Honorary Degrees - Practical Use

Practical Use

In some countries, recipients of an honorary doctorate may, if they wish, adopt the title of "Doctor". Many universities, however, request that an honorary graduate refrain from such practice. A typical example of university regulations is Honorary graduates may use the approved post-nominal letters. It is not customary, however, for recipients of an honorary doctorate to adopt the prefix 'Dr' . In some universities, it is however a matter of personal preference for an honorary doctor to use the formal title of "Doctor", regardless of the background circumstances for the award. Written communications where an honorary doctorate has been awarded may include the letters "h.c." after the award to indicate that status.

Notable people using the honorary prefix include:

  • Benjamin Franklin, who received an honorary master's degree from The College of William and Mary in 1756, and doctorates from the University of St. Andrews in 1759 and the University of Oxford in 1762 for his scientific accomplishments. He thereafter referred to himself as "Doctor Franklin".
  • Charles Malik, the UN General Assembly president, and co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, received no less than sixty-three honorary doctoral degrees. His original title was "doctor", as he had earned a PhD from Harvard. Malik has the highest number of honorary doctoral degrees.
  • Peter Hollingworth, AC, OBE, Governor-General of Australia from 2001 until 2003, styled himself as "Dr Hollingworth" while holding that office. This was one of several controversies attending his tenure as Governor-General since, although he held six honorary doctorates from Australian universities, it was (and remains) contrary to Australian tradition for the grantee of an honorary doctorate to use the title in public life. If there was any justification for this departure from convention, it lay in the fact that most people previously appointed to the position already held a formal title – such as a British knighthood or peerage, or a military rank – whereas Hollingworth's previous style, "The Most Reverend", derived from his former position as the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane and was considered inappropriate for a person holding an official position in a country which maintains a formal separation between church and state. In any event, the situation was regularized on 21 May 2001, when Hollingworth was awarded the Lambeth degree of Doctor of Letters (DLitt) by the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, in recognition of his research, publications, teaching and achievement in the field of Christian social ethics, social welfare and poverty in Australia and episcopal leadership.
  • Billy Graham is regularly addressed as "Dr. Graham", though his highest earned degree is a BA in anthropology from Wheaton College. He holds 20 honorary doctorates and has turned down nearly twice as many.
  • Ian Paisley, Baron Bannside holds an honorary Doctor of Divinity awarded by Bob Jones University, a conservative evangelical Christian college in Greenville, South Carolina.
  • Maya Angelou, holds many honorary doctorates, calls herself and is referred to by many as "Dr. Angelou" despite holding no undergraduate or advanced (non-honorary) degree.
  • Booker T. Washington is often referred to as "Dr. Washington" after receiving an honorary doctorate from Dartmouth College.
  • The University of Exeter has awarded honorary D.Litt degrees and subsequently referred to the recipients as "Doctor".


  • Terry Wogan has received an honorary doctorate from the University of Limerick and refers to himself as "Doctor" on air.
  • Judy MacArthur Clark CBE (Chief Inspector of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Inspectorate, former President of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, and former Chair of the Farm Animal Welfare Council) received an honorary doctorate of veterinary medicine and surgery (DVMS) from the University of Glasgow, and refers to herself professionally as "Doctor".
  • Ralph Stanley, the bluegrass artist, is referred to by many people and refers to himself as "Doctor" after being awarded an honorary Doctorate of Music from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, in 1976.
  • Hunter S. Thompson, journalist and creator of Gonzo journalism, received an honorary doctorate from the Universal Life Church in the late 1960s. Thompson often insisted on the title, as did his alter ego Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas who claimed to be a "Doctor of Journalism".
  • Paco de Lucía, Spanish flamenco guitarist and composer. He is regarded as one of the finest guitarists in the world and the greatest living guitarist of the flamenco genre. He is noted in particular for his dexterity, technique and strength in his right hand, capable of executing extremely fast and fluent picados. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Berklee College of Music in Boston.
  • Stephen Colbert received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from Knox College in 2006. Since then, the credits of The Colbert Report jokingly refer to him as "Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, D.F.A." (which uses both the title "Dr." and a postnominal, which is improper). The same title is used in a recurring segment on the show, in which Colbert dispenses dubious medical advice despite his degree being Doctor of Fine Arts.
  • Mirza Ahmad received an honorary Doctor of Laws from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2007. Since then, the credits of every document produced by Birmingham City Council refer to him as "Dr. Mirza Ahmad LLD (hon), MBA., LL.M, Barrister".
  • Jakaya Kikwete, the current President of Tanzania, has often been referred to as "Dr. Kikwete" for his honorary degree received from the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota) in 2006.
  • Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation in the field of Information Technology, has been awarded no fewer than nine honorary doctorates from various international educational institutions from 1996 through 2011 including the North American Lakehead University in 2009, and now refers to himself as "Dr. Richard Stallman" in speeches, talks, videos and email.

In the United Kingdom the author and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who had some years earlier been unable (due to financial considerations) to complete his undergraduate studies at Pembroke College, Oxford, was awarded the degree of Master of Arts by diploma in 1755, in recognition of his scholarly achievements. In 1765, Trinity College, Dublin awarded him the degree of Doctor of Laws and in 1775 Oxford bestowed upon him the degree of Doctor of Civil Law by diploma. It is unclear how much these degrees count as "honorary", though, as they were bestowed in recognition of a specific, undoubtedly substantial and original scholarly work, and one that was arguably far more deserving than many other doctoral theses submitted at the time.

The recipient of an honorary degree may add the degree title postnominally, but it should always be made clear that the degree is honorary by adding "honorary" or "honoris causa" or "h.c." in parenthesis after the degree title. In some countries, a person who holds an honorary doctorate may use the title "Doctor" prenominally, abbreviated "Dr.h.c." or "Dr.(h.c.)". Sometimes, they use "Hon" before the degree letters, for example, "Hon DMus".

In recent years, some universities have adopted entirely separate post nominal titles for honorary degrees. This is in part due to the confusion that honorary degrees have caused. It is now common in certain countries to use certain degrees, such as LLD or HonD, as purely honorary. For instance, an honorary doctor of the Auckland University of Technology takes the special title HonD instead of the usual PhD Some universities, including the Open University grant Doctorates of the University (DUniv) to selected nominees, while awarding PhD or EdD degrees to those who have fulfilled the academic requirements.

Most American universities award the degrees of LLD (Doctor of Laws), the LittD (Doctor of Letters), the LHD (Doctor of Humane Letters), the ScD (Doctor of Science), the PedD (Doctor of Pedagogy) and the DD (Doctor of Divinity) only as honorary degrees. American universities do not have the system of "higher doctorates" used in the UK and some other universities around the world.

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