Created By: reub2000 on October 29, 2012 Last Edited By: Antigone3 on December 19, 2013
Troped

Phony Degree

Character has a degree from a diploma mill

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Trust Me, I'm an X. And show me the respect appropriate to an X, darn it! Call me Doctor, include the appropriate initials for my degree after my name, make sure this photo of me in my office shows the degree on the wall.

Just one problem — the person making these demands didn't actually earn that degree. It's either from a "diploma mill" (a usually-unaccredited school where the only requirement for a degree is "did the check clear?") or an honorary degree.

This trope demands that a meaningless degree be treated as earned. A character who has one or more honorary degrees and doesn't see them as anything special does not fit here.

Compare to Back-Alley Doctor. Since many of these degrees are doctorates, this can overlap with Not That Kind of Doctor.

Examples

Comic Books

Literature
  • In the Maggody mystery novels, Brother Verber got his theology degree from an unnamed correspondence-course seminary. His constant misquotations of biblical verse and misuse of theological terms suggest that his alma mater was either a substandard diploma mill or an outright fraud.
  • The Wizard of Oz:
    • The Wizard gives the Scarecrow a diploma and declares "Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universitatus Committeeatum E Pluribus Unum I hereby confer upon you the honorary degree of Th.D". (Doctor of Thinkology in the book ... but the real abbreviation for Doctor of Theology. Mr Baum, do you have anything you'd like to tell us?)
    • The Marvelous Land of Oz: Professor H.M. Woggle-Bug, T.E. "H.M" stands for "Highly Magnified" and "T.E." means "Thorougly Educated." In-Universe everyone treats him as a learned professor - however, his only education was spending three years in a one-room schoolhouse as a non-Magnified bug surreptitiously listening to Professor Nowitall's lectures. He gave himself the T.E. "degree" after he became H.M.
  • An interesting case in the Stephen King book 11/22/63. The main character is a licensed English teacher who goes back in time to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He decides to teach in his spare time, but since his 2011 degree would obviously be invalid, he instead gets an English degree from a diploma mill, which gets him in some minor trouble later in the plot.
  • Zeb Carter, from The Number of the Beast, twists this trope into a pretzel. He holds a doctorate from a legitimate university, and met all the academic requirements for it. He also admits to the other protagonists that he got the degree by gaming the system, to show that degrees per se are worthless.

Live-Action TV
  • The plot of Community is kicked off because Jeff Winger received his undergraduate degree from a diploma mill located in Colombia and thus cannot practice law. However, his actual law degree is legit as he really attended an accredited US law school. This is just one of the many examples of how his Brilliant, but Lazy nature gets him in unnecessary trouble.
    Jeff: Uh, I am in a bit of a jam. The state Bar has suspended my license. They found out my college degree was less than legitimate.
    Professor Duncan: I thought you had a Bachelors from Columbia?
    Jeff: And now I have to get one from America.
  • Stephen Colbert has an honorary degree from Knox College. During medical segments on The Colbert Report he introduces himself as "Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, D.F.A.". Also an example of Not That Kind of Doctor, as the degree is in Fine Arts.
  • 30 Rock: "Dr." Spaceman has a degree from Ho Chi Minh School of Medicine and is legally required to put Scare Quotes around the word Doctor.
  • In Dr Who episode Voyage of the Damned, Mr Copper, an alien Earth historian, claims that humans worship Santa, a fearsome beast with claws, and every Christmas the people of the UK go to war with Turkey and eat the Turkey people's remains. He later confides in the Doctor that his Degree in 'Earthonomics' came from Mrs Golightly's Happy Travelling University and Dry Cleaners.
  • Rimmer in Red Dwarf signs his name "Arnold J Rimmer, BSc, SSc". These stand for "bronze swimming certificate" and "silver swimming certificate".

Newspaper Comics
  • One story arc in Dondi featured gifted children under the tutelage of purported child psychologist Doctor Helix. When Dondi gushes to investigators about Helix's many degrees, however, the investigators recognize "no-name diploma mills." Doc Helix is qualified to be nothing more than a summer camp councilor.

Web Animation

Webcomic

Western Animation
  • In American Dad! episode "Helping Handis", Francine earns a medical degree from a diploma mill. She then proceeds to work as a doctor from the Handicapped Mafia, despite having few medical skills.
  • The Family Guy episode "When You Wish Upon a Weinstein" involves Peter bringing Chris to Las Vegas to get a quickie bar mitzvah (in the fallacious hope that Chris will get smarter if he converts to Judaism). Not a degree per se, but a real bar mitzvah involves some scriptural study to gain familiarity with the Torah and its laws.
  • Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law reveals that Birdman's Law Degree is actually from a diploma mill when he tells Birdgirl she can't join because she hasn't gone to law school.
  • Dr. Doofenshmirtz has a phony doctorate he paid $25 online.
  • Dr. Nick on The Simpsons once stated he had gotten his degree from "Hollywood Upstairs Medical College." Other episodes however have flashbacks to his days in med school. Either way, he is an incompetent and unscrupulous doctor, once realizing that he didn't know how to do a heart bypass graft in the middle of surgery.
  • Inverted hilariously by Bugs Bunny in The Looney Tunes Show. Affected by the narcotic beverage Spargle, Bugs questions Doctor Weisberg's credentials. Seizing Weisberg's diploma, Bugs cries, "Syracuse? That's a basketball school." Bugs rips the legitimate diploma in half.

Real Life
  • Nutritionist Gillian McKeith "voluntarily" stopped calling herself Dr. Gillian McKeith on the grounds she wasn't a medical doctor. She did this just before the Advertising Standards Authority insisted that she stop calling herself that because the college she got her PhD from was "not accredited by any recognised educational authority".
  • Creationist Kent "Dr. Dino" Hovind insists otherwise, but his degree came from a diploma mill and has no academic standing.
  • Derek Smart, the man behind the computer games Battlecruiser 3000AD and Universal Combat, claims to possess a doctorate and frequently titles himself as Ph.D. His thesis is not listed anywhere, and he has not divulged basic details about his doctorate, such as which college he attended or who was his supervisor. There's general suspicion that his degree is either this trope or Blatant Lies.
Community Feedback Replies: 57
  • October 29, 2012
    MrRuano
    • Harvey Birdman Attorney At Law reveals that Birdman's Law Degree is actually from a diploma mill when he tells Birdgirl she can't join because she hasn't gone to law school.
  • October 29, 2012
    nielas
    • The plot of Community is kicked off because Jeff Winger received his undergraduate degree from a diploma mill located in Colombia and thus cannot practice law. However, his actual law degree is legit as he really attended an accredited US law school. This is just one of the many examples of how his Brilliant But Lazy nature gets him in unnecessary trouble.
  • October 29, 2012
    reub2000
    Not sure if the community example fits, because it sounds like the guy is partially qualified to practice law.
  • October 29, 2012
    Rotpar
    I'll look into Dr. Nick from The Simpsons, his degree is either from a diploma mill, fraudulent, or he's just unlicensed. Zero Continuity Series after all.
  • October 29, 2012
    reub2000
    Wasn't there a scene showing Dr. Nick partying a little too hard in college?
  • October 29, 2012
    MorganWick
    The Colbert Report example also crosses over with Not That Kind Of Doctor.
  • October 29, 2012
    KevinKlawitter
    An interesting case in the Stephen King book 11/22/63. The main character is a licensed English teacher who goes back in time to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He decides to teach in his spare time, but since his 2011 degree would obviously be invalid, he instead gets an English degree from a diploma mill, which gets him in some minor trouble later in the plot.
  • October 30, 2012
    reub2000
    Examples require that the person is incompetent at whatever the degree suggests they should be able to do.
  • October 30, 2012
    Astaroth
    In Dr Who episode Voyage of the Damned, Mr Copper, an alien Earth historian, claims that humans worship Santa, a fearsome beast with claws, and every Christmas the people of the UK go to war with Turkey and eat the Turkey people's remains. He later confides in the Doctor that his Degree in 'Earthonomics' came from Mrs Golightly's Happy Travelling University and Dry Cleaners.
  • October 30, 2012
    Rotpar
    I'll use double-check Catch Me If You Can, I remember he was an unlicensed pilot and laywer,but I believe it's counterfeiting rather then a shady "school".
  • November 3, 2012
    Chabal2
    In The Kings Speech, Albert is very displeased to find out Lionel doesn't have any diplomas. Though it's more a case of You Never Asked, as what he did was actually help PTSD-suffering veterans with his unorthodox methods.
  • November 10, 2012
    reub2000
    Any comments? Any suggestions for the name?
  • November 11, 2012
    DracMonster
    Mail Order Degree although that doesnt really include honorary degrees. I dont think those are generally regarded as "fake" though.
  • November 12, 2012
    reub2000
    ^ Err, well it's not a fake unless you claim it's something that it isn't. So it depends on context. It's like monopoly money. It's okay to use it buy a hotel for your boardwalk, but it's fraudulent to use it to buy something from your local grocery store.
  • November 12, 2012
    ArkadyDarell
    I think the title should make it more clear that it's fake, as I can think of at least two examples where the person gets a degree from a correspondence course and actually learns something useful from it, and I was actually going to suggest them until I read and saw that's not what you had in mind. (Bedknobs And Broomsticks and Quest For Glory, FWIW.)
  • November 12, 2012
    StarSword
    There's no 'e' in Phony. Fix it so people don't think it has something to do with phones.

    EDIT: Sorry if that came off as rude. My sense of humor doesn't always work well online.
  • November 15, 2012
    HaggisMcCrablice
    Dr. Doofenshmirtz has a phony doctorate he paid $25 online.

    Moe Syzlak's liquor licence may count. He's been meaning to get that renewed. And for this state. And, you know, real.
  • November 15, 2012
    m8e
    ^and Principal Skinner gave Groundskeeper Willie an elementary school diploma for ratting on Bart.

    And of course Dr. Nick Riviera. But I think his story changes.

    Probably Lionel Hutz too, and maybe Chief Wiggum.
  • November 15, 2012
    Lumpenprole
    The Wizard Of Oz gives the Scarecrow a diploma and declares "Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universitatus Committeeatum E Pluribus Unum I hereby confer upon you the honorary degree of Th.D".

  • November 15, 2012
    reub2000
    I need a tittle that conveys the incompetence of the person holding the "degree".
  • November 15, 2012
    Lumpenprole
    ^Doctor of Thinkology, or Th.D
  • November 15, 2012
    StarSword
    Incompetent With Fake Credentials?

    Personally, though, I think that the fake degree should be the trope, not the competence of the person holding it.
  • November 17, 2012
    reub2000
    Any other input? Should the focus be the fake degree, or the incompetence of the person holding it?
  • November 17, 2012
    robinjohnson
    I think the fake degree itself is good for a trope.

    • Rimmer in Red Dwarf signs his name "Arnold J Rimmer, BSc, SSc. These stand for "bronze swimming certificate" and "silver swimming certificate".

    (edit: thanks, Arivne!)
  • November 18, 2012
    Arivne
    ^ Yes. Use the "Escape Sequence" code in Text Formatting Rules to prevent Wiki Wording and other automatic formatting, like so:

    [=BSc=] --> BSc

    [=SSc=] --> SSc

  • November 18, 2012
    WeAreAllKosh
    The Family Guy episode "When You Wish Upon a Weinstein" involves Peter bringing Chris to Las Vegas to get a quickie bar mitzvah (in the fallacious hope that Chris will get smarter if he converts to Judaism). Not a degree per se, but a real bar mitzvah involves some scriptural study to gain familiarity with the Torah and its laws.

    (This is also a sort of satire on quickie, no-questions-asked Vegas weddings, I imagine.)
  • December 25, 2012
    randomsurfer
    On The Beverly Hillbillies Granny gets offended when Jed is offered an honorary Doctorate of Humanities from a school. She's more a doctor of humans than he'll ever be.

    More on Dr. Nick: notwithstanding The Simpsons lack of continuity, he once stated he had gotten his degree from "Hollywood Upstairs Medical College."
  • December 25, 2012
    Chabal2
    Yes, it should be about the fake degree itself (more serious works tend to show the person is competent despite not having a diploma).
  • March 2, 2013
    thewriter
    Possible page quote to go with th Community example.
    Jeff: Uh, I am in a bit of a jam. The state Bar has suspended my license. They found out my college degree was less than legitimate.
    Professor Duncan: I thought you had a Bachelors from Columbia?
    Jeff: And now I have to get one from America.
  • March 2, 2013
    zarpaulus
  • March 2, 2013
    oneuglybunny
    Newspaper Comics
    • One story arc in Dondi featured gifted children under the tutelage of purported child psychologist Doctor Helix. When Dondi gushes to investigators about Helix's many degrees, however, the investigators recognize "no-name diploma mills." Doc Helix is qualified to be nothing more than a summer camp councilor.
  • March 10, 2013
    oneuglybunny
    Western Animation
    • Inverted hilariously by Bugs Bunny in The Looney Tunes Show. Affected by the narcotic beverage Spargle, Bugs questions Doctor Weisberg's credentials. Seizing Weisberg's diploma, Bugs cries, "Syracuse? That's a basketball school." Bugs rips the legitimate diploma in half.
  • March 10, 2013
    reub2000
    @oneuglybunny: Character has a real degree from a real school? Isn't that more an aversion of this trope? I fail to see why it is signification.
  • March 10, 2013
    oneuglybunny
    An aversion would involve a rightful doctor with an authentic degree.

    An inversion involves a doctor with an authentic degree that is treated as phony by another character.

    A subversion would mean the doctor originally got his degree from a diploma mill that later became an accredited institution, which upgraded the doctor's instruction to meet academic standards.

    Of course, as the trope sponsor, you can preclude aversions, inversions and subversions. However, such is an unusual choice among established tropes. I recommend consulting Playing With for particulars.
  • March 11, 2013
    StarSword
    Newspaper comics:
    • Subverted in Dilbert. The Pointy Haired Boss is pretty sure his son went to college. Turns out the son just hid in their attic for four years.
  • April 2, 2013
    AgProv
    Overlaps Not That Kind Of Doctor by quite a long way? to quote:-

    Nutritionist Gillian Mc Keith, who "voluntarily" stopped calling herself Dr. Gillian Mc Keith on the grounds she wasn't a medical doctor, just before the Advertising Standards Authority insisted that she stop calling herself that because the college she got her Ph D from was "not accredited by any recognised educational authority".
  • April 2, 2013
    StarSword
    ^^^My personal preference with this class of trope is to not include aversions if it's understood to be averted by default (in this case, meaning "treat characters' qualifications as genuine unless otherwise specified").
  • April 2, 2013
    clankomatic
    Also in Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz universe, Professor H.M. Wogglebug, T.E. is a Highly Magnified and Thoroughly Educated wogglebug who lives in the Land of Oz. He is totally this guy. He first appears in the book "The Marvelous Land of Oz" with the transgender protagonist--Tip turns into a girl for part of the book. He (Prof W) got his own book later. Do we think that Mr. Baum had issues with educators?
  • April 2, 2013
    clankomatic
    Oh - and real life example Lena Guerrero in Texas if yall are interested.
  • April 13, 2013
    randomsurfer
    Thirty Rock: "Dr." Spaceman has a degree from Ho Chi Minh School of Medicine and is legally required to put Scare Quotes around the word Doctor.
  • April 13, 2013
    SharleeD
    • In the Maggody mystery novels, Brother Verber got his theology degree from an unnamed correspondence-course seminary. His constant misquotations of biblical verse and misuse of theological terms suggest that his alma mater was either a substandard diploma mill or an outright fraud.
  • April 14, 2013
    reub2000
    Is the description clear?
  • May 29, 2013
    Antigone3
    I notice that you've got a mix of honorary degrees and diploma mill degrees in the examples. I don't know if honorary ones like Colbert's really fit here, unless the recipient is using them to fraudulently claim actual education/skills.
  • May 29, 2013
    reub2000
    The original idea is that a character claims to have a degree in something but doesn't really have the knowledge. I guess things have changed since then.
  • June 8, 2013
    intersection
    In Miracle On Thirty Fourth Street, when Mr Macy stepped off the stand after being compelled to admit Kris Kringle is Santa Claus, he approaches the in-house shrink and says, "Psychologist! Where did you graduate from, a correspondence school? (Beat) "You're fired!"
  • November 9, 2013
    DAN004
  • November 9, 2013
    Antigone3
    Suggestion: Honorary doctorates "count" for this trope if the holder demands the degree be granted the same respect as an earned degree. So the Colbert example above would fit, but Hilda from The Number Of The Beast (who comments at one point that's she's papered a room in her house with honorary degrees) wouldn't.

    And I don't know if we can do anything with this or not, but The Wizard Of Oz bit with the Wizard granting the Scarecrow an honorary Doctor of Thinkology? The Th.D abbreviation is the real one for a Doctor of Theology, which isn't granted as an honorary degree — the honorary equivalent (in the US) is Doctor of Divinity.
  • November 9, 2013
    randomsurfer
    re the Wogglebug example: not only does Tip changing sex not matter to the context of this example, the way that part is written is misleading. Take out the extraneous bits and it's practially Zero Context. Here's my attempt at making it better - someone else could probably betterize it even more goodly.

    • The Marvelous Land Of Oz: Professor H.M. Woggle-Bug, T.E. "H.M" stands for "Highly Magnified" and "T.E." means "Thorougly Educated." In Universe everyone treats him as a learned professor - however, his only education was spending three years in a One Room Schoolhouse as a non-Magnified bug surrepetitously listening to Professor Nowitall's lectures. He gave himself the T.E. "degree" after he became H.M.
  • November 12, 2013
    Antigone3
    Speaking of The Number Of The Beast, Zeb probably counts as some pretzel-twisted form of this trope. His doctorate came from an accredited university, he fulfilled all the academic requirements for it ... but he admits to the other protagonists that he got the degree by gaming the system, to show that degrees per se are worthless.

    There's an Up For Grabs tag on this, if no one else wants it I'll see what I can do.
  • November 12, 2013
    reub2000
    Go ahead and edit it.
  • November 12, 2013
    ShanghaiSlave
    Web Animation
  • November 12, 2013
    SquirrelGuy
    Truth in Television: about five or ten years ago, this was a popular subject of SPAM e-mails.
  • November 18, 2013
    SKJAM
    A parody strip in Marvel Comics' Marvel: Now What!? accuses Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Children of being one of these. "Like Phoenix University. But with an actual phoenix!"
  • November 21, 2013
    Antigone3
    Do we want to pull the diploma-mill Real Life examples from Not That Kind Of Doctor over here?
  • November 21, 2013
    Lawman592
    Could this trope also be used as a creator's Take That against a college that's actually accredited but, in the creator's view, somewhat deficient in academic quality? Likewise, could it be employed by a creator to needle a college that's a rival to the one he attended (e.g., a writer who's a Harvard grad taking a shot at Yale)?
  • November 24, 2013
    Antigone3
    I suppose it could, but do we really want to get into that can of worms?
  • December 13, 2013
    Antigone3
    Bump
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/discussion.php?id=ks3i3u404i1y25vsropxqi0n