The Dangers of Honorary PhDs: Diluting Academic Integrity

In the ever-evolving landscape of academia, the conferral of honorary Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degrees has become common practice. Many honorary PhDs are bestowed upon privileged white male professionals, sports people, politicians and artists for their exceptional contributions to society. While the intention behind such awards is to recognize outstanding achievements, there is a growing concern that this practice might be diluting the academic rigor and integrity associated with the prestigious title of Doctor.

The essence of a Doctorate lies in the years of rigorous research, critical analysis, and intellectual exploration that culminate in the successful completion of a dissertation. It is a process that demands a deep commitment to a chosen field and a contribution of new knowledge to the academic community. I should know, I’ve received two, and the traditional way. It took immense time, effort, research, critical thinking and analysis to complete a first PhD and then to do it all over again.

Contrary to what some might assume – that I was seeking some form of academic penance – I pursued two PhDs driven by several motivations. My primary goal was not just to obtain the qualifications often deemed necessary for teaching in higher education, especially for someone hailing from a non-education background. This ambition persisted despite being aware that many of my peers manage to secure university teaching positions without a PhD.

Further, I was committed to carving out a long-term career within post-secondary education, specifically within the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. The focus of my first PhD did not align with my ultimate career aspirations. Recognizing this misalignment, I made a deliberate choice to further my education. This decision was driven by a desire to deepen my knowledge and enhance my skills, ultimately shaping myself into the teacher I aspire to be.

When I decided to do this, I was a second time mother, heavily pregnant and caring for my six year old son, juggling family, work, and study. I submitted my thesis six weeks after giving birth. It was not a decision I took lightly. Finally, and probably one of the most important reasons, I didn’t enjoy completing my first PhD. I found the process daunting, pressurised, difficult and unsupportive. I didn’t understand, for example, the importance of choosing the right supervisor that deeply understood how and why I learnt.

I made sure that when I completed my second PhD that both teaching excellence and research reputation were taken into consideration. It took me twice as long and just as much effort to complete the second PhD as it did the first. I also purposely hid the fact that I had completed a second PhD because too many people scoffed, laughed or said I was a glutton for punishment. At first, I agreed, because I felt embarrassed of such success.

The trend of awarding honorary PhDs to individuals who have not traversed this scholarly path raises questions about the sanctity of the title. If it raises concerns for me – what about the statistics that suggest “after nine years around a third of “domestic” PhD by research students are still studying or have given it away, according to Commonwealth completion data” (Campus Morning Mail, 2022).

While those who have had the fortune of being given an honorary PhD because they have made remarkable strides in their respective fields, the essence of a PhD goes beyond professional accomplishments. It is about the journey of discovery, the synthesis of existing knowledge, and the creation of original insights – a process that cannot be replicated by an honorary degree. If universities continue to provide honorary PhDs to an exceptionally distinguished person to generate publicity and bring “reflected glory” make it clear to the community that this is why.

I propose an answer to the confusion. Why not place a small t after the PhD title, helping to distinguish to the community that the achievement was obtained the traditional way and not honorary. If universities are not ensuring that those who have actually received a PhD in the traditional way are acknowledged accordingly, then it is up to the community to change this practice.

If the acknowledgement of honorary PhDs continue without consideration to those who have pursued such an accolade through time, effort and adding to new knowledge, it will continue to send the wrong message to aspiring scholars while undermining the value of genuine academic achievement.

For instance, aspiring researchers might be discouraged when they witness individuals receiving the highest academic honour without having undergone the intellectual challenges and academic rigor synonymous with a PhD. It also opens the door to scepticism and questions about the legitimacy of the title and those working in academia as academics and leaders. This will not only affect the reputation of the institutions involved but also raise concerns about the overall standard of academic recognition for all.

When universities confer honorary PhDs, they must do so with careful consideration, ensuring that the reasons align with the institution’s values and standards. This is particularly crucial because the recipients of honorary degrees are often placed in the same esteemed category as those who have earned their titles through rigorous academic research and scholarship.

The issue becomes more pronounced when cases of plagiarism or academic misconduct by university leaders or honorary degree recipients come to light. Such incidents can tarnish the reputation of the institutions involved and undermine the value of the doctoral title, regardless of how it was obtained. Media reports on these matters only serve to highlight the potential reputational risks.

It is time for academic institutions to reassess their policies and criteria for awarding honorary degrees and for permitting individuals to retain these titles. This revaluation should aim to protect the integrity of the doctoral designation, particularly for those who have achieved it through traditional academic pathways. By doing so, universities can safeguard their reputation and ensure that the conferral of honorary degrees remains a meaningful and respected practice.

Rachael Hains-Wesson is associate professor in work-integrated learning at the University of Sydney Business School and received two PhDs the traditional way (Ph.D.t; Ph.D.t.).



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