I understand that in Germany, a PhD student's thesis is (almost?) always examined by their (two) supervisor(s) (and that a further examiner is only called in in the case where both examiners award the highest grade.) This is quite different from the system in the UK, for example, in which supervision and examination are done by different people. I've heard it said, by British as well as German academics, that this aspect of German system leads to a kind of conflict of interest. I've not been able to find much written about this online. Are there things to be said in favour of the German way of doing things? Or is the criticism perhaps based on a misunderstanding of the German system? (Or is the criticism perhaps sound, but considered to be outweighed by other factors?)

I don't mean to start a debate -- I'm interested in whether this is in fact discussed in Germany (it seems it must be, but I'm not finding anything) and if so, what sort of points people tend to make in discussing it.

(I'm not sure whether there are relevant differences between the humanities and the natural sciences here, so I should mention that I'm only really familiar with the humanities.)

  • A conflict between which parties? It seems more like alignment of interests than conflict.
    – Buffy
    Commented Mar 29 at 19:14
  • 2
    @Buffy: In view of a thesis defense, as an advisor, your interest is the most smooth acceptance of your student's thesis. As a referee, your main concern is, though, correctness, integrity, etc. When you confirm your student thesis to be sent to referees, you have already decided, as an advisor, that it has passed those measures. So, how does that make sense that you yourself assess them as a referee? This is the conflict.
    – User
    Commented Mar 29 at 19:34
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    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Mar 29 at 20:45

2 Answers 2


An outsider perspective from North America, where I've found practice varies between disciplines and institutions.

Oversimplifying, and perhaps overstating based on my own personal dataset (I'm an interdisciplinary, senior industry practitioner turned academic adjunct, so that dataset is 8+- departments, not 1-2, but that's still small!):

Mid-tier institutions and more social-science/humanities-type disciplines tend more often to require external examiners joining the (co)supervisors on the committee, and may impose requirements to require impartiality (e.g. no communication between supervisor and external examiner allowed).

Top-tier institutions and more science/tech fields are often more lax and allow examination by the supervisors alone. For instance, 25 years ago my math Ph.D. examination was only my supervisor and a 2nd reader from the same department, and my defense was more like a colloquium talk where questions were about implications for further work rather than defending my work or my knowledge. This does not mean that I got a free ride, merely that the tough discussions happened far earlier, in private.

My point is not "institution ranking and discipline are good explanatory variables", rather "there is a lot of variation, the approaches coexist, and there appears to be at least weak correlation with ranking and discipline."

Importantly, in the situation you describe in Germany, your main impartiality concern seems to be "will the supervisor be too demanding, given their own interest to retain the student as 'indentured labour' longer". Here, where I've heard discussion/concerns, it's more "absent an impartial external examiner, will the supervisors be sufficiently demanding, i.e. not award the Ph.D. for work that is incomplete or insufficiently innovative". I think that is maybe since supervisors are generally encouraged to move students through, and supervisors whose students take "too long" are discussed openly or behind the scenes. In many departments (I'm overgeneralizing), supervisors contribute from their grants to students' funding, and spend time supervising without a reduction in their teaching/service obligations. For them, having students hanging around longer is a dubious benefit.


Yes, the German system offers a unique level of authority to its professors, and this is a common subject of private discussions. There is even an added level of conflict of interest because your supervisor is also your employer. I've heard complains about cases where supervisors were delaying the defence of their best PhD students to keep them as employees for a longer time. That might explain why the 3-4 years that are the norm in some other countries often aren't enough even for very talented PhD students in Germany.

It is perhaps not too surprising that finding public discussions on this topic is difficult. Tenured professors, who benefit from the current system, have no reasons to complain. Those who are not tenured might be afraid to harm their career prospects. However, I've come across an online talk on this topic. It was really refreshing to publicly hear discussions about what my colleagues and I were struggling with: Toxic Professorality in the Lehrstuhlfamily

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