Doctors in the House

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.

17 Responses to Doctors in the House

  1. Anonymous Coward February 13, 2013 at 11:34 am #

    Dan Lipinski (D-IL) and David Price (D-NC) both have polisci PhDs.

  2. Anonymous Coward February 13, 2013 at 11:39 am #

    In the last Congress, 18 Representatives and no Senators held PhDs, according to this:

    26 Representatives and 1 Senator have no education beyond high school, though, which goes along with your point.

  3. Chris February 13, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

    Chris Gibson (R, NY-11) has a Cornell polsci PhD and taught at West Point.

  4. Andrew Gelman February 13, 2013 at 12:53 pm #


    I agree with all you wrote, but the term “Doctor” (as in, medical doctor) does seem to count for something in U.S. politics. Howard Dean and Bill Frist are, to some extent, political punchlines nowadays (to the extent that they are remembered at all), but when they were big names, my impression was that their medical degrees–their “doctor-ness”—was part of their appeal. And then of course there was Dr. Kissinger but that was a long time ago.

    • RobC February 13, 2013 at 1:21 pm #

      And not just in politics. Let’s have a shout-out to Dr. King, Dr. Cosby, Dr. Laura and Dr. Phil.

    • RobC February 13, 2013 at 2:09 pm #

      Forgot to mention Dr. Jill Biden.

      • Andrew Gelman February 14, 2013 at 12:31 am #

        Dr. J and Doc Gooden. And then there was Dr. Demento, but he didn’t run for public office (as far as I know).

    • LFC February 14, 2013 at 5:20 pm #

      You know who else is a medical doctor?

      Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Ok)
      Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tx)

      No doubt there are others.

  5. Simon Kiss February 13, 2013 at 1:11 pm #

    I think a major part of the appeal in Germany comes from a deep cultural appreciation for the occupation a citizen holds. I cannot cite sources off the top of my head, but I’m willing to wager that this stretches back to the role of trade guilds in the Middle Ages and this somehow got carried forward. This may reflect the dominance of conservative social forces (e.g. landowners, churches) that prevailed through the Industrial Revolution. The German welfare state (in contrast to the Swedish) is remarkably status-preserving rather than transcending.

  6. sean February 13, 2013 at 3:24 pm #

    I don’t think a PhD is a drawback in politics in the US, but there is a huge time constraint involved, so if one is interested in being a politician, getting a PhD is a pretty circuitous route. In Germany, one can earn a doctorate in 3 years, as opposed to the 6-7 years that most American doctoral students tend to take, so the trade off of time vs. prestige makes more sense in Germany.

  7. genauer February 13, 2013 at 3:36 pm #

    I think Simon Kiss is as wrong as you can possibly be.

    When you look where German chancellors came from socially , and ministers, there are absolutely NO rich people. A Bain-Romney would be eaten alive, before he could ever declare a candidacy.

    just wiki the parents:
    Helmut Schmidt, uneducated teacher, rising to 3rd rate, finally
    Dr. Helmut Kohl, financial clerg
    Gerhard Schroeder, “we were the ‘asoziale'”, the lower 5% socially
    vice Joshka Fischer, refugee butcher, street fighter
    Dr. Angela Merkel, lutheran priest in a socialist, atheist country, dirt poor
    vice Dr. Philip Rösler, a vietnamese orphan, adopted by a german officer

    We very much value people coming by their own hard work coming from below.

  8. genauer February 13, 2013 at 4:17 pm #

    A breakdown of Dr in the German Parliament , by party and gender (F/M) G = total

    Dr F M G
    CDU/CSU 54 45 192 237
    SPD 21 57 89 146
    FDP 22 24 69 93
    Die Linke 14 42 34 76
    Grüne 10 36 32 68

    Sum 121 204 416 620

    “Die Linke” = communist

  9. genauer February 13, 2013 at 4:27 pm #

    even our cutie Commnist leader Dr. Sahra Wagenknecht (wiki it) is a freshly baked Dr of economics, on saving habits in the US and Germany. And I am sure , that she didn’t plagiarize, not like some former self-presumed heir to the throne, like ex-Dr von und zu Guttenberg : – )

    P.S. there is a story how Angela Merkel hid in a hollow tree with her only valuable possesion, a western made blue jeans. She is the only politician, I know of, who never made any promises, ….. beyond raising VAT taxes by 3%, when elected. This is the material, Iron chancellors are made of.

  10. Brett Champion February 18, 2013 at 12:47 am #

    Most likely the differences in the desirability of obtaining a Ph.D. for a German politician vis-a-vis an American one relates to differences in how the average German and American views academia in general. I suspect that there is great respect in Germany for people who get a Ph.D.; whereas, in the US, there might even be outright dislike among a large portion of the population for people with advanced degrees.

    Americans tend not to go in for all that high falutin’ book learnin’ that it takes to get a doctorate.

    • Kai Arzheimer February 21, 2013 at 5:26 am #

      I’m afraid neither German politicians nor the general public have a deeply rooted affection for academic achievement (I work in German Higher Education and would have noted). To me, it looks more like a mutual game of keeping up appearances.
      Shameless plug: Here is my take on the curious case of the plagiarising education minister:

  11. Taylor Boas February 18, 2013 at 2:23 pm #

    Apparently the “Dr.” title is allowed on the ballot in Germany: e.g., Does anyone know more about this issue? Are other professional titles (military, religious, etc.) also allowed on the ballot? Do you have to prove to the electoral authority that you have a doctorate? Could anyone point me toward the legislation that regulates this? I’m doing research on the electoral effects of professional titles in Brazil and am interested in comparisons.

    • Kai Arzheimer February 21, 2013 at 5:23 am #

      Jobtitle/profession (“Beruf oder Stand”) is required on the ballot paper. Dr. (=PhD) and Prof. (=Professor) are quite common. Some PhDs have the degree registered in their ID. I don’t think that there are separate checks on the veracity of their claim to these titles, and I could not find anyhting in the law (here: I cannot remember ever seeing military or religious titles on a ballot paper, but I might be mistaken.