Doctors in the House

by Henry Farrell on February 13, 2013 · 17 comments

in Academia,Comparative Politics

Deutsche Welle has an interesting article on why German politicians want doctorates (and how this gets them into trouble when their dissertations turn out to be ever so slightly dodgy).

Yet he does understand the allure of the “doctor” title in Germany. “A doctorate gives a kind of cosmetic effect to the reputation of the person. And I think especially in areas like consultancy or politics, that’s important.” Beyond the cosmetic effect, there’s also clear financial incentive. Germans who hold a doctorate title make far more money than their peers who hold a Bachelor’s degree. And with a mostly-free higher education system, a doctorate might cost a few thousand euros, rather than tens of thousands, as it would in the US and UK.
For Jan Ludwig, a long-term member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany and a municipal politician in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the pressure for politicians to obtain a PhD has less to do with internal party politics than a German public that universally reveres the title of “doctor.” “When there are several nominees to become candidate, it might be an advantage for a nominee to have a PhD title,” he told DW. “Especially when the delegates electing a candidate don’t know the nominees well, some might see a PhD title as an indication of the nominee’s quality, as well as his potential to win votes. People with such titles are often well respected simply due to the title.”

The differences with the US are striking. I don’t know the literature on the educational background of politicians in Congress, beyond a general impression that there are lots of lawyers, but I can only think of one member of Congress with a Ph.D. (Rush Holt – there are likely others). Possession of a Ph.D., to put it mildly, is not a good proxy for “potential to win votes” in US general elections. More generally, casual empiricism would suggest that not only are politicians not attracted to Ph.D. qualifications, they are not attracted to people with Ph.D. qualifications either (this applies with particular force to political science, which both aspires to be academic and purports to explain topics that politicians think they are the true experts on). It would be interesting to figure out the sociological reasons why advanced academic qualifications are publicly associated with political success in countries like Germany, and are publicly considered a political liability in countries like the US.

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