I am a PhD student in Germany (physics) and I will have my PhD defense in some months. I am not German. My thesis is mainly based on two Physical Review Letters and a paper not yet published (submitted to Physical Review B). The reviews (Gutachten) on my thesis are positive: I've got 1.3 and 1.7 (1 is very good, 4 is sufficient). The defense will consist of an oral presentation of my thesis and of an oral exam (Rigorosum) in the presence of two professors (two main topics, one of which is completely unrelated to my thesis).

My question is, how important are the presentation, the rigorosum, and the reviews, respectively, for the decision of the final grade? Is it possible to fail the PhD defense, having good reviews? Actually, I am mainly concerned about nasty questions after the thesis presentation and during the Rigorosum...

  • 7
    What does your advisor say?
    – Bill Barth
    Aug 4 '15 at 17:45
  • my advisor is one of the reviewer.
    – sintetico
    Aug 4 '15 at 17:51
  • 9
    So? You can still ask them what the standards are. They must be able to point you to the requirements and tell you about the standards or rubric for scoring. This is precisely their job.
    – Bill Barth
    Aug 4 '15 at 17:57
  • 3
    As already hinted at in the comments, a lot of this depends on your faculty’s PhD regulations (Promotionsordnung), which vary a lot between universities. Anything that is not regulated there falls into the discretion of the referees (who may have some unwritten rules amongst them). Thus the only thing, we can give any useful answer to here is your last question, which was mainly addressed in this question. For everything else, look into the regulations or ask your supervisor.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Aug 5 '15 at 8:53
  • 3
    Have you had a look at the Prüfungsordnung/Promotionsordnung? It should all be nicely explained in those documents.
    – henning
    Jul 11 '21 at 19:08

To me it seems that your defense will decide whether you will get the grade 1.3 or 1.7. You will certainly not fail.

During my PhD it was roughly 2/3 the written thesis and 1/3 the defense, which is divided equally in your presentation and the rigorosum. However, for you I think this is not relevant since your Gutachten gave different grades and your performance will decide whether Gutachten 1 or 2 is "right".

If I were you I would take the defense seriously and be prepared for the topic the professors are going to ask you. Often professors give some hint on the topic or might even tell you in advance.

You should know that 1.7 will be rounded to 2, so I think it will be a "cum laude" vs. "magna cum laude". So it makes a difference.

To my knowledge virtually all grades are summa cum laude (1+) (approx 20%-30%), magna cum laude (1) and cum laude (2). So cum laude is practically the lowest grade, although it is a 2.

BTW: For the summa cum laude (the distinction) you need 1.0 in both Gutachten and also make an excellent presentation, where professors test you for your limits. Professors often use it to indicate that they think you are ready for the academic career. Also during selection of some programs of the DFG it is expected to have such a grade.

I hope this does answer your question.

  • does it make a difference if I tell you that the reviewer who gave me 1.7 is my supervisor?
    – sintetico
    Aug 4 '15 at 18:05
  • Hmm, I don't think so.I would have assumed that it is other way round. It is certainly not a disadvantage (perhaps a small advantage since some external person rated your work higher than the person who knows you better).
    – Andreas H.
    Aug 4 '15 at 18:10
  • 6
    The exact requirements for a summa cum laude vary between universities (although they are pretty similar), so the BTW may or may not be correct. Consult your local Promotionsordnung. Aug 4 '15 at 18:23
  • 1
    @sintetico: That depends whether the postdoc is in Germany or elsewhere, the U.S. for example. In the US nobody will care since PhD theses are usually not graded and people typically do not understand the German system. In Germany this is most likely different. Also you cannot completely hide the grade, e.g. if you have to supply the PhD certificate or also people might just ask.
    – Andreas H.
    Aug 6 '15 at 17:17
  • 1
    I would say so. However, since there is a grade in Germany it is never a disadvantage to have a good one. For the US is totally does not matter. But maybe in Germany things are also changing. In my home university there are no longer the grades written on the PhD certificate, it is either summa cum laude ("with distinction") or nothing, i.e. just pass.
    – Andreas H.
    Aug 6 '15 at 19:22

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