Your Ph.D. Isn’t from the EU? Then You’re Not a ‘Doktor’

Your Ph.D. Isn’t from the EU? Then You’re Not a ‘Doktor’

(Editor’s note: Please see update at bottom.)

Do you have a Ph.D. from a well-regarded American university such as Harvard, Cornell, or Caltech? If so, don’t go to Germany and put the title "Dr." on your business card, Web site, or résumé. It’s illegal, and you could end up in prison for a year.

Under a 1930s law from Nazi times, only people with Ph.D.’s and medical degrees from German universities can use "Dr." as a title, though the law was amended in 2001 to include degrees from EU countries too. (There is a way for non-EU degree holders to apply for permission to use the titles, but apparently, it’s not worth the trouble.)

Recently, seven Americans — all researchers at institutes of Germany’s prestigious Max Planck Society — were investigated for title abuse. One was an astrophysicist with a Ph.D. from Caltech. Another, Ian Thomas Baldwin, has a Ph.D. from Cornell. His colleagues have been calling him "Prof. Dr. Baldwin" for a decade, but apparently, the law says he instead should be "Prof. Ian Thomas Baldwin, Ph.D., Cornell University." (It looks like his Web page is in compliance, thank goodness.)

Honorifics are taken quite seriously in Germany, reports the Washington Post. (If any of you who have lived in Germany know about this sensitivity, please feel free to leave a comment.) Fortunately, though, prosecutors have now recommended against filing charges, but the Americans could still face a civil fine.

Meanwhile, German officials recently suggested changing the law to allow the "Dr." title to be used by people with Ph.D.’s and medical degrees from U.S. universities, but only if the university is one of the approximately 200 accredited by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

It all raises the question: Do Germans with Ph.D.’s and medical degrees expect to be called "Dr." when living abroad?

UPDATE: According to a post on the Marginal Revolution blog, the law mentioned in this post may have just been changed.