Social Background Effects in the Transition to a Doctoral Degree

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 10:30
Oral Presentation
Anna BACHSLEITNER, German Institute for International Educational Research, Germany
Social inequality in early educational transitions, especially the transition to secondary school as well as to tertiary education, is well documented. Most studies have shown decreasing social background effects over educational careers, thus, the question arises how far the social background and the aspiration to avoid downward social mobility are still relevant for late transitions after university, like the transition to doctoral studies. Socially unequal access to doctoral programmes is individually and societally relevant, since a doctoral degree is linked with positive labour market effects, e.g., subject-specific higher incomes (e.g., Mertens and Röbken 2013).

The aim of this study is therefore to examine the relevance of social background at the transition to a doctoral degree based on data of the longitudinal study “Learning Processes, Educational Careers and Psychosocial Development in Adolescence” conducted in Germany. The study is drawn on the theoretical concept of primary and secondary effects of social background developed by Boudon (1974). It is analysed what proportion of the social background effect is transmitted via performance differences in final secondary school and university marks and standardised tests. Further, the relevance of mechanisms of a cost-benefit analysis and education-biography-related factors is examined.

The results show, that tertiary graduates from higher educational backgrounds are more likely to start doctoral studies, especially if at least one of their parents holds a doctoral degree. The social background effect can be traced back in particular to differences in final marks and previous decisions made at the beginning of the tertiary degree, the subject and type of tertiary institution.


Boudon, R. (1974). Education, Opportunity, and Social Inequality. Changing Prospects in Western Society. New York: Wiley.

Mertens, A., & Röbken, H. (2013). Does a doctoral degree pay off? An empirical analysis of rates of return of German doctorate holders. Higher Education, 66, 217-231.