How To Get an Honorary Doctorate Degree (Plus Criteria)

Updated June 24, 2022

An honorary doctorate degree is one of the most significant awards in postgraduate education. It recognizes a recipient's outstanding achievements despite not attending the awarding university. Understanding how to get an honorary doctorate degree can help you earn the recognition you deserve for partaking in a rewarding career and completing meaningful work. In this article, we discuss how to get an honorary doctorate degree and what the criteria for receiving one are.

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What is an honorary doctorate degree?

An honorary doctorate degree is an accolade that a university awards by waiving traditional requirements for the candidate. It's different from a substantive doctorate degree, which a candidate earns by completing the university's predefined educational program. A university typically distributes honorary doctorate degrees to candidates who make significant contributions to an academic or professional field or society in general.

Criteria for an honorary doctorate degree

Each university may have slightly different criteria for issuing honorary doctorate degrees, but here are some general criteria for recipients of this distinction:

  • The recipient isn't a staff member or appointed or elected government official. As long as recipients aren't university staff members or appointed or elected government officials, they may qualify for an honorary doctorate degree. A former staff member or government official may become eligible to receive an honorary doctorate degree after retiring or resigning from their position.

  • The recipient accepts the degree without receiving payment. Recipients of honorary doctorate degrees most often receive this distinction because of a nomination. Most universities prefer their candidates to accept this accolade without receiving a speaker's fee.

  • The recipient may not have conflicts of interest with the university. An honorary doctorate degree recipient doesn't have any conflicts of interest with the university. For example, a Catholic university may choose to disqualify a candidate for an honorary doctorate degree if the candidate publicly criticizes Catholicism's beliefs and practices.

  • The recipient has a strong reputation in their field. Most recipients of an honorary doctorate degree have strong reputations in their academic or professional fields. They're usually individuals who've made recent contributions and have many years in their careers remaining.

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How to get an honorary doctorate degree

Although the provision of an honorary doctorate degree is ultimately an institution's decision, here's a list of steps on how you can improve your chances of getting one:

1. Complete meaningful work

It often takes recipients many years to become eligible for an honorary doctorate degree. You can improve your chances of earning this distinction by being proactive in your career. You may lead impactful research initiatives or establish eminence in a particular area of scholarship. You may also participate heavily in public service projects or partake in important endeavors that are financial, religious, governmental, literary or artistic in nature. It often takes recipients many years to establish prominence and gain the respect of leaders within their industry.

There are many ways that candidates can complete meaningful work to qualify for an honorary doctorate degree. Some universities award honorary doctorate degrees to candidates whose lives and work represent the institution's missions and values. You may be able to qualify for this distinction by dedicating your life to bettering society as a whole.

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2. Receive a nomination from the appropriate party

Once you establish prominence in your field, the next step to getting your honorary doctorate degree is to receive a nomination from the appropriate party. You may not have much control over this step, but you can improve your chances by networking and establishing a good relationship with the awarding university. You can also understand what entities within a university have the authorization to make nominations. For example, the president often has nominating rights. A particular school within the university may also have nominating rights, like its school of public health or school of foreign services.

3. Attend the award ceremony

Once a candidate receives final approval from the appropriate committees for their honorary doctorate degree, they must attend the corresponding award ceremony. Universities typically award honorary degrees at the same time they issue traditional students their substantive degrees. Institutions usually require recipients of honorary degrees to accept their award in person. At the ceremony, the honoree gives a speech to the rest of the graduating class.

If a candidate cannot be present, a university may defer the degree. It's also important to note that a candidate usually has a certain amount of time to accept the award, depending on the awarding institution's requirements. After the period expires, the university needs to receive approval again before it can award the degree.

4. List it on your resume

Once you earn an honorary doctorate degree, you can list it on your resume. It's a worthy accomplishment even though it's not a traditional degree, and it can help potential employers understand your commitment to a particular field. You can list this accolade under the "Honors/Awards" section of your resume instead of the "Education" section. Be sure to note that it's an honoris causa to clarify that it's not a traditional substantive degree.

Related: Listing Accomplishments on Your Resume (With Examples)

5. Maintain your integrity to keep your honorary degree

A university awards honorary doctorate degrees and intends for the recipients to keep them for life. An institution may rescind a candidate's degree if it learns that the individual's participating in immoral, unethical or criminal behavior. Depending on a university's policies, its president or executive board may be responsible for making the final decision regarding the revocation of a candidate's degree.

You can keep your degree by continuing to be an upstanding citizen. You can maintain your integrity by continuing to pursue the work that helped you earn the accolade. Many candidates continue to be very active in their respective fields years after initially receiving their honorary doctorate degrees.

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