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What is an Honorary Degree?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A honorary degree is a college degree which is awarded to someone who has not fulfilled the requirements for graduation. Generally, honorary degrees are used to recognize someone's significant contributions to the academic institution which grants the degree, or the community in general. Some colleges present honorary degrees at commencement ceremonies, while others may hold special ceremonies for the recipients of honorary degrees. At the presentation, the recipient usually makes a speech, and the speech may be a major part of the occasion.

The tradition of granting a degree honoris causa or “for the sake of honor” dates to the Middle Ages, when some institutions of higher learning decided to grant honorary degrees to individuals of the community as a mark of honor and respect. In some cases, the degree was clearly used as a reward for granting funds, lands, or other gifts to the community, while in other instances such degrees were awarded for accomplishments, such as developing new scientific equipment. Honorary degrees were also granted posthumously in some cases to individuals who had made major contributions to the academic community in their lifetimes.

Depending on the policies of the institution which grants it, an honorary degree may have the same standing as a degree which has been earned by meeting the graduation requirements, or it may be viewed as a degree of lesser standing. Honorary degrees are usually doctorates, but holding an honorary degree does not entitle someone to the title of “Doctor.” Some schools grant master's degrees as honorary degrees as well. In both cases, people must clearly indicate that the degree is honorary if they include it on business cards, resumes, and other communications.

Universities which offer honorary degrees have a panel which nominates candidates and reviews the nominations to determine how and when honorary degrees will be rewarded. Some universities have attracted controversy by granting degrees to big donors, with critics suggesting that it is possible to buy a degree, rather than working for one. To avoid accusations of this type, some universities have specific guidelines about who may receive an honorary degree, and when. Politicians and current faculty are often banned from receiving honorary degrees, as are big donors when they are actively contributing to major projects.

Generally, people cannot ask for an honorary degree. Individuals who distinguish themselves may be rewarded with an honorary degree for their accomplishments, and in some cases the degree may be used as an incentive to attract a speaker to a commencement ceremony, but it is not possible to submit a request to a university or honorary degree committee.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Practical Adult Insights researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon322069 — On Feb 25, 2013

Traditionally persons who receive honorary doctorates were never permitted to style themselves "Doctor". It was considered arrogant to credit oneself with academic credentials that were not earned. This is the reason that all honorary doctoral degrees are Doctor of Letters, so that the honoree cannot claim expertise in a field that he or she does not possess. No university would ever grant to anyone a honorary doctorate in engineering or law, and in fact, it is illegal in the U.S for a school to grant an honorary doctorate in medicine.

If some institution of higher learning granted me such an honorary degree and I listed it on my resume or curriculum vitae without clearly stating that the degree was honorary, I would be guilty of misrepresenting my credentials and could and should be fired.

By anon318251 — On Feb 06, 2013

Is there an authority on this? Why is it called a degree if it cannot be applied as such? I'm just asking because it never made sense to me. Either you did the required work or died trying. I don't understand the middle.

By anon87620 — On May 31, 2010

Every doctorate is an honorary degree of sorts. Gaining a PhD isn't about passing exams, it's about producing work of such high standard that the senior University academics deem it worthy of the doctorate. You can study for five years, but if you don't make the grade with those who count you don't get your PhD.

An honorary doctorate is awarded in the same spirit; you can work for 50 years but experience does not qualify you for one. The University academic board must deem someone's life achievements as worthy and outstanding before they award such a prestigious award.

By anon39119 — On Jul 30, 2009

It seems rather trite to suggest that someone be allowed to present themselves with the title of "Doctor" just because they have lived 50 years (many people DO live to be 50 and older) as the previous comment suggests; it also seems a little unfair to someone who has made huge financial, emotional and intellectual investments in actually taking the steps necessary to complete a degree to be placed on the same standing with someone who simply made a large financial donation or agreed to speak at a commencement, both of which require very little personal investment. So I must agree with the author of the article that an honorary degree is actually just that: an honor. It should not be used as a title of address in the same manner as a traditional degree typically is used.

By anon38632 — On Jul 27, 2009

If a person has been granted an honorary degree he or she has every right to call themselves a doctor and to suggest differently, is totally out of order.

e.g. One person may have got a university degree in say 6 years, and the other gets an honorary degree from 50 years of life experience. Surely he also is entitled to call himself doctor, isn't he?

By pixiedust — On Jul 02, 2009

Anon34886 - I think people generally don't like when people with honorary degrees use the title of doctor because they didn't go through all the work of _earning_ the title like medical doctors and PhDs had to do.

By anon34886 — On Jun 30, 2009

Many people with Honorary doctorates use the title Doctor. I wonder where you got the idea that they were not entitled to do so.

By anon32080 — On May 15, 2009

I agree with the article. If it is tradition to award the commencement speaker an honorary degree. For what reason would an individual be invited to speak but not be given the honors of the event. It seems obvious that the person had the qualities for such a prestigious award.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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