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Phony Degree

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. Contrast to Worthless Foreign Degree, which is academically valid, just from the wrong country. 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 Wonderful 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 "Thoroughly 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.
    • The season 5 premiere establishes that Greendale College is barely a step away from being a diploma mill. They have a quota on how many degrees they have to hand out each year to maintain accreditation and funding. To meet the quota they will give degrees out to people who should never be allowed to graduate. A major bridge collapse is attributed to an incompetent architect who only got his degree from Greendale due to this practice.
  • 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 Doctor 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.

Theatre
  • An odd example comes from The History Boys. Irwin has a degree in history- just not from Oxford, as he claims. (He did go there for a teaching certificate, but not for an actual degree.) A ballsy move, considering the entire reason he has a job at the school is to use his time at Oxford as a foundation for getting his students into Oxbridge.
    Dakin: At least you lied. And lying's good, isn't it? We've established that. Lying works.

Video Games
  • In Surgeon Simulator 2013, after completing 6 of the surgeries, a diploma appears on your desk that says that you're a qualified surgeon. It seems legit at first, until you notice that the name seems to be written on what appears to be correction fluid... implying that the main character actually stole someone's diploma and forged it to make it seem like it's his own.

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.
  • Despite being a legit education center, private college Universidad Santa María in Venezuela got a fame of dispensing these after an infamous scandal in The Eighties when it was discovered that one Ms. Blanca Ibañez, secretary and mistress of the then president Jaime Lusinchi, had received her Licenciature in Law barely weeks after receiving her High School diploma. Al of this, while she was a high government officer in her thirties.
MRS DegreeSchool TropesWorthless Foreign Degree

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