Cum laude is a distinction that students and PhD candidates can obtain if they have completed their studies or doctorate with exceptional results. For doctoral research, the supervisor decides whether the PhD candidate is eligible for the designation. One hundred and ninety-three PhD candidates and supervisors took part in the poll.

Nuanced picture

The poll showed that a narrow majority of respondents are in favour of abolishing the practice of awarding a cum laude distinction for doctorates. Among PhD candidates, 59 per cent are in favour of abolition, while 51 per cent of supervisors agree. At the same time, a sizeable minority would prefer to keep the distinction: 36 per cent of candidates and 47 per cent of supervisors say that cum laude should be retained.

For opponents, the biggest problem is the subjective assessment, because there are no transparent criteria for awarding a cum laude designation for doctorates. There are also concerns that the personal attributes of a candidate, such as gender and ethnicity, may be a factor, as evidenced by this study. Supervisors say that candidates are dependent on their supervisors, who must be prepared to do extra work to set the cum laude evaluation process in motion. Pressure to perform and unnecessary competition are also important objections.

Read more

Abolishing cum laude: does it help?

Several medical studies, including those in Rotterdam, are considering scrapping ‘cum…

Respondents who supported retaining the distinction say that they think it is important for excellence and hard work to be rewarded, and that a cum laude designation is a good way to make a candidate stand out in the labour market. According to them, it is the way in which the cum laude designation is awarded for doctorates that is problematic, not the designation itself. They also question the idea that performance pressure plays a role; supporters of cum laude think that this pressure mainly comes from other factors, such as the quality of supervision.

The survey was conducted by the Erasmus Graduate School of Social Sciences and the Humanities, a partnership between the social sciences and humanities at Erasmus University and the International Institute of Social Studies. A total of 193 people responded to the poll: 138 PhD candidates and 55 supervisors.

Broader debate

The poll did not take place in a vacuum. Several universities are pondering the future viability of the designation. For example, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU Amsterdam) has abolished cum laude from its Master’s of Medicine and several university medical centres are considering following their example. Non-medical degree programmes are also beginning to question whether the cum laude designation is desirable. An argument that is frequently raised in this debate is that cum laude increases the pressure to perform.

Young academics at Utrecht University recently spoke up in favour of retaining cum laude for doctorates as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. However, they did say that the criteria for awarding cum laude designations for doctorates should be more transparent. At the moment, unlike for Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, for doctorates it is not clear when a candidate is eligible for a cum laude designation. The research must be in the top five per cent of theses on the subject, but how that is determined is subjective.