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What Are Honorary Doctorate Degrees?

Many schools, public and private, recognize individuals who make notable contributions to society by awarding them honorary doctorate degrees. Distinguished philanthropists, musicians, politicians, authors, and scientists often receive acknowledgment for their exemplary accomplishments and achievements that serve a greater good. View article »

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  • 0:03 Honorary Doctorate…
  • 1:20 Degree Criteria
  • 2:14 Honorary Degree Types
  • 2:55 Degree Selection Process
  • 3:35 Other Doctoral Degree Types

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Honorary Doctorate Degrees Overview

To be considered for an honorary doctorate degree, there are specific criteria that individuals must meet, and there are a variety of doctorate degrees that they may be awarded. There are also many non-honorary doctorate degree options that require advanced education.

Recipients of honorary doctorate degrees do not earn the degree through academic achievements; rather they receive these awards based on generous and altruistic actions or lifetime accomplishments that benefit a community, nation, or humanity in general. Some schools allow candidates to apply for consideration for the degree, while others require nomination by a third party. Each university that confers honorary degrees establishes its own criteria for acceptance.

Recipients may receive more than one honorary degree, but never from the same school twice. A candidate does not necessarily have to be an alumnus of the awarding school, though many schools prefer to recognize their own graduates or individuals who have made a contribution to the school. Beneficiaries of the prized degree may use the title of 'Doctor' that the degree confers, although they have not completed a doctoral program.

Degree Criteria

While many colleges and universities provide their own strict criteria for honorary candidates, typically an honorary degree may only be given to an individual with a sustained lifetime achievement, rather than a group or for a single contribution. Public universities do not allow faculty members or employees of the school to be nominated for the degree, though private universities may not carry the same restriction. Candidacy for the degree often represents a school's prominent vocation or pursuit. However, many institutions put more emphasis on the prolonged bearing of an individual's accomplishment.

A few schools have age restrictions or require the honoree to be present at the time the degree is conferred. Some schools allow honorary doctorate degrees to be awarded posthumously, and the degree may be accepted by the honoree's family or colleagues.

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Honorary Degree Types

Depending on the achievement, schools may present different types of honorary doctorate degrees. Some schools may offer only a Doctor of Philosophy degree, while others bestow a degree based on the accomplishments of the recipient. A few examples include:

  • Doctor of Humane Letters, acknowledging academic distinction
  • Doctor of Laws, awarded to professionals in the field of law
  • Doctor of Science, recognizing revolutionary scientific research and discovery
  • Doctor of Fine Arts, conferred primarily to musicians, actors, architects, and artists
  • Doctor of Divinity, bestowed upon exceptional religious figures

Degree Selection Process

Based on the type of honorary doctorate degree being awarded, the school's provost, chancellor, or honorary committee forms a selection panel to review nominations. Candidates or nominating parties typically must submit a minimum of a nomination form and biography by a specified deadline.

The selection panel reviews all documentation and presents their recommendations to the governing faculty, board of trustees, or university president. The school notifies accepted honorees and confers the degrees during regular commencement ceremonies. Many universities also expect a sizable donation from honorary degree recipients.

Other Doctoral Degree Types

Individuals who are looking to earn a doctoral degree through advanced education may consider a research-based or professional doctoral degree. Some of the options include:

  • Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.): This degree is available in a wide range of subjects and focuses on academic research. Program length varies by subject and by student.
  • Doctor of Theology (Th.D.): This degree is available for individuals who are interested in advanced studies in religion-related subjects.
  • Doctor of Education (Ed.D.): This is the terminal degree for educators. Program lengths vary, but usually take at least three years of study.
  • Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.): These professional degrees are for aspiring physicians and take four years of study to complete.
  • Juris Doctor (J.D.): Individuals who want to become lawyers complete a three-year program to earn this degree.

Honorary doctorate degrees are awarded by postsecondary institutions for lifetime achievement. There are also doctoral programs available for those who want to conduct advanced academic or professional studies.

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