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Ph.D. & Dr. rer. nat. - Different names for a doctoral degree

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Previously, we wrote about being a researcher in Germany. Here, we will discuss doctoral degrees and some country-dependent differences.

Internationally, a doctoral degree can be awarded in any field of science. Depending on each doctoral program and the country where it is taking place, the time and requirements to graduate vary. In the majority of cases, a degree is awarded after delivering a written thesis summarizing the research and defending it in front of a panel of experts in the specific field or a committee involved in the research study from start until completion. If you are interested in pursuing a doctoral degree in natural sciences in Germany, you should know that German institutions may award either the title of Ph.D. or Dr. rer. nat. If you are new to the German system of higher education, you may wonder about the difference between Ph.D. and Dr. rer. nat. Here we’re gonna break it down for you.

What is a Ph.D.?
The Doctor of Philosophy, better known for its abbreviation Ph.D., is a degree of postgraduate education awarded for an original research study where individuals have contributed to the understanding of a field. According to the author Keith Allan Noble, the first doctoral degree was conferred in Paris around the year 1150 (Noble, 1994). In the following centuries, the Ph.D. degree gained popularity and shaped into the highest academic degree worldwide.

Why Germany uses the Dr. rer. nat. title?
In Germany, the doctoral degree is awarded after one completes the process known as “Promotion”, which ends with presenting the thesis dissertation to a committee. Rather than universally receiving the Ph.D. title, latin suffixes are used to specify the field of the doctoral degree awarded in Germany (Academic positions, 2018). This is why after completing a doctoral programme in natural sciences in Germany, the degree obtained is Dr. rer. nat. from the latin Doctor rerum naturalium, or doctor of natural sciences.

Here are some examples of different discipline-specific doctoral degrees that can be obtained at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, depending of the field of study (LMU München, 2021):
Dr. rer. nat. (natural sciences)
Dr. phil. nat. (humanities and natural sciences)
Dr. med. (human medicine)
Dr. med. dent. (dental medicine)
Dr. rer. biol. hum. (human biology)

Ph.D. or Dr. rer. nat. - Is there a difference?
Ph.D. and Dr. rer. nat. are both recognized as doctoral degrees. As an example of this parallelism, the Max-Planck institute states that the Dr. rer. nat. degree awarded by the Faculty of Science at the University of Tübingen is the german equivalent to a Ph.D. (Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, 2021)

Some Universities give you the opportunity to choose between obtaining a Ph.D. or a Dr. rer. nat. title, which can arguably be confusing to foreigners pursuing a Ph.D. in Germany. Examples of those universities are the Freie Universität Berlin (Freie Universität Berlin, 2021) and the University of Ulm (Universität Ulm, 2020). This reinforces that a Dr. rer. nat. degree is equivalent to a Ph.D.

Nevertheless, keep in mind that you should be careful about what you call yourself in official documents in Germany. According to German regulations, if you have a Ph.D. title you are allowed to write your name as either “Name Surname, Ph.D.” or “Dr. Name Surname”. Conversely, if you have a Dr. rer. nat. title you can only use it like this or as “Dr. Name Surname”. Make sure to comply when writing any official documents!

Written by Karla Azucena Juárez Núñez; Edited by Gabrielle Sant. Image: NGC/Design.



LMU München. 2021. Doctoral degrees. Retrieved from this link.

Freie Universität Berlin. 2021. Dr. rer. nat. or Ph.D.?. Retrieved from this link.

Academic positions. 2018. German Academic Job Titles Explained. Retrieved from this link.

Universität Ulm. 2020. Infos zur Promotion. Retrieved from this link.

Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology. 2021. PhD Degree/ Dr. rer. nat. Retrieved from this link.

Noble, Keith Allan. 1994. Changing Doctoral Degrees: An International Perspective. Taylor and Francis, 1900 Frost Road, Suite 101, Bristol, PA 19007-1598.

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