The evaluation of PhD candidate is done based on his/her thesis, his defence presentation and the oral examination (in some countries). If the examiners do not find so much to argue about, the candidate gets "magna cum laude". In some cases, he may get "summa cum laude".

By attending some PhD examinations and reading the theses, I could not find the key factor, which distinguishes between these two academic honours. The publication list was not a criterion as well. Note that I am talking about examinations in the same faculty of the same university.

Since there is no concrete evaluation of the PhD examination, how examiners decide to give "summa cum laude" instead of "magna cum laude"? In other words, what can the candidate do to make this difference?

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    What country are you referring to? PhD grades/honors are foreign to me. Where I graduated in the US, it was pass/fail and nothing beyond that.
    – Thomas
    Jul 19, 2017 at 19:14
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    How did your committe members respond when you asked them this question? (You did ask your committee members, didn't you?)
    – JeffE
    Jul 19, 2017 at 20:05
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    I'm guessing these distinctions aren't all that meaningful beyond the defense (although I am in the US, where the latin honors are only used for undergraduates in my experience): you will be evaluated for future positions based on your research productivity, letters of recommendation, etc.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 19, 2017 at 20:19
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    At the institutions i know (Germany), the summa cum laude grade is jealously guarded by the faculty, and a Prof who want's it for a student has to be very persuasive, even dig out "Vordiplom" and "Abitur" grades. But it varies. We had a minister of defence who lost his office and doctorate over plagiarism in an already lousy thesis for which he had received "summa".
    – Karl
    Jul 19, 2017 at 20:59
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    It is definitely a "country thing" - not even universally European (to sort of refer to Thomas' comment). - In the UK one can have a pass/minor revisions/major revisions/deferral/fail in the PhD Viva (the oral examination) - and after the corrections it is either pass or fail and there is no distinction on the final certificate.
    – DetlevCM
    Jul 20, 2017 at 7:04

1 Answer 1


There is - to my knowledge - no universal guideline. But basically "magna cum laude" is the go to grade for good students, so hopefully the one most students of an institution receive. To get a "summa cum lauda" a student needs to really show outstanding promising work, winning awards for papers can be an indicator, but is neither a necessary nor a sufficient criteria. Basically the supervisors need to believe they see a future professor/inventor/researcher in the making who has the potential to shape the research in some area.

On the other hand (where available), if the candidate does okay, but with some let-downs, there is often also the "cum laude" option.

Note that this also can vary by country and institution. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctorate or (German but way more on grades, checkout the "Bewertung" section) https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Promotion_(Doktor) for a list of varying grades (again, there seems to be additional institution/area variation in addition to the country defaults).

  • The reference you give doesn't mention latin honors except for Spain.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 19, 2017 at 20:21
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    I'd have thought Magna at least meant above average, but otherwise agree with this answer. But I only really know in the undergrad context. Jul 19, 2017 at 20:40
  • Indeed, I didn't check properly which language version contains what, it seems the German Wikipage has the most details on grades, so I'll refer that if only to help get a grasp of the variations. Jul 19, 2017 at 20:43
  • @NoahSnyder - well one of my Professors would have said, you should already be an above average student to attempt a Phd ;) So I'd read it as a good grade but have the underlying assumption that you expect to be "good" from a Phd student anyways - it's a matter of perspective/expectation. I would for instance not expect a Phd student to hand in his thesis and then fail, which cuts off all the "failing" grades from the grading scheme in reality (as I know it). Jul 19, 2017 at 20:48

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