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I recently obtained my PhD in physics from one of the Max Planck Institutes in Germany. Unfortunately, I only barely passed with a "rite" grade (the lowest passing grade here in Germany). This is despite my supervisor (and head examiner) going through my thesis with me during the writing process and giving me corrections and advice along the way which I duly implemented. Before handing the thesis in, my supervisor remarked that this was a very good thesis and will likely obtain a good mark.

However, I was told in the exam that both my thesis and oral exam had been graded poorly, even though my presentation was on time and was aimed well (according to my colleagues, director of the institute and day-to-day supervisor who was also in the room). I could not answer some questions in the oral exam simply because they were outside of my field, for example I was asked about stellar formation and ion drives despite me being an experimental physicist working on MBE (molecular-beam epitaxy) crystal growth. To add insult to injury, my supervisor said he was disappointed in me and that I should have done better, despite his previous comments.

It is also worth noting that my supervisor and I did not have the best relationship: he once said that a mistake I had made in an APS talk would "destroy my career in science" and that when I began to suffer from severe mental health problems from the stress of my thesis and a close family bereavement, he refused to let me take time off, forcing me to get a doctors note for me to take time off.

I am currently in a new postdoc position at a reputable research institution in Germany, and my new supervisors have both said that the grade does not matter since I have the position and what matters now is my publication list. But I have seen conflicting things online regarding this. What is your opinion? In your experience, does this matter at all? I would particularly like to hear from scientists.

Thank you in advance.

(P.S. It is also worth noting that I received no corrections to my thesis, which I have been told is very unusual)

(P.P.S Just to respond to some of the questions or comments given in prior answers. I am English so my original intention was to return to the UK and look for a research position, I am not interested in a Professorship. My university shows the grade on the doctoral certificate so there is no real way of hiding this at all. I have tried contacting my supervisor to ask for his logic regarding the grade he awarded me but I have so far heard nothing back.)

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    How visible is this grade to possible employers?
    – Buffy
    Mar 22, 2023 at 19:12
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    "he refused to let me take time off, forcing me to get a doctors notice for me to take time off." It depends a bit on how much time off you took but that's not necessarily unusual and in fact might be required by the funding agencies if you take a prolonged leave of absence (especially if you are still being paid during your leave). Mar 22, 2023 at 19:43
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    Related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/139502/… Mar 22, 2023 at 19:55
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    @colorofeternity22 I would probably have asked for a doctor’s note as well, just to make it clear to everyone that the student is not taking vacation time and is on medical leave, and to officially relieve the student from the pressure of answering emails or meeting deadlines… Mar 22, 2023 at 21:39
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    Note that MPIs can't award PhDs – the degree-giving institution is the university the MPI is associated with. This is relevant because then you have to meet the expectations of the Department of Physics of that university, and are graded according to them. The committee will consist of university members, which usually includes people from the MPI as well, but the hierarchical position of your MPI supervisor in the committee may vary. All this can account for the discrepancy between your (self-)perceived performance at the MPI and the grade of your PhD.
    – Schmuddi
    Mar 23, 2023 at 15:27

9 Answers 9

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Not sure about Europe, but in the US or Canada no one will ever know about your grade -- and no one will be interested to know it. The quality (and, let us face it, the quanity) of your papers will really matter, as well as the rank of the journals where you publish. And, of course, reference letters. Also your visibility at high-profile professional conferences. These are the only relevant parameters for any hiring committee. I suspect, in Europe it will be the same.

In short, just forget about that negative experience, and move on.

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    Does a dissertation even get a grade in Canada? I think it is pretty rare in US.
    – Buffy
    Mar 22, 2023 at 19:27
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    @Buffy Never heard about such a thing being done in Canada. In the US, I was several times a member of thesis defense committees, and at those schools it was just a yes or no system, with no grades. Mar 22, 2023 at 19:30
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    My PhD from a fairly well-known US school was "with honors". I didn't find out about this until years later, when a government fellowship required a transcript. It certainly wasn't in any of the paperwork I submitted and nobody said a thing to me. The best part is, to this day, I haven't been able to find out what the criteria for a PhD is.
    – user71659
    Mar 22, 2023 at 21:56
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    In 20 years in the US, nobody has ever asked me about the grade on my (German) PhD. Mar 22, 2023 at 22:07
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    @Michael_1812: Nor does ignoring facts help. In many (all?) federal states in Germany, becoming a professor requires by law to have a very good PhD dissertation; exceptions might be possible in some cases but are certainly rare. For some other permanent positions in Germany it might not be required formally, but "rite" is still likely to be a significant obstacle. Academia is extremely competative in many fields and having a "rite" PhD thesis puts you at a significant disadvantage in Germany. Just hand-waving this away with the phrase "forget about it and do good work" does OP a disfavour. Mar 24, 2023 at 13:52
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For an academic career in Germany, this is a big deal.

Having received a rite for your doctorate is going to be a huge blow for your chances to ever be appointed to a professorship in Germany. Picking you over someone with summa cum laude would just open up the selection committee to all kinds of appeals.

As many of the other answers have pointed out, this is probably not too much of an issue abroad. However, there is always a chance of someone in the committee knowing that German doctorates have grades, and those ought to be either summa cum laude or magna cum laude. I'd certainly consider a rite a dark orange flag in a job application, and I am not at a German institution.

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    As for outside of Germany, people might "know that PhDs have grades in Germany" but that does not mean that they will ask for it. No application in any country I've ever lived in has ever asked for the "grade" of my PhD.
    – Nik
    Mar 23, 2023 at 3:20
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    @user1271772 But they will quite likely ask for the PhD diploma, no? And that contains the grade. Mar 23, 2023 at 7:18
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    @Kvothe I have been member in several selection commitees for professor positions in Germany. If you have several dozen applicants for a single position, then you certainly do not pick one with a "rite" in their PhD. Already "cum laude" would quite likely be discarded without any mention. That might be sad, but that is how it is. So the best advice that I can give to OP is: Apply abroad -- or move on. Mar 23, 2023 at 10:39
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    @Kvothe Nope, not really. The PhD grade might be irrelevant if the applicant made it to a reputable professor position abroad. But if you ask me, if a German PhD commitee in the natural sciences grades with "rite", then it wants to send a certain message, not only to the doctoral student, but also to fellow researchers. "Rite" is not only understood, but also meant as a red flag for academic jobs. Believe me that I'd be glad if I were wrong. Mar 23, 2023 at 10:53
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    @user1271772 "Who said anything about a "professorship"?" When we are talking about a long-term positions in German academia, then we are factually talking about professorships. Mar 23, 2023 at 11:13
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Following up on the comment stream, I doubt that you have anything to worry about. A doctorate is a (near) terminal degree (yes, I know about habilitation in Germany) and having it is usually enough.

The general assumption (by most folks) is that your faculty was happy enough with you to grant the degree and they were the ones best qualified to make the decision.

The reputation of your advisor and your university has some small repetitional value early on, but grades, even for a dissertation, much less.

After that, as your supervisor says, it is up to what you do (publications and such) after you finish.

It isn't impossible that it would have a negative effect if known but not universally and also, not likely to be known. Not widely known, anyway. Relax.

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    I'd translate the German PhD grades roughly as follows summa cum laude - great work. Magna cum laude - good. cum laude - borderline acceptable. And rite is "we'd fail you if failing were actually an option". Granting someone a PhD with a rite does not mean that the faculty was happy enough to grant them the degree, but rather the opposite.
    – Arno
    Mar 23, 2023 at 3:04
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    @Arno - Then why did they grant them the degree? Surely it's not as easy as submitting something barely resembling a thesis to pass a PhD in Germany... Mar 23, 2023 at 11:40
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    @Arno That is not quite true, at least not in mathematics as far as I can tell. "Summa" is (still) considered outstanding and exceptionally excellent. Unlike other degrees (Bachelor, Master, etc.) there has been very like inflation when it comes to PhD grades. In some universities you can only obtain "summa" when three referees were in involved (instead of two). Mar 24, 2023 at 6:48
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    *little inflation Mar 24, 2023 at 16:43
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I consider most of the existing answers to be a bit short-sighted:

Yes, most other countries do not have grades on PhDs (and not ask for them either) and even in some hiring processes in Germany, you might get around revealing your PhD grade. But in those hiring processes, there will be something that replaces the PhD grade, because at the end of the day, people want to have something more than your interview performance to base their hiring decision on. In many systems, what replaces the PhD grade are reference letters, and a typical reference would be your PhD advisor. If your PhD advisor contributed to giving you a rite on your PhD¹, he will likely not give you stellar references either.

Now, you can rely on other references and other demonstrations of your skill like your publication record. But having to do that is an extra challenge and could eventually be what tips the scales in favour of another candidate. So, having a bad PhD grade or bad relationship to your PhD advisor, respectively, does have an influence on your career.

That being said, you already took the most difficult hurdle in such circumstances, namely getting your first postdoc position. (As you mentioned, this position was granted to you before your PhD defense, so this doesn’t necessarily reflect the importance of your PhD grade.) Your postdoc supervisor(s) are of course alternative sources of reference letters.

As already mentioned in some answers, German hiring processes are different and might require you to have a good PhD grade by law (see this answer of mine for details). For example, I almost certainly wouldn’t have gotten my current position with a rite PhD, even with everything else being equal. I also interviewed for many positions for which a rite would have clearly disqualified me.

Finally, let me note that rite is almost absurdly bad. This grade is very rarely given, not only due to grade inflation but also because the respective people usually drop out of their PhDs. It also usually reflects poorly on the advisor because it suggests they did not properly train you, etc. This can actually work in your advantage: For example, if I received an application from you with a rite PhD, I would assume it as likely that your supervisor/committee made a mistake as that your grade was actually deserved. The odds are even better if you have a decent publication record or anything else demonstrating that you have the skills a PhD grade should reflect. I would probably try to contact your supervisor and if he doesn’t give a solid explanation for your grade (which is not that easy), I wouldn’t give much on it.


¹ It is worth checking your PhD examination rules on how the grade is determined. For example, in most rules I know, the supervisor’s is responsible for half the grade, but yours might differ.

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    I would assume it as likely that your supervisor/committee made a mistake as that your grade was actually deserved. As someone who knows nothing about the German system, that is exactly the impression that the whole thing caused on me. It is not a nice thing for a supervisor to let an unprepared student go to the defense, nor for the committee to not give feedback. Mar 23, 2023 at 11:47
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    @MartinArgerami: There's something peculiar about PhDs at most German universities: your supervisor is usually also your first reviewer. This can actually be beneficial for the PhD candidate if they have a functioning relationship with their supervisor, but it can also be very harmful e.g. if candidate and supervisor get into a fight about what should and what should not be part of the thesis. I've been in the audience of a defense in which candidate and supervisor continued their academic (but also interpersonal) quarrels, and the result was indeed a career-ending poor grade.
    – Schmuddi
    Mar 23, 2023 at 16:23
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Answer: It won't matter in most countries

My PhD (which was in a similar field to yours) was from the UK and afterwards I worked at universities in Japan, Singapore, USA, and Canada (plus I did long research visits in other countries), and yet I've never heard of a PhD thesis having a "grade".

Therefore, if you apply for a research position in any one of those countries (and likely many others!), it is very unlikely that you would be asked for your thesis "grade", and what will matter the most is your list of publications, your reference letters, your research proposal (for cases in which it is required), and perhaps your relationship to the person making the decision (for example if you're applying to work as a post-doctoral researcher that is supervised by someone that loves interacting with you at conferences).

Comments: On some of what you said

"However, I was told in the exam that both my thesis and oral exam had been graded poorly, even though my presentation was on time and was aimed well"

The fact that your presentation was "on time" does not shield you from getting a bad grade.

"It is also worth noting that I received no corrections to my thesis, which I have been told is very unusual)."

You are right. It is very unusual for a thesis to pass without any suggested (or required) corrections. However, if they asked you to make corrections, they would have to (at least in principle) look at your thesis another time to verify that they have been made in a satisfactory way, and since you "did not have the best relationship" with your supervisor, and the examiners didn't seem to like your thesis as much as you had hoped, it is possible that they all wanted for the entire ordeal to end sooner rather than later.

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    I would actually think that receiving no corrections simply means that the OP's supervisor didn't do their job. It is essentially impossible for someone to carefully read a thesis and not find anything that can be improved. We always find things in other people's work, even if it's just something that can be written in a clearer way: we all think we write things clearly but one is are so familiar with one's own thesis subject that there will always be cases where things are not as clear to others as they were to the author.
    – terdon
    Mar 23, 2023 at 10:33
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    @terdon the answer states they got corrections from their supervisor during the writing process, presumably they mean they got no corrections from the committee after submitting. Still doesn't paint the best light on their supervisor though, if this result was a surprise after that editing process
    – llama
    Mar 23, 2023 at 15:00
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    @llama the way OP talks about corrections (and their surprise at having to get a medical note for time of due to mental health) makes me suspect they're generally rather confused about how things work in German universities.
    – Chris H
    Mar 23, 2023 at 15:15
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It won't have any impact on your career

So first I should say congratulations on finding a postdoc, and this is the reason I say it won't have any impact on your career. I should also say, I've been living in Germany for the past few years doing a post-doc and this is the first time I heard that there are grades for PhDs here.

The role of the PhD is to teach you how to do research and to make you a world renown expert of a very specific sub-field of your discipline. The role of the post-doc is to let you develop your brand of research, get a wider sense of what is going on in your field, build your academic network, and to check you didn't just "get lucky" regarding your successes in your PhD. Given that you have a position already the most likely (though I would still judge it as unlikely) point where a "rite" grade would impact your career has already passed. Now people will be looking at your papers to assess if your expertise is what they want to hire, and checking that you can be productive in multiple research groups.

Regarding grants, I doubt they'd be able to judge you on having a "rite" grade, mainly because it would be discriminatory and the grading for investigators tend to be about papers published, which journals they were published in, and students/postdocs supervised (when reaching an appropriate level). Keep in mind that if you and me put in for the same grant I could have just barely passed my PhD and because my PhD was ungraded they can't apply the same standard to me as they would be applying to you if they struck a mark off you for this "rite" grade. Since I believe Germany is unusual in grading PhDs, how other countries do this will dominate the importance of the grade, in-fact you could probably just leave the grade off unless the grant application document specifically says that grades must be included if given.

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    @colorofeternity22 since you mentioned you had been suffering from severe mental health problems, if you are still stressing out about this maybe it might be worth bringing this question to your therapist if you have one, or if not then bring it to a trusted friend/college who can help you process this and verify that may other people don't believe this will have any impact on your future and can be left behind. Mar 22, 2023 at 21:59
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It might depend on the country, but outside of Germany I can't see this making a difference for most countries (possible exception being other German-speaking countries).

I'm fairly certain from my experience of studying and working mostly in the UK that no-one will know about your grade if you apply for a job in the UK. I'm not sure they would even understand the meaning if you tell them about the grade.

If applying for academic jobs in non-German-speaking countries I would just say you got your PhD on your CV and leave it at that unless anyone asks for more information.

Your rite grade might disqualify you from continuing further in the German academic environment, however, but I assume you already knew that.

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    What does this add, that the other answers don't?
    – Nik
    Mar 24, 2023 at 12:50
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This grade might appear on your graduate school transcript and therefore might be seen by a hiring committee that asks for such a transcript. However, outside of Germany, it's probably unlikely to have much of an impact and may not noticed or understood.

In applying for faculty jobs in the US and Canada, I have been asked for graduate school transcripts (and, a few times, undergraduate transcripts). Usually, the postings that ask for these transcripts are for teaching-focused positions, but not always (I was asked for them for a few research-focused positions as well).

I have no idea what a German grad school transcript would look like or if it would include this grade. A grade for the PhD defense, even if present on the transcript, might be ignored by hiring committee members from outside the German system because they wouldn't understand it (especially if it is untranslated) or because they wouldn't expect to see it (if such a grade doesn't exist in their academic culture). Unless the committee had someone trained in the German system who knew what to look for, a hiring committee in the US (or many other places) would probably not bother to try to understand what the "rite" on your German transcript meant.

In any case, I'm not sure how much these hiring committees care about any graduate school grades, even the ones who ask for graduate school transcripts. Presumably it's considered together with a lot of other documents and might only have an impact if it's a very teaching-focused position, there are other red flags in the application, or there are two candidates of exceptionally similar competitiveness for the position.

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    1) Why would it particularly matter for a teaching-focused position? PhD grades are not related to teaching at all. 2) The typical German PhD would come with a diploma/certificate, not with a transcript as there is no coursework involved. 3) At least my PhD diploma states the grade in three different ways (Latin, German, numerical). If you translate it, you will get an idea about the grade. (If you don’t translate it, you have no chance to understand it.)
    – Wrzlprmft
    Mar 23, 2023 at 16:08
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    @Wrzlprmft (1) In my experience, job searches for teaching-focused positions more often ask for academic transcripts. Maybe the assumption is that it would be difficult to teach classes that you got Cs in? For research-focused positions, they are going to be more concerned with your publications, talks, and research plan. (2) If you apply to a job that asks for a graduate transcript, what would you send them? (3) I don't think I've seen US job postings that ask for your diploma. Here diplomas are mostly ceremonial things with little information other than name, date, and area. Mar 23, 2023 at 18:16
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    1) There are no classes in a usual German PhD, so there is nothing to have a C in. 2) I would send them my certificate/diploma for my master’s equivalent, which is the closest equivalent (and explain this). 3) Whether you call it diploma, certificate or something else (this doesn’t translate one-to-one anyway), it’s the piece of paper that – in theory – should convince somebody that you hold a PhD.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Mar 23, 2023 at 21:12
  • @Wrzlprmft For (2), I think you could just say that your German PhD had no classes and just send them a transcript from your previous studies. Then the "rite" thing would probably never come up. Mar 24, 2023 at 13:23
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The thesis grade has 0 importance, period. Nobody will ask you about it. Really: nobody cares about this, and I don’t recall this ever being a topic of conversation.

I can’t recall my grade and I’m not even sure I got one. I’ve been on PhD examination committees and I can’t remember ever formally assigning a grade. This hasn’t stop me, any colleague, anyone I’ve supervised or anyone whom I’ve examined of continuing in physics.

What matters is what you did, as witnessed by your publication record and your letters of reference.

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    Germany is different. Mar 23, 2023 at 7:51
  • @JackAidley that may be so but has this ever affected anything? Mar 23, 2023 at 16:47
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    It's not clear from the question whether the OP wants to continue working in Germany. If they do, saying that "the thesis grade has 0 importance, period" is a very bold claim – especially as a rite PhD grade may disqualify your application on formal grounds for senior positions at many German universities. That's why "Germany is different" is a relevant comment to your answer.
    – Schmuddi
    Mar 23, 2023 at 17:25
  • @Schmuddi I just learned something. I don't remember this "grade" on the thesis I examined (some years ago) but maybe I was just not tuned into this procedure. Mar 23, 2023 at 18:22

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