Background: In Germany, more than half of the students complete a doctorate in the life sciences and medicine. Thus the doctorate, which is supposed to pave the way for a research career, also seems to perform other functions. In medicine, there is a cliché that students earn doctorates for reasons of prestige but in the life sciences, there is an assumption that you will not succeed on the labor market without a doctorate. To date, we know little about the actual motives for earning a doctorate and its perceived meaningfulness after graduation.
Methods: Motives for obtaining a doctorate from both subject groups were analyzed using data from the E-Prom study (N = 1518). For medicine, additional data from the Bavarian Graduate Study MediBAS (N = 570) were analyzed. Qualitative interview data from the E-Prom study (N = 28) were used to better understand the motives for obtaining a doctorate in their substance and to compare them with the retrospectively perceived meaningfulness.
Results: In medicine, the motives of “customariness” and feared “career disadvantages” predominate. Approximately half of the medical doctoral graduates had little or no interest to do research during or after the doctorate. In the life sciences, customariness and feared career disadvantages are important motives, too. However, research (career) interest also receives high and significantly higher approval than in medicine. Moreover, female medical graduates express significantly lower research and career motives; the latter also applies to the life sciences. The qualitative analyzes indicate a close connection between career paths and justifications of meaningfulness of the doctorate in the life sciences. In medicine, justifications of meaningfulness are closely related to initial motives for obtaining a doctorate. Hence, people who only pursued a doctorate to bear a title accordingly justified their doctorate’s meaningfulness merely with its acquisition.
Conclusion: Our results stress the need for greater promotion of (academic) research careers among medical students, as well as the promotion of female careers in and outside of academic research. Further investigations are necessary to understand the exact mechanisms behind our results and to develop effective interventions.