How can foreign doctoral titles be used in Germany with legal certainty?

Due to the globalized world, it often happens that people obtain doctoral titles abroad or are awarded a foreign honorary doctorate. Clients contact us because they are unsure how to use these titles correctly. In conversation with Dr. Rainer Schreiber, management consultant and member of the Association of German Professional Journalists e.V. based in Berlin – a summary by Valentin Markus Schulte, economist & Stud. iur.

The academic doctorate – the ordinary doctoral title – Dr. Titel

The doctorate, an aspect of higher education, is nothing more than a promotion to (from the Latin promotio: promotion to a position of honor) a higher, academic level. Thus, the doctorate is proof of the ability to conduct particularly in-depth scientific research and is based on an independently written scientific paper, i.e. the dissertation, as well as a disputation. The doctoral procedures vary at universities in Germany and abroad, and may include further examinations in addition to the dissertation and disputation. The decisive factor for a doctoral thesis (dissertation) is novelty – i.e. new scientific results. A disputation is the defense of the results of the doctoral thesis before a scientific committee.

Doctorate from abroad

Doctoral degrees obtained academically can be rewritten within the framework of the rules laid down in the Bologna Process and can be used in Germany without an addition. Thus, there is a transparent set of rules that makes the „conversion“ of foreign academic doctoral titles possible. There are problems in particular with „small Dr. titles“ that can be obtained in some European countries, which represent an intermediate between a Master’s degree and a dissertation and may not be used as „full Dr. titles“ in Germany. Different rules apply in other countries.

The academic title may be entered in the identity card according to § 5 II sentence 5 Personalausweisgesetz (PAuswG). This is German law.

The honorary doctorate

The honorary doctorate (doctor honoris causa) is awarded by universities or other institutions to people who have rendered outstanding services to the university or to a scientific or social achievement. In contrast to the academic titles, no dissertation has to be written here. The awarding bodies are thus very free in matters of conferral. Academic rights are not derivable from such titles, so that according to § 5 II sentence 5 PAuswG no entry of the honorary doctorate title in the identity card is possible. In fact, this degree has occasionally been included in the personal status data within the framework of a case-by-case decision.

Legal basis for the use of the title in Germany

The legal basis results from the regulations of the respective Land, since the Lands have legislative authority here in accordance with Article 70 Basic Law (GG). The regulations are quite similar, so that only the regulations of the Bavarian state law are referred to here as an example.

According to Art. 68 II Sentence 1 Bavarian Higher Education Act (BayHSchG), „A foreign honorary degree awarded by an institution of higher education or other body authorized to award such degrees under the law of the country of origin (…) may be used in the form in which it was awarded in accordance with the legal provisions applicable to the award, indicating the awarding body.“

According to Art. 68 II sentence 2 BayHSchG, this does not apply if the foreign institution has no right to award this title. Thus, it is always questionable whether the awarding institution is entitled to award the title. This must be examined in each individual case. If it is a renowned university, to which perhaps even the responsible ministry of the state refers, this is often to be affirmed.

In which form can the honorary doctoral degree from a foreign EU country be held in a legally correct manner?

When using the honorary doctorate title (Dr. h.c.), it is essential to point out that this is not an academic title. In addition, the awarding institution or the country suffix must be mentioned in short form. The correct form would be, for example: Dr. h.c. (University Y, City X) Max Mustermann. Here it is permissible if the designation is translated into Latin letters. Also meaningful and recognized abbreviations of the awarding institution are possible (e.g. Dr. h.c. (UY, X)). Another possibility is to use a * with an explanation below, which in practice would look like this: Dr. h.c.*

If these regulations are not observed or the Dr. h.c. is used as an academic title, a criminal liability according to § 132a of the German Criminal Code (StGB) comes into consideration. It states: „Whoever unauthorizedly uses domestic or foreign official or service titles, academic degrees, titles or public dignities (…) shall be punished by imprisonment for up to one year or by a fine.“ Affected persons who are unclear about the legal situation should therefore contact an expert lawyer.


Valentin Markus Schulte
Economist, Stud. iur

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