What Are Honorary Degrees And How Do People Get Them?

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You may have heard of honorary degrees being awarded to some of your favourite celebrities, even people who aren’t actively involved in university or academia. Did you know that honorary degrees have been awarded for hundreds of years, as far back as the 1400s! The question is, if celebrities can get them, can just anybody be awarded an honorary degree? What can you get one for?

An honorary degree is an academic accreditation that can be awarded by any academic institution as they see fit. It is not to be confused with a degree with honours, which is an academic qualification. Recipients of honorary degrees do not have to have pursued further or higher education at any level. Honorary degrees are given to those who are believed to have made a significant positive impact on the development of society.

This article has all the information you need on honorary degrees, such as what they are, how they’re different to other types of degree and even, how you earn one!

What is an honorary degree?

An honorary degree is an academic award. Honorary degrees are given out in recognition of somebody’s contributions to either the institution giving the award or to the world in general.

According to Indeed, “Colleges and universities often give honorary degrees to people who make a significant impact on a specific school and the world, either through a lifetime of service, commitment to improving the world or achievement in a certain field or industry.”

People who make significant contributions to the worlds of science, politics, economics, the arts, and business are typically awarded honorary degrees. I’ll be giving examples of people who have been awarded honorary degrees later in this article.

Honorary degrees can be given out by any institution if they see fit. Even some of the most prestigious universities in the world, such as Harvard, have awarded hundreds of honorary degrees.

This is because, as previously mentioned, honorary degrees have existed for hundreds of years. In fact, the first honorary degree was offered in 1478 by the University of Oxford. You can learn more about this here on the University of Oxford website.

Is an honorary degree the same as a degree with honours?

No, an honorary degree is not the same as a degree with honours. Check out the table below for all the differences between an honorary degree and a degree with honours.

Honorary degree  Degree with honours
Can be awarded to someone with no affiliation with the institution giving the degree Is part of a degree that you must earn through study and eventual graduation
Awarded subjectively/no specific requirements to earn the degree Achieved by earning up to or over a set credit requirement*
Is usually a doctorate or masters (postgraduate degree) Can be earned as part of a bachelor’s degree (undergraduate) or postgraduate degree

*As stated on this page of the London Metropolitan University website, “To obtain a degree with honours, you must complete a greater number of credits throughout the duration of your studies than is typically needed for a degree without honours.”

To read more about what a degree with honours is, I’d recommend checking out this Think Student article!

Is an honorary degree a qualification?

The answer to this question is quite complicated. While an honorary degree is a real academic accreditation, it is not the same as an academic qualification.

To earn an honorary degree, you don’t go through the typical academic processes that other students do, therefore it would be unfair to award the same academic qualifications as someone who did. In some instances, an honorary degree may hold academic weight, but this is only in instances where the recipient has shown enough academic scholarship.

However, the vast majority of honorary degrees are not an academic qualification. They are still an academic accreditation, and the recipient can refer to themselves as a ‘Doctor’ (since the honorary degree is typically a doctorate), so they aren’t pointless!

An honorary degree is not a qualification in the sense that if you wanted to pursue academia as a profession, you couldn’t cite an honorary degree as evidence of your studies.

Why do people get honorary degrees?

As mentioned earlier in this article, honorary degrees are mostly awarded for somebody’s contribution to society. This could be a president or prime minister, a scientist that developed a cure for a rare disease, a scholar, writer, or philosopher, and so on.

Of course, honorary degrees can’t be awarded to just anybody otherwise an honorary degree would lose its prestige. Those who receive an honorary degree have their achievements recognised as being exceptional, beyond something that the average person has done.

Honorary degrees can also be rescinded by the institution that awarded it, as has been done in the past. For example, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago rescinded an honorary degree they awarded to Kanye West due to the racist and antisemitic comments he made in 2022.

You can learn more about this by checking out this page of the School of the Art Institue of Chicago website.

Examples of people who have honorary degrees

Below is a list of 8 people who have been awarded honorary degrees, who they were awarded by, and what they were awarded for:

  • HM Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1948) – awarded an honorary degree by the University of Cambridge for her service to the United Kingdom and Commonwealth.
  • George Washington (1776) – awarded an honorary degree by Harvard University, as the first President of the United States and one of the founding fathers.
  • Sir Alexander Fleming (1949) – awarded an honorary degree by the University of Bristol, for his services to medicine and as a winner of the Nobel Prize. You can learn more about this on the University of Bristol’s website here.
  • Bill and Melinda Gates (2009) – awarded honorary degrees by the University of Cambridge, for services to business and industry.
  • Michelle Bachelet (2023) – awarded an honorary degree by the University of Oxford, for her contributions to the protection of woman and children, marine conservation, renewable energy, and gender equality during her service as President of Chile. You can learn more about this on the University of Oxford website here.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson (1866) – awarded an honorary degree by Harvard University, for his contribution to philosophy, literature, and social reform with regard to the abolition of slavery.
  • Dame Sarah Storey (2014) – awarded an honorary degree by the University of Edinburgh, as one of the most successful Paralympic athletes and for her service to sport. For more on this, have a look at the University of Edinburgh’s website here.
  • Professor Osamu Mizutani (2008) – awarded an honorary degree by the University of Newcastle, Australia, for his services to education and the improvement of the lives of young people in Yokohama, Japan. You can see more on this by having a look at this page of the University of Newcastle, Australia’s website.

A lot of these people have been awarded honorary degrees by several institutions. To read about a university’s history of honorary degrees, you can check out their websites. For example, you can check out Harvard’s list of honorary degree recipients on their website here. You can see the University of Cambridge’s honorary degree list on their website here.

Can you do anything with an honorary degree?

Earning an honorary degree doesn’t come with any professional advantage, as we’ve discussed earlier in the article. You can’t use an honorary degree as an academic qualification, because the means by which it was earned are vastly different to how students typically earn a master’s or doctorate.

However, this doesn’t mean honorary degrees are completely redundant. Of course, they give you a lot of prestige and indicate to others that you have made a significant and important contribution to the world.

Therefore, while honorary degrees don’t necessarily hold academic or professional weight, you can, effectively, use the prestige they carry to replace that academic/professional support. Since honorary degrees can’t just be handed out, people will know that the means by which you earned an honorary degree must have been pretty important.

Unfortunately, honorary degrees aren’t ‘worth’ that much outside of recognition of achievement. Think of them as essentially a really prestigious gold sticker!

A step-by-step guide on how to get an honorary degree

Here are the simple instructions on how you can earn yourself an honorary degree:

  1. Establish significant connections and network in your field.
  2. Complete work that is meaningful and significantly impacts social, cultural, or scientific development in your institution, country, or even the world.
  3. Be nominated by the appropriate party/parties.
  4. Receive your honorary degree at an awards’ ceremony!

Of course, there really is no set formula on how to earn an honorary degree. However, if you really want to do something that changes the world for the better, an honorary degree is a way of having that recognised!

Keep in mind, what we consider ‘meaningful contribution to society’ is very subjective. For example, there has been a lot of controversy in recent years about whether celebrities should be awarded honorary degrees. Some people feel that celebrities don’t contribute as much to society as other honorary degree recipients such as Albert Einstein.

* You can read more about the information in this article and what honorary degrees are on this page of the Indeed website.

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