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Phony Degree

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Vanessa: Doctor? Since when are you a doctor?
Doofenshmirtz: [holding his diploma] They don't just give these out to anybody, you know.
Vanessa: Anybody with 15 bucks, they do.

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.

Honorary degrees are usually given by schools as a sign of appreciation for a person's outstanding achievements in a certain area, but some shadier schools accept other incentives. Note that an honorary degree can't be used interchangeably with a proper degree – Dr.h.c.note  Billy Bafflock therefore cannot call himself Doctor Bafflock or even apply for a job as a surgeon.

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.

There are times when the Phony Degree trope will come into play when a degree from a Real Life accredited school is treated like a worthless one. Usually, it will be meant as Take That! about the school's supposed academic deficiencies by a writer who attended a rival college (e.g., writers from Harvard often do this to Yale and other Ivy League schools).

Compare to Back-Alley Doctor, Quack Doctor, and Phony Veteran. Contrast to Worthless Foreign Degree, which is academically valid, just from the wrong country. May be included in a Very Fake Résumé. Since many of these degrees are doctorates, this can overlap with Not That Kind of Doctor. See Uncertified Expert for when someone doesn't have the degree or license for something they are clearly competent in, and Correspondence Course for a (sometimes) more legitimate but still not entirely respectable way of acquiring a qualification.


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    Comic Books 
  • Fantastic Four: Doctor Doom is technically this, since he never finished college before his disfiguring accidentnote . Instead, after conquering his homeland of Latveria, he simply awarded himself a degree.
  • Marvel Now What: A parody strip accuses Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Children of being one of these. "Like Phoenix University. But with an actual phoenix!"
  • My Little Pony Generations: The S'monies claim they're professors from Hayvard majoring in Pony Relations. Starlight takes them at their word, although Dash is a little confused and suspicious since she didn't really send the letter yet but shrugs it off.
  • The Simpsons: One issue has Krusty the Clown getting one of these. In a twist, he's aware that the degree is worthless, but wants one to spruce up his office. However, due to a mix-up, he receives an actual degree in medicine. Then Dr. Hibbert and Dr. Nick, Springfield's premier physicians (of dubious competence) get into an accident, and Hilarity Ensues when every sick person goes to see Krusty.

    Comic Strips 
  • 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 counselor.
  • The Pointy-Haired Boss in Dilbert was once called out on this. Dogbert commented his degree was in "Smartology" from "the Einstein one" college.
  • During the period in Peanuts when Peppermint Patty was under the impression Snoopy was a "funny-looking kid with a big nose" who lived in Charlie Brown's guest cottage, she at one point manages to take an obedience class Snoopy recomended without noticing anything odd about it and leaves firmly convinced that this certificate means she doesn't need to go to school anymore because she's graduated.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • An inversion in 1997's Bean movie. In order to foist Bean upon the Americans for a few months, the National Gallery of Britain and two of their prominent art historians give him a glowing recommendation, so the Americans assume he is an academic doctor, and at one point his museum ID badge gets him mistaken for a medical doctor. His actual job is...somewhat unclear...but might have once been intended as museum security or a guide of some sort (He himself describes his job as "look[ing] at the paintings"). Bean himself is oblivious and does try to correct people, but in the end, he stops bothering.
    Bean: I'm Dr. Bean, apparently.
  • Boot Camp: According to Ben—who researched Hail and Camp Serenity before coming to the island—Dr. Hail isn't even a real doctor but bought his doctorate on the internet.

  • In 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.
  • In A Hat Full of Sky, Brian is an assistant at Zakzak Stronginthearm's magic items shop, who wears a pointy hat and attended Unseen University. In the sense that his fretwork class was held on University grounds.
  • Arly Hanks: 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.
  • Horsehead Boy by Rory Barnes has a variant: Rachel and Gazza both have legitimate medical degrees with brilliant marks, but were prevented from getting into the neurosurgery program they wanted due to a classmate's scheming. They end up getting a neurosurgery qualification from a correspondence school in Arizona, which only enabled them to find work with a Mad Scientist operating out of an abandoned sausage factory. The kicker is that it worked, with both becoming sufficiently talented surgeons to be able to remove the brain of an effectively dead teenager, transfer it into a vat, keep him alive, and hook him up to numerous cybernetic devices to allow him to see, hear, talk and move again. They're also able to transfer him into the body of the now braindead aforementioned classmate and give him a somewhat normal life again. And in the epilogue, they're able to go back to medical school and get legitimate neurosurgery degrees.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • Later in the novel, we learn that Lazarus Long owns a diploma mill in his home universe/timeline ... though he refuses to let his clone twins get a pair of quickie degrees from it.
  • Jaine Austen Mysteries: Effectively the motive for the murder in "The Dangers of Gingerbread Cookies". Dr. McCay realized that "Doc" Clyde Wilkins was not an actual doctor and planned to expose him.
  • 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?)

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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.
  • Breaking Bad has the "criminal attorney" Saul Goodman, who got his law degree online from the illustrious "University of American Samoa", an obvious diploma mill if there ever was one, and perfectly suited to Saul's sleazy Ambulance Chaser image (which belies the true extent of his competence). The prequel series Better Call Saul goes into Saul's (then going by his birth name Jimmy McGill) actual education and the beginning of his law practice: The University of American Samoa is still implied to be a shady educational facility, but Jimmy himself did work hard and study over several years in order to pass the New Mexico State Bar Exam, failing it three times before he succeeded.
  • 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.
  • Community:
    • The plot of the show 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 (his thesis was a Lego set of a bridge, which fell apart). The final season reveals that they once almost graduated a dog (A normal dog, not some sort of super-intelligent TV character) because many of their classes are only graded on attendance, and the college only withheld his diploma because of an outstanding library fine.
  • Doctor Who:
    • In "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.
    • Some sources claim that the Doctor himself actually doesn't have a doctorate, presumably because he doesn't have the patience to get one.
  • In an episode of Elementary, Holmes and Watson are pressing a lawyer on his client and the man refusing to give information due to attorney/client privilege. Holmes responds by breaking the glass over the man's diploma to confirm his suspicions it's a fake, meaning he's not a real lawyer anyway. The man gives up the info but is still thrown when Holmes and Watson call the police to reveal his fraud.
  • Sue Sylvester in Glee claims to have several degrees, including a Master's in Counselling and a PhD. The latter of which, Will accuses her of getting online.
  • Rimmer in Red Dwarf signs his name "Arnold J Rimmer, BSc, SSc". These stand for "bronze swimming certificate" and "silver swimming certificate".
    • According to the hallucinated technician from the Season 5 episode "Back to Reality" who nevertheless was a shared hallucination and made this statement uncorrected by any member of the crew, those certificates were faked as well, as Rimmer cannot swim.
  • In season two of Yes, Minister, Jim Hacker gets an honorary doctorate in law from Bailey College, Oxford in exchange for using government money to subsidize their foreign admissions scholarship program.
  • On NCIS, Vance is looking through the application of an aspiring agent and notes that the man's degree comes from an unaccredited school. While it doesn't disqualify the candidate immediately, it doesn't make him look good.

  • In Episodes 5 & 6 of the sci-fi drama The Message, it is revealed Nicky Tomalin had lied about completing her masters in linguistics.
  • In Season 2 of The Magnus Archives Jon ends up finding out that Martin lied on his CV about having a Master's degree in Parapsychology.

  • 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.
  • The Music Man: Harold Hill constantly claims he attended "Gary Conservatory of Music, Gold-Medal Class of Aught-Five" to prove he can lead a boys marching band. Except, as Marion discovers from looking up the school, the conservatory wasn't even founded until 1906. Her hiding this damning fact from the mayor shows her Heel–Face Turn (at least in terms of being antagonistic towards Harold) and later stuns Harold when he realizes she's known he's a fraud for ages and loves him anyway.

    Video Games 
  • Defeating Dr. Thrax in the General's Challenge of Command & Conquer: Generals: Zero Hour has him say "Perhaps I shouldn't have gotten my degree from a mail-order college" in his defeat message. Then again, Dr. Thrax is a general for a group of Terrorists Without a Cause who specializes in weaponizing illegal chemicals and toxins, so it is very plausible that he could not get an actual degree as no college would ever admit someone as ill-intentioned as him.
  • Fantastic in Fallout: New Vegas was able to bluff his way into a position of power at the Helios One Solar Power Plant because, when asked him if he knew anything about Theoretical Physics, he responded that he had a theoretical degree in physics.
  • 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 

  • In Dan and Mab's Furry Adventures Wildy apparently got a shaman degree via a home learning course. Though she actually does have shaman abilities.
    • While the cubi academy is a legitimate learning institution, Abel's choices in classes (such as golfing) is putting him on the way to this trope through his general behavior of apathy towards his own future.
  • York from Terror Island claims falsely to be a "Bachelor of Ethnocryptography", though he states that he was just one class away from passing.

    Web Original 
  • Becomes part of Doc Brown's diss against The Doctor in Epic Rap Battles of History's "Doc Brown vs. Doctor Who".
    I'm not sure what sort of scientific authority you purport to be
    But I'm a real doctor! Where'd you get your degree?

    Western Animation 
  • The Amazing World of Gumball: "The Fraud" is about Gumball and Darwin discovering Principal Brown never got a diploma, and instead his "diploma" is simply painted on the wall of his office—with a banana sticker as a seal of approval, no less.
  • In American Dad! episode "Handis", Francine earns a medical degree from a diploma mill. She then proceeds to work as a doctor for 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.
  • In the Phineas and Ferb episode "I Scream, You Scream", Dr. Doofenshmirtz's daughter Vanessa questions her dad calling himself "Dr.", to which Doof shows Vanessa his diploma, with the price tag still left hanging. Provides the page quote as seen above.
  • An episode of Rugrats has Didi taking Tommy to the dentist who tells her to wean him off bottles despite being only 1 year old. Betty finds this absurd and accuses the dentist of this.
    Betty: Did you get a look at his dental school diploma, Deed? Guy's probably a quack!
  • The Simpsons:
    • Dr. Nick 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.
    • Homer Simpson is seen putting a diploma on his wall from Oral Roberts University. He crosses out Ned Flanders' name to substitute his own.
    • Football player Lubchenko admits to this when his sports career gets destroyed by a knee injury:
    Doctor Hibbert: You can always fall back on your degree in..... COMMUNICATIONS??
    Lubchenko: Tis phony major. Lubchenko learn nothing! NOTHING!!!
  • 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.
  • The Venture Brothers:
    • Both plays this trope straight and averts it simultaneously with Billy Quizboy's medical degree. While it was provided to him illegally by the supervillain lawyer Monstroso as payment for his services, his medical expertise makes him fully qualified to practice medicine. His lack of a legitimate degree is largely the result of supervillain interference in his life that prevented him from completing his diploma on his own.
    • "Dr." Venture, often addressed as "Doc", actually doesn't have a legitimate doctorate; he's a college dropout who acquired an honorary doctorate from a Tijuana community college (one where the academic standards are honestly a little too good for him). His tenant and friend "Dr." Orpheus also only acquired his doctorate from "a higher power than a mere college professor" (though he apparently holds a legitimate undergraduate degree in Communication, with a Minor in Women's Studies from a community college), which is implied to mean it's some mystical mumbo-jumbo that counts for absolutely nothing, and yet addresses Dr. Venture as "Mr. Venture"; he apparently looks down on bogus doctorates besides his own.

    Real Life 
Faking academic degrees or using them mockingly alongside your name can earn one a fair share of resentment from the academic community (not to mention it's usually illegal, warranting a hefty fine or the loss of employment). People who spent a good part of a decade earning their diploma – and prestigious schools wanting to uphold their reputation – won't be exactly flattered if an impostor pretends to have i.e. a PhD from Oxford. Verification is often just a Google result away.

  • 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". Ironically, it's doubtful whether they could have made it stick in court, since "Doctor" is not a reserved title in the United Kingdom - whereas "dietician" is, which is why people like McKeith use the legally meaningless title "nutritionist" instead.
  • 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 for dispensing these after an infamous scandal in The '80s 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. All of this, while she was a high government officer in her thirties.
  • Scott Wolter, host of the pseudo-documentary America Unearthed had an honorary Master's Degree from the University of Minnesota on his resume until 2012 and had mentioned it as part of his credentials in media appearances when it was discovered by a blogger that the university in question had never granted an honorary degree to Wolter. Wolter explained it as a token of sympathy from his professors after the death of his father and was given to him in the form of a whipped-cream-topped coffee. Wolter has since removed it from his resume and ceased using it as an academic credential. It may be the first instance of an honorary honorary degree.
  • Pakistani software company Axact has been accused of running an estimated 370 "online universities" (pronounced "diploma mills"), making tens of millions of dollars per year by selling fake degrees.
  • The controversial far-right Irish politician and fundamentalist preacher, the Reverend Ian Paisley, received his doctorate from the fundamentalist American Bible-belt, at the Bob Jones University in South Carolina. This institution is thought of as being barely one level above an outright degree mill.
  • Subverted by the Universal Life Church in what is a truly remarkable case of Loophole Abuse. The church gives out Doctor of Divinity degrees to its ordained ministers for an extra $20, which are legally entirely legitimate. The State of California actually challenged this, only for the federal courts to shoot them down because a) the Doctor of Divinity specifically is a degree with purely religious rather than academic significance and b) US law is intentionally laissez-faire about what constitutes a religious institution, so the ULC is fair game. Hunter S. Thompson, who had said degree, famously made a lot of hay with that, titling some of his bylines with "Dr. Hunter S. Thompson," and sometimes jokingly claiming that he had a "doctor of journalism."
  • Mark Hacking, as part of his ruse convincing his family that he was attending college, had one of these printed up, along with taking graduation photos, but had to resort to Playing Sick to explain why he wasn't attending his graduation. His wife Lori finally discovered his deception after calling the medical school where he'd supposedly been accepted to inquire about financial aid, only to learn that he'd never even applied. When she confronted him, he killed her.