Male PhD students more likely to obtain ‘cum laude’, although not based on quality

Male PhD students are far more likely than their female peers to obtain a cum laude distinction. But the quality of their doctoral dissertations fails to explain the disparities, researchers claim.

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Six years ago, the NRC newspaper wrote that male students are more likely to obtain a PhD ‘with distinction’ than female students. That applies to all fields, according to a study conducted by Thijs Bol, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam, last year.

The same is also true at another Dutch university, according to recently published research. At the research university in question, male students are roughly twice as likely to have their PhD thesis awarded with the distinction cum laude.


The researchers analyzed whether this disparity could be explained by, for example, the research field, the composition of doctorate boards or the number of co-authors of PhD students’ scientific publications. They found that this was not the case, however.

Furthermore, the researchers discovered that the scientific quality of doctoral research was not a determining factor in explaining the gender gap observed between male and female students. In addition to other aspects, they investigated the journals in which PhD students published their articles and how often they were cited. There, too, it was found that the work of female students remains equal to that of male students, although they are less likely to be awarded a cum laude distinction for their efforts.

Although the study does not name the research university concerned, lead author Peter van den Besselaar is professor emeritus at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. The study is not a further analysis of previously researched UvA data.


Thijs Bol, Professor of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam, believes that it is a commendable study. It is a further indication that appreciation of male and female PhD students does not always depend on quality, he says.

Bol advocates for the abolition of the designation cum laude. “It has no scientific added value”, he says. “These outcomes should really act as a spur for formalizing the procedures for awarding cum laude distinctions, in order to mitigate the potential for bias. That takes a lot of time and work, however, and even then it is debatable whether bias can be completely eliminated. So, why should we bother pursuing this?”

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