33
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    "When speaking German, you research and use the proper titles." Hmm, I'd add that this really depends on the context, and maybe also on the subject. Most mathematicians I know are actually quite relaxed (at least for German standards) about titles. Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 20:36
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    I think the claim that you are obliged to correct people who incorrectly address you as "Dr." is an urban legend. (The story is different if you take advantage of them believing you have a degree, of course: But this is just fraud, regardless of where you are.) Also, in natural sciences, the "using titles when addressing upwards" is not generally standard - when I was studying, we would never adress the professors as "Professor", just by "Mr. X". I have the feeling this got more formal recently, at least in some places.
    – user151413
    Commented Aug 31, 2022 at 18:30
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Using degree titles next to your name is regulated by law in Germany, and there have been cases where people got in trouble due to being careless - The federal law forbidding the use of an academic degree that you don't have lists imprisonment as a possible punishment (not sure if that happens often, though).

IANAL, but as a rule of thumb, you are not free to choose the abbreviation for a doctoral degree to your liking. You have to use the ones you are allowed to use. To make these matters complicated, these are regulated in the laws and regulations of the respective state.

For instance, for the state of North Rhine-Westfalia, you can find the rules on who is allowed to use "Dr." that extend the respective law here here - as you can see, it's complicated.

While I currently don't see it spelled out, it is unlikely that calling yourself a ", PhD" is allowed unless your degree was conferred with this abbreviation because that looks like listing a degree that you don't have. German PhD certificates will state the correct abbreviation.

Note that it is however perfectly legal to call somebody "Doktor" who isn't. So after a doctoral defense, the members of the committee will often call the person who just passed "Doktor" while it is customary for the head of the committee to remind the candidate that he/she is not legally able to call herself a doctor until he/she has the respective certificate in her hand.

Oh, and until you have the degree certificate in hand, calling yourself a "Doktorand" if you are working towards a PhD is the (safe) way to go!

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I shall take myself as an example. I received a PhD in Computer Science from the University of Cambridge. This lets me use the following styles in Germany:

  • Dr Arno Pauly [which is what my German passport says]
  • Arno Pauly, PhD [because I have a certificate stating that I've got a PhD from a recognized university]
  • Arno Pauly, PhD (Cantab) [if I want to highlight that my PhD is from Cambridge]

I am not allowed to style myself as "Dr rer nat Arno Pauly", despite the fact that German doctorates in Computer Science have the "rer nat" designation. This is because I don't have any certificate stating that I do have a "Dr rer nat". [There is a process how I can obtain such a certificate though.] Dually, someone who received a "Dr rer nat" can go with "Dr Rer nat X Y" or "Dr X Y", but not "X Y, PhD" - because they have a doctorate, but not specifically a PhD.

There is a further complication, and that is the mentioning of the awarding institution. You can only drop it if it is a fully recognized doctorate at a fully recognized university (everything in the EU is fine, and there is an official list). There is also a category of universities where you are allowed to list the doctorate, but ONLY in combination with the name of the awarding university.

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  • The rule agains calling yourself "Dr. re. nat." seems at least slightly reasonable. Neither computers nor complexity classes nor lambda calculus nor ... are ordinarily regarded as res naturales. Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 2:19
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Short answer: you are allowed to use the academic degree in exactly the way it is stated on your certificate ("Promotionsurkunde") and in no other.

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  • This is a poor answer. The certificate doesn't say where to put the name of the degree - front or rear.
    – user366312
    Commented Aug 24, 2022 at 13:42
  • As it’s currently written, your answer is unclear. Please edit to add additional details that will help others understand how this addresses the question asked. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Commented Aug 24, 2022 at 17:26
  • This also doesn’t account for abbreviations (e.g., “Dr.” instead of “Dr. rer. nat.”), which are certainly allowed.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Sep 18, 2022 at 10:28

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