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We're currently interviewing candidates at my company and I'd like to verify if some of them really have the academic degrees they claim. One in particular claims a doctoral degree from a German university.

I've contacted the university, and the dean wrote back saying that they could not provide this information without the written consent of the individual.

I found this policy rather odd; I would have thought that the granting of a doctoral degree was public information. Is this normal? Is there anything else I can do to find out?

I obtained from the library a copy of the thesis in question but it was in German. I also found through Google a spreadsheet which appears to be a list of dissertations published by that university, but it is unclear whether these are doctoral dissertations or not. The person in question and his dissertation are in that list.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat per request by multiple user flags. – ff524 Sep 22 '15 at 2:06
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    These are doctoral dissertations. There is a search form (de) for the department IFW. All dissertations of the university can be looked up in the TIB/UB (en). – xehpuk Sep 22 '15 at 12:02
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    Why does a copy of the thesis not make you happy? If it is officially stored at the library as a part of the PhD contribution, it essentially tells you that its author has a PhD. You might even want to assess the perceived quality of that PhD by reading the thesis. What more proofs do you want? – Oleg Lobachev Sep 9 '18 at 23:06
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When you get an academic degree from a German university, you usually get two official certificates. One (labeled Urkunde) is official proof that you hold the degree but does not include a grade. The other (labeled Zeugnis) is official proof of your grade but (according to some bureaucrats, though I suspect they just like to make life difficult) not of the degree. I think for doctoral degrees it is common that these two documents are combined into one, which is then also labeled Urkunde, or in this case Promotionsurkunde, but includes the grade. The grade for doctoral degrees is still often in Latin, in which case the best grade is typically summa cum laude, followed by magna cum laude.

A normal practice to make sure applicants actually hold the degrees they claim to hold is to ask for photocopies of their degree certificates along with the application. This timing makes it less awkward to ask for proof. Also, faking a certificate, even if it's only a fake photocopy, is a more serious offence than just lying about a degree, and at that point the reward of this more serious fraud isn't even certain yet. It is also possible to ask for a certified photocopy. I am not sure why this is done; maybe it repels a few more liars.

German universities are in fact not allowed to hand out any data about their faculty and (former) students. I would consider the spreadsheet linked above a weak form of corroboration. Weak because it looks more like someone's personal effort than an official list. (Even two dissertation titles are missing.)

Of course, technically even an authentic doctoral certificate is not proof that the holder of the certificate really holds the degree. There might have been a subsequent revocation for plagiarism.

One factor that may lead to even competent people committing fraud is the requirement of thesis publication. Once all other requirements have been satisfied, people usually get a warning that they are not allowed to use their degree before publication of the dissertation. As far as I know this is done quite consistently because even with the warning it does happen occasionally. Of course this is less of an issue nowadays, as the publication is often done electronically.

(I earlier wrote that standard practice was to hand out the certificate before publication. Some people protested, and I must agree that what I wrote was obviously wrong. It doesn't make sense for universities to hand out proof of something that is not true yet, and they don't do it. Sorry.)

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    Comments on this post have been moved to chat per request by multiple user flags. The comments include some disagreement on "standard German practice." – ff524 Sep 22 '15 at 2:03
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    I have been asked to provide my degree certificate as part of an application process and permit it to be copied. I produced the original during my first weeks of employment during my probationary period, a copy was sent via email during the interview process. This seems a reasonable request to make of anyone claiming to hold a degree. Permission could also be sought to contact the issuing authority for verification. None of this seems unreasonable and could be seen as part of due diligence. – TafT Sep 23 '15 at 14:41
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You could ask the candidate to provide written consent for the university to verify his degree. If he refuses to allow verification of his CV, then he's probably not someone you want to hire, regardless of whether his doctoral degree is legitimate or not.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Sep 22 '15 at 2:08
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    It's also common for companies to ask the candidate to ask the university to mail a verification directly to the company (usually a transcript because it's cheaper to print than an actual copy of a degree). I've done it twice myself when applying for a job at large multinational corporations. – slebetman Sep 23 '15 at 6:32
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In Germany, a strict requirement for doctoral degrees is publishing your thesis. These are called Dissertation; master theses or similar are not. This is the final step of acquiring the degree.

Nowadays this publication can be online (in which case it should be easily findable), but at the very least should be contained in the university’s library. The library in turn should have an online catalogue allowing you to search for works by your candidate and see whether one of them (usually the only one) is categorised as Dissertation, doctoral thesis, Doktorarbeit or similar.

In your particular case, the library maintains a search engine for theses since 2005 and has lists of theses since 1997, both can be found here. I can imagine that some libraries will tell you over the phone whether they have a thesis by a certain person – this is not private information, as we are talking about a published document and everybody could obtain this information by physically visiting the library.

Getting a thesis listed in those records without actually having a doctoral degree should at the very least require more skill than forging certificates and should be the best proof you can get without asking permission from the candidate to verify the degree. The only exception would be if the candidate lost his PhD, which is however extremely rare and often connected to public attention and also often causes the PhD thesis to be retracted. In any case, also ask for a certificate of all qualifications, as it makes it easier to sue the candidate if it should be forged.

Finally be aware that failing to find a thesis in such a list may have other causes than the person not having a degree. In that case you need to ask the candidate.

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Instead of asking for a written consent, as suggested by @AnonymousMathematician, I would recommend to make providing a proof of academic credentials a part of required documents for a job application. That way you will transfer the burden of supporting an application to an applicant, which makes sense by definition and also will save you time and effort. This approach will also reduce the time for an application, since typically graduates are already in possession of proof of their academic credentials, furnished by their educational institution. The proof usually comes in a form of a diploma and/or an official academic transcript and, perhaps, an official conferral letter.

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    The difficulty I have with this is how to check the documents. Diplomas and transcripts from different universities look radically different, and their appearances even change over the years. If you showed me a fancy-looking document with the name of a university I attended on it, I couldn't reliably tell you whether it was genuine, and I wouldn't have even the slightest idea for other universities. I suppose I could compare with image searches online, but that would give both false positives and false negatives. It's easier to ask the university than to judge the documents myself. – Anonymous Mathematician Sep 21 '15 at 5:06
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    (This raises the question of why official transcripts are usually required for graduate admissions in the U.S., if judging whether a transcript is real is difficult. As far as I understand, the primary goal isn't to combat major dishonesty, such as forging a whole transcript. Instead, the fear is that a much larger fraction of people would commit lesser dishonesty, such as "accidentally" mistyping one or two grades if they reported their own grades, emboldened by the fact that nobody could prove it was intentional. Official transcripts avoid this temptation.) – Anonymous Mathematician Sep 21 '15 at 5:11
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    @AnonymousMathematician I think the point is to make the applicant ask the university to send the official transcript to the company. – March Ho Sep 21 '15 at 5:11
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    @MarchHo: Yes, that would work better (although it conflicts with the sentence "This approach will also reduce the time for an application, since typically graduates are already in possession of proof of their academic credentials, furnished by their educational institution."). – Anonymous Mathematician Sep 21 '15 at 5:15
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    @AleksandrBlekh that extrapolation is entirely valid. The check could be done electronically - I think police do this when they pull people over for speeding, for example. But in any case, my point would be that most times when people check your ID, they are not actually proving that it is your ID. One may then question whether lindelhof wants proof, or merely to raise the barrier to getting a fake credential accepted. – David Z Sep 21 '15 at 7:58
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In Germany "dissertation" is always the path to a Doktor grade which is equivalent to the PhD. The dissertation must be published in Germany (which is one expensive part if done in paper), so it is publicly available.

The dissertation can be and was often written in German, so no surprise. Because of the prevalence of English in the natural sciences, English dissertations are more and more common in this fields. It is also normal that Germany has extremely strict privacy.

To your question: Yes, he has a doctor/PhD degree.

In the general case:
a) Look out for the title of the dissertation and the university in the CV. If this information is missing, request it. Once you have this information (and there is no reason to refuse it), look up if the "university" is in fact a diploma mill or something suspicious ("The Great University of Melanesia").

b) Look up the dissertation which should be publicly available and google for the instituition. Mills and unsavory institutes will be found easily because they are advertising their "services". Contact the university which will likely provide you with the information if the candidate has the given grade (for other countries).

c) If you are savvy in your field and you can understand the dissertation, you could ask what the candidate has found out in the dissertation. Even for a diploma (Master) I could roughly describe what I did (do not expect formulas from me). This will expose people who used a ghostwriter (there are many politicians in Germany who were forced to resign after it was exposed that they "bought" their grade).

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    It's also more and more common to have the abstract of a dissertion in english and german. – mart Sep 21 '15 at 9:27
  • I wonder if there are cases where the library holds a copy of the dissertation even though no degree was awarded: for example if the dissertation was accepted but the degree was refused for reasons such as non-payment of fees. – Michael Kay Sep 21 '15 at 21:09
  • @MichaelKay: In Germany, you usually do not even have to be registered as a student when doing a doctorate, so it is fully possible there are no fees. When there are, these are usually collected by the "university secretariate", which tends to be unrelated to the "exam office" that watches over preconditions for certificates. – O. R. Mapper Mar 11 '16 at 20:38
  • @MichaelKay: the Geman universities I know are extremely practical in that respect: they start the procedure for awarding the PhD (including review/grading of the thesis, defense, etc) only after they received the fee (there is a fee for the burocratic procedure regardless whether you are a student of the university or not). Likewise, IIRC I got the forms for handing the thesis over to the university library only after passing the defense - actually, the committee may ask for changes/corrections in the defense, so the final version is typically produced as 2nd last step, ... – cbeleites Mar 12 '16 at 18:15
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    @O.R.Mapper: see e.g. FSU Jena uni-jena.de/unijenamedia/Downloads/faculties/bio_pharm/… (§7 Prüfungsgebühren). But of course, each university (faculty?) has their own Promotionsordnung and Gebührenordnung, so it is quite possible that the universities you know have no fees as well. – cbeleites Mar 13 '16 at 11:42
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To expand on previous answers:

In this particular case, the Institute in question provides a list of all PhD theses (Doktorarbeiten/Dissertationen) on their webpage: http://www.ifw.uni-hannover.de/ifw-dissertationen.html

In Germany it is indeed common to prove your degree via a sheet of paper the university gives you and not by people calling up the university.

But shouldn't it be obvious from the references (you did get an academic reference, no ?) if the candidate has a PhD ?

  • Could you elaborate on how the presence of an academic reference would prove a specific degree? – O. R. Mapper Sep 21 '15 at 17:20
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"We're currently interviewing candidates at my company and I'd like to verify if some of them really have the academic degrees they claim."

Have the applicant provide a scan of his diploma.

"I've contacted the university, and the dean wrote back saying that they could not provide this information without the written consent of the individual. I found this policy rather odd."

It's normal. It's not their business to meet your requests. Plus who cares what you find odd--there are probably many parts of the world that don't make sense to you--tough.

"I obtained from the library a copy of the thesis in question but it was in German."

Sounds pretty good to me. Can't you skim it? English and German are rather similar. Does it have any figures? Plus it's just sitting there--you think the library filed a fraudulent copy? How would that change if in English? If you really want to be a sooper detective, just get a few pages translated. But honestly...this seems odd (on your end).

"I also found through Google a spreadsheet which appears to be a list of dissertations published by that university, but it is unclear whether these are doctoral dissertations or not. The person in question and his dissertation are in that list."

Sounds good. How certain do you need to be? First you have the assertion of the applicant (which should count for a lot--many places would just take that), then you have all these other positive indicators. But if you want more, have the kid scan his diploma. But really, your level of suspicion is "odd". If I were an applicant and you showed me this behavior, I would reject you and move on to other opportunities.

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I found this policy rather odd; I would have thought that the granting of a doctoral degree was public information. Is this normal?

Answer:

nothing requires a university to release this information upon request to anyone who asks, and in practice, many universities will require consent (and maybe a fee) in order to release it.

Meaning, they do it for money, which while is a hassle for you, is brilliant on their part.

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    -1. I am pretty sure German universities do not ask for a fee to release private information. They just protect it, until authorization is provided to release it. – Quora Feans Sep 21 '15 at 17:51
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    Data protection law in the UK would (or should) prevent a UK university from disclosing any information they have about a student without permission from the student. I am a UK citizen so I have experience of this. I am also aware that German data protection laws are generally more strict than those of the UK. Whether they charge or not, they are forbidden from issuing information which regarded as the property of the individual it is about, without the consent on the individual. – TafT Sep 23 '15 at 14:45
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    The second quoted passage was taken from a comment made by me and since removed by moderators. It can still be seen on chat. (I guess the link marked "Answer" leading to that comment was intended as attribution, but now that the comment has been deleted, the passage lacks attribution to me.) In the original context (not included here), I made clear that I was only speaking about practices in the US. I make no claim that this sentence is applicable to Germany. – Nate Eldredge Sep 23 '15 at 18:22
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    I would also like to add that the inference made by BCLC, that such university policies are primarily motivated by money, is solely BCLC's own. That is not my opinion and I did not intend to imply it. – Nate Eldredge Sep 23 '15 at 18:25
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    @BCLC How is holding a degree not private information? You think everybody wants anybody to know they have a degree in Nuclear Physics? Germany has strong privacy protection laws, including if you attend a university or which grade you have been given. – Chris Mar 13 '16 at 1:52

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