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In order to finish a PhD and obtain the title of doctor, the candidate must present their thesis and do a defense, that is, roughly speaking, to discuss the thesis and answer questions from the jury.

In English, we call it thesis defense, and in French it is called soutenance.

I would like to know how to say that in German. It seems (but of course, I am not sure) that one could say it as

  1. Verteidigung
  2. Disputation
  3. Rigorosum
  4. Kolloquium

Could someone tell me if all these four words are synonyms and if they are really equivalent to thesis defense in English? If they mean the same, are some of them more formal than others? And is there another way to say it?

  • Note that this is not restricted to a PhD, but Bachelor and Master theses as well. – infinitezero Sep 23 at 17:10
  • A Google search for "Promotionsordnung" gives you many hits. It seems that Disputation occurs most frequently, but also Kolloqium and (öffentliche) Verteidigung occur. It depends on the university. See also hochschulkompass.de/promotion/promotionsphase/…. – Paul Frost Sep 29 at 22:45
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First beware that this is a typical case of academia varies more than you think it does. There is no general rule on how doctoral exams are done; instead, this is decided by the faculty. As a consequence, doctoral exams vary widely between universities and faculties. I know of two universities which have a joint graduate school for one field and even there doctoral exams differs extremely between the two universities.

This also applies to the terminology. So, the same term may mean something considerably different at a different faculty, in particular when it comes to official procedure. Therefore, in the following I can only write about how these terms are generally understood:

  • Verteidigung is arguably the most general term and the most frequently used term. Every¹ doctoral examination has at least one component in which the candidate has to face questions from the examiners and Verteidigung covers it. Official rules that are not specific to universities usually use this term when necessary. E.g., the date of the doctoral exam is usually referred to as Datum der Verteidigung.

  • While Disputation is just a Latin word for Verteidigung, it is used much more rarely and usually refers to a specific format of the exam, where the defendant faces questions from the examiners in public, possibly in a strict format. It can also be used in a more general sense, synonymously to Verteidigung, but at least in my experience that is rather rare.

  • A Rigorosum is a specific kind of doctoral exam that is characterised by featuring questions on the entire field of the candidate. It is usually not public. Many faculties do not perform this kind of exam.

  • A Kolloquium is a general term for a public talk, usually with questions from the audience. In the context of a doctoral exam, the candidate gives a talk on their thesis, which is usually public but may be restricted to members of the university or similar in special cases.

For example, my own doctoral exam consisted of a Kolloquium, where I talked about my thesis on dynamical systems, and was followed by a Rigorosum, where I was asked questions on my thesis but also on particle physics and solid-state physics. The entire thing was referred to as Verteidigung.

In conclusion, I strongly recommend Verteidigung unless you want to specify the mode of exam.

Finally note that the above primarily reflects the situation in Germany and the usage of these terms is somewhat different in Austria. For example, Rigorosum has a broader scope.


¹ At least as far as I know. As I said academia varies more than I think it does.

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  • 2
    Excellent answer. I would have considered Verteidigung and Disputation synonyms, with the latter perhaps becoming less common. I can be wrong, though. – Carsten S Sep 23 at 10:07
  • @CarstenS: Disputation can be used synonymously with Verteidigung, but at least in my experience that’s very rare and reason enough not to use the term when you want to avoid confusion (also see my edit). – Wrzlprmft Sep 23 at 11:16
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    @Olafant: Please see my edit. – Wrzlprmft Sep 23 at 11:16
  • Thank you very much for such a complete answer! Rigorosum was not clear to me probably because the PhD programs that I am used to do not have this evaluation step and the questions from the jury are, in general, only about the thesis. – Hilder Vitor Lima Pereira Sep 23 at 11:53
  • Actually, "Vortrag"/"Abschlussvortrag" and "[mündliche] Prüfung" are two more terms in use, sometimes in combination. – O. R. Mapper Sep 23 at 17:38
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I have heard this being refered to as Verteidigung, Disputation and Rigorosum. These are all in use. Which one is used depends on university and faculty tradition I'd say, but they're all understood.

I haven't heard Kolloquium being directly used for this kind of event, Kolloquium is a broader term that refers to all kinds of meetings and discussion events with an academic topic. A disputation can be seen as a special kind of Kolloquium.

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