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Worthless Foreign Degree

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"According to the New Jersey Board of Medicine, medical schools from my country suffer from not being in this country."
Applicant #2, House

Sometimes (mainly in Sitcoms) a foreigner with a mediocre job such as janitor mentions that "In old country, I was neurogeneticist/aeronautical engineer/other fancy job."

Sadly, this is to an extent Truth in Television; professionals migrating to another country often find it difficult to use their native accreditation to keep doing their jobs. Not to mention that law degrees usually have the unfortunate consequence that, apart from being country-specific, they're often state-specific. But do note that within Common Law countries this is less of a problem, as the basics are either the same or based on similar principles and it is actually relatively easy to transfer.

A variant of this trope occurs when the character does not hail from the country where they got their degree, especially if the country in question is a more impoverished one. This is usually meant to suggest that they traveled to a country with extremely low education standards or easily bribed officials, picked up a degree, and then transferred it over. In this case, the implication is the opposite: not that they are genuinely talented but unrecognized by the system, but that they are attempting to cheat the system after failing to pick up a "real" degree, giving it similar connotations to the Phony Degree.

In Real Life, professional bodies generally treat overseas qualified professionals according to their experience. Someone just a few years out of medical school may find this trope playing straight. A person with years of practice in his field may avert this trope. In many cases there are certification programs in place to verify both knowledge and skill, allowing their degree to transfer while also making sure they understand differing standards and operations from their point of origin (the same programs can also apply for some jobs even if the person is native and has no degree, recognizing decades of experience can be more valuable than recent graduates).

When it's language skills rather than job skills, the character is Eloquent in My Native Tongue. This can be a justification for Almighty Janitor, or for why the Back-Alley Doctor can only get unauthorized jobs. Not to be confused with A Degree in Useless, nor do they commonly overlap.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In the epilogue of Negima! Magister Negi Magi Yue runs into this problem as ISSDA didn't accept her degree and career history from Magic World.
  • This is one of the blows to Asuka's self-esteem that she receives once she moves to Japan in Neon Genesis Evangelion since in her native Germany she was already a college graduate at the age of 14 but finds herself put back in high school and struggling with the material due to having trouble reading Kanji.
  • Lampshaded in Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid when Kobayashi aces a mage exam.
    Kobayashi: I got a new skill that I can't write in my resumes.

    Comic Books 
  • The Best We Could Do: The Vietnamese degrees of Thi's parents were not considered when they emigrated to America, and her mother eventually undertook menial jobs with long hours as well as years of night school.
  • In the Heroes graphic novels, when Mohinder turns up searching for his dad, his quest leads him to a taxi firm.
    "Dad was working here? But he was a geneticist!"
    "Hey, back in Russia, I was one of the top-ranked ballerinas. In America, I'm a taxi dispatch. Want a job?"
  • A non-degree version in a Hellblazer story, where one character was a brutal African warlord who now works as a janitor in England because of all the people who want to kill him back home (he was in England in the first place because he needed surgery that would have been impossible in his home country). He apparently doesn't really mind the change, at least no one wants to kill him and there are other advantages.

    Comic Strips 
  • Madam & Eve plays the trope for laughs here.
  • In The World of Lily Wong Lily, a Hong Kong resident, has to interview prospective nannies, at a time when many Filipinas were coming to Hong Kong to work as maids or caretakers. After interviewing many candidates, all of whom who have no experience with children, she picks one of them as more well-qualified. She explains to her confused husband "She's a surgeon; the rest are just lawyers".

  • In the second Once Upon a Time in China movie, the British Ambassador declines Wong Fei-Hung's offer of medical assistance for the people who had been injured by the White Lotus cult because he doesn't trust Chinese medicine, instead calling on the Western-trained Sun Yat-sen. However, he is willing to go back on that and offer his honest thanks after seeing the results when Sun requests Wong's assistance due to a shortage of Western medicines.
  • In Paulie, Misha was a literature teacher in Russia. Having emigrated to California, he is now a janitor in an animal testing lab.
  • Played for drama in Dirty Pretty Things, where Chiwetel Ejiofor plays an illegal immigrant and refugee who was a doctor in Nigeria but can only clean hotel rooms in the UK.
  • The Half of It: Ellie's father had an engineering PhD in China, but in the U.S. the only job he could get was a low-level station manager in a small town as he didn't speak English.
  • Amreeka: No one will hire Muna despite being a highly educated woman with a lot of experience because she is a recent Palestinian immigrant. She resorts to getting a job at a fast food place.

  • The Kite Runner:
    • The father was a noble, well-to-do politician in Afghanistan, but emigrated to America to become a gas station attendant.
    • And the father-in-law had been a military leader in pre-Taliban Afghanistan, but he was too proud to take an entry-level job in the US, so he was feeding his family with welfare and flea-market earnings instead, waiting for the monarchy to return and free Afghanistan, where he would return to the ministry. Though not at all in the way he planned, the Afghan government is toppled, so he does return to Kabul to take his ministry post.
  • In Fail-Safe, a character's father had been a surgeon in Germany but moved (fleeing the Nazis) to the United States. Because he had a family, he couldn't afford to redo his residency and ended up becoming a butcher.
  • In the memoir Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston's mother was a damn good doctor in China; when she moved to the US, she opened up a laundromat with her husband.
  • In one of the later Adrian Mole books by Sue Townsend he works as a chef in a posh London restaurant. He points out that all the people he knows who are in menial jobs were all doctors, professors, and lawyers in their various native countries (possibly serving to underscore Adrian's relative failure, as he has no excuse for being almost as poorly employed).
  • In The Etched City, Raule's medical qualifications are not recognized by the medical establishment in Ashamoil, and she is forced to take a low paid job in a charity hospital.
  • Serge Storms: Inverted in the first novel, where a man dies because of his lousy health plan (provided by the insurance company he worked for, and which he helped make so inefficient in order to maximize profits). Part of the problem lay with their unquestioningly accepting doctors with an accreditation from a foreign country, even from third world nations, without confirming their credentials. The doctor who saw him had a Phony Degree from a tiny Central American nation called Costa Gorda, and treated his gunshot wound by slapping a bandage on it and sending him on his way.
  • In the Mercedes Lackey novel The Serpent's Shadow, Maya, who had been a practising doctor for years in India, had to take her examination records to a local hospital and be interviewed by its chief surgeon before she would be allowed to open her own practise in London.
  • In the Dolphin Diaries books, the ship's cook and chief engineer was apparently a top-notch engineer in China, but didn't speak English very well and could only find menial work as a cook in the US.
  • An inversion in Last Watch. Anton goes to Samarkand, Uzbekistan, and gets into a taxi driven by an elderly Uzbek who speaks Russian without an accent. Typical to an elderly Eastern man, the taxi driver has many deep thoughts that Anton initially assumes to be typical Eastern wisdom. However, the driver reveals that he has a Ph.D. in Psychology which he earned in Moscow. Apparently, there's no demand for a shrink in Uzbekistan, so he drives a cab instead.

    Live-Action TV  
  • Boy Meets World:
    • There's a hopeful variation. Eric took a job as a security guard instead of trying to do his SATs again to get into college. His partner turned out to have been an engineer in wherever he came from, Eric asked him why he was reading the SAT prep book. The response: "So that I can let this country know I am an engineer."
    • In another episode when Eric teaches a citizenship class he says he is the smartest one in the room, and a student says that in his country, he was a nuclear physicist, but Eric tells him that, in America, everyone starts with a clean slate.
  • Oliver Beene once showed an Italian boy in the school's throw-away remedial class who had taken college-level courses in Italy. Being a high school example, this is probably because he didn't speak English well enough to understand what he was being taught, rather than because his previous education wasn't good for anything in the new country.
  • In an episode of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper and the rest of the gang are in a physics competition. The final question baffled both groups. The correct answer was given by the third-floor janitor, who, as it turns out, was a physicist in St. Petersburg before the end of the communist regime.
    Janitor: Here, I am janitor. In former Soviet Union, I am physicist. Leningrad Politechnika. Go Polar Bears.
  • In one episode of Law & Order, a doctor is on trial for Manslaughter, his Indian colleague is testifying to his actions, and the doctor's lawyer draws attention to his training in a foreign medical school. Fortunately, another Harvard-trained doctor could verify this testimony.
  • An episode of Scrubs featured an "intern" who had been a brilliant surgeon in his native (unnamed vaguely Eastern European) country but upon coming to the US, was being forced to start over at the bottom of the system. His name was Miloš' Radovicnouizicioiuizcinicizich'l. Turk was jealous of his having getting to reattach a child's arm inside a rusty car.
  • Nahum, the janitor in Slings & Arrows, never gets his backstory fully explained, but it's suggested that he was either an actor or a director in Nigeria.
  • In Big Love, season four, Ana was a dental hygienist back in her home country but was having difficulty passing the test in America because her English was not so good. Ergo, she was working as a waitress in a diner where she met Bill (and Margene).
  • In Vanishing Son the two boys try to get jobs in the US after defecting from China. Despite one having 3 1/2 years of college majoring in Biology and the other a degree in History, the only jobs they can get are gutting fish.
  • An episode of Doctors had an Asian bus driver who saved the life of a boy on his bus, then feigned a lack of English to avoid getting in trouble for practicing without a license. So they called in a translator, which led to this when she recognized him:
    Doctor: You know this man?
    Translator: Yes, he's my husband. And an idiot.
  • Zig-zagged by Jeff from Community, who has to go back to college because his undergraduate degree was from a university in Colombia, not Columbia as he had stated. While he did earn his law degree legitimately (passed all relevant coursework), the fact that he had misrepresented his undergraduate credentials raises the question of whether he got into the law school fraudulentlynote . He also later stated the "degree" was an email attachment, so he never did any undergraduate work whatsoever.
  • In That '70s Show, Jackie mentions her maid could have been a doctor in her country.
  • In The Sopranos, the husband of the Sopranos' maid was an engineer in Poland.
  • In Desperate Housewives, a house cleaner teaches Juanita while she's being homeschooled. She had a doctorate in engineering from the University of Bucharest.
  • In Will & Grace, Karen's maid/Heterosexual Life-Partner Rosario comes from El Salvador and apparently was a teacher with a master's in psychology.
  • In True Blood, Yvetta, one of the strippers in Fangtasia, reveals that she was a Cardiologist back in Estonia.
  • A one-time game in Whose Line Is It Anyway? parodies the "This Is Your Life" type of reality game show, and Colin Mochrie, as a voice from Wayne Brady's past, rants about how Wayne took his job as a sewer worker. Wayne follows up by claiming that Colin is a Mexican immigrant (despite not having the accent), whereupon Colin claims to have taken "four years of English literature".
  • The Office (US):
    • Warehouse worker Hide claims that he was a heart surgeon in Japan, but had to flee the country when he botched a surgery on a Yakuza boss. He then claims that he bungled the procedure on purpose and that he was actually a good surgeon. "Zee best!"
    • When Michael Scott is working in a call center to get extra money, he meets Vikram, a more successful coworker.
      Vikram: I was a surgeon back home, you know.
      Michael Scott: I wonder what I would've been back home.
  • Frasier. In an episode where the Crane brothers see a fellow psychiatrist about how to work together, he gives them a virulent "The Reason You Suck" Speech regarding their Sibling Rivalry ("That is it! That is it! In thirty years as a couples therapist, I've never said what I'm about to say: Give up! It's hopeless! You are pathologically mistrustful of each other, competitive to the point of madness! So, trust me, just meet each other at weddings and funerals, and the rest of the time, stay the hell away from each other!"). The boys agree on his prognosis, but then use his degrees as an Ad Hominem argument to ignore his advice, even though they admit Martin says the same exact thing, and kick him out of the building!
    Frasier: Well, there's no arguing with Dr. Schachter's credentials. My God, the man is an expert in his field. He graduated from the University of... Grenada!
    Niles: [shocked] Well, surely that was just his undergraduate schooling.
    Frasier: Oh yes, of course, his graduate work was done in... Aruba!
    Niles: An all-Caribbean schooling... well, tally me banana!
  • 30 Rock's Dr. Spaceman got his degree from the Ho Chi Minh School of Medicine. Legally, he has to put quotes around the word "Doctor."
  • Shyster lawyer Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul got his law degree from the University of American Samoa. It's valid, but befitting a low-rent sleazeball like Saul. This is explored in greater detail later on; Saul really did pass the bar and worked quite hard to do so, but because he didn't do it in a more prestigious school and made it in through an online course, his brother Chuck sees him as having "taken a shortcut" and thinks he's not a real lawyer.
  • Subverted/parodied in PhoneShop, regarding the shop's cleaner;
    Lance: Janine! Back in Nigeria, that man's a leading neurosurgeon!
    Janine: Really?!
    Lance: Nah, he's a fucking cleaner.
  • ER:
    • A recurring character of a foreign nurse "Bob" (not her real name) has to save a patient when all the doctors are busy. Turns out she's a cardiac surgeon from Eastern Europe. The other nurses are horrified as they don't know that she knows what she's doing, and she's horrified she's blown her chance at the hospital, or even to stay in the country. Dr. Carter assures her that's not so. And then she's never heard from again.
    • Dr. Elizabeth Corday has to restart her residency because she's from the UK.
    • Dr. Dave Malucci is American but got his medical degree in Grenada. Since this is Malucci it's not really one of his bigger problems and has actually helped him in diagnosing patients.
  • Used in Castle, where it's revealed that a murdered cab-driver was, in his home country, a high-ranking nuclear scientist. It's eventually revealed that he could have put his talents to service in America when he defected but was disillusioned by working on a nuclear weapons program in his home country and was happy enough working as a cabbie and living with his family. This may be also because people applying for a position with a government contractor have to pass through a grueling background check. Immigrants are almost always rejected on suspicion of divided loyalties.
  • A character in the Endgame episode "Turkish Hold'em" was a doctor back in Turkey, but a garbageman in Vancouver.
  • Played with in Arrested Development. Lindsey tries to break up a strike at the construction site by driving up with a busload of guests from Lupe's family reunion and announcing, "You won't work? Fine! Here are a bunch of Mexicans who would love to have your jobs." One of the guests protests that he's a professor at the University of Mexico City.
  • A one-time character in Person of Interest was a first-class surgeon working as a coroner because he couldn't afford to get licensed to practice medicine in America after immigrating due to the fact he sends most of his paycheck back to help his family. Finch resolves this by giving him a Briefcase Full of Money to use to gain licensure in exchange for him treating a critically injured Reese without reporting the gunshot wounds to the authorities.
  • In Alphas, Rachel's father was a doctor in The Old Country. Now he owns a dry cleaning business.
  • Elementary had a murderer who the police had determined had to be both a) a doctor or other medical professional and b) fluent in Ukrainian, which none of the doctors at the hospital they were investigating spoke. It turned out the janitor was a Ukrainian immigrant who had been a doctor in his home country.
  • In the American Life on Mars, a bank robber turns out to be an immigrant who was a respected scientist in the Soviet Union. However, he's barely eking out a living in the US and is forced to, duh, commit a bank robbery to survive.
  • In Bones, the Jeffersonian gained a new intern from Cuba. He was a doctor there, but his credentials didn't transfer, hence interning to gain a legitimate American degree. Though he doesn't seem to consider it a setback, and the rest of the team refers to him as "Dr. Fuentes," even hyper-critical Dr. Brennan, who makes a point of addressing her other interns as "Mr." or "Miss" to subtly remind them that they don't yet have doctorates.
  • An eastern European janitor on The Drew Carey Show is indignant about a character bullying him by constantly pouring drops of coffee on the floor for him to clean up when he was once higher up:
    Janitor: In my homeland, I was surgeon!
  • In an episode of According to Jim, a construction worker named Willie, who speaks with a heavy African accent, laments that in the U.S. he could only get low paid, unskilled work, while back in the old country he was a doctor. Later in the episode, after Jim gets hurt on the job, he and Andy appreciate Willie's medical background which prevents the injury from becoming life-threatening.
  • A scene in Heroes where Mohinder argues with his father about his father's intention to chase his apparently crackpot theories all the way from India to America: "Do you know what doctors do in the United States? They drive taxicabs." And, indeed, he does drive a taxicab in the United States and gets murdered doing so, and when Mohinder comes to the United States to look into his father's murder, he drives a taxicab too.
  • Played realistically for drama in Transplant, in which the main character Bashir is a doctor who fled from Syria to Canada. While working as a doctor in a warzone have given him more emergency medical experience than many older doctors, and his degree would hypothetically be recognized with proper paperwork, his university is currently operated by a government that would rather extradite him as a political prisoner than provide documentation. Much of the early first season's drama revolves around his efforts to escape this Catch-22 situation while barely scraping by.
  • On New Amsterdam (2018), Leyla Shinwari was a pediatrician in Pakistan but can't get licensed in the States so she works as a driver while sleeping in her car. Dr. Sharpe eventually manages to get her a residency slot at the show's eponymous hospital.

  • In What Does the K Stand For?, Stephen K. Amos describes how his parents were a nurse and an engineer in Nigeria, but a domestic and a bus driver in London.

  • Avenue Q: Christmas Eve occasionally complains about holding two Master's Degrees from a Japanese university but being unable to get anything other than minimum-wage jobs in America.

     Video Games 
  • Team Fortress 2: according to dialogue in Poker Night at the Inventory, Heavy Weapons Guy has a Russian Literature. However, he's actually very happy with his current job because it allows him to shoot people with a very big gun; apparently, Russian Literature is just what he studied because what the hell (and the supplemental comics strongly implied that he comes from a politically sensitive background that made it impossible to get any other degree). His poor English is implied to just be a lack of fluency; in the Russian version of the game, his speech takes a much more sophisticated, educated tone. When asked whether his education comes in handy during his line of work, he replies "More than you think."
  • In Tropico, your loyal, boot-licking lackey Penultimo apparently got his degree at the University of Atlantis, an (obviously) fictional college (which may explain his 5 spelling spelling his own name).
  • Inverted in The Great Ace Attorney, wherein Victorian London's disregard of Japanese legal qualifications allows Ryunosuke, an English language student who's never set foot in a law class, to practice law by serving as an emergency substitute in a study tour for the actually qualified lawyer who died en route. While he has no formal legal training, he had won an acquittal in the Supreme Court of Japan (while representing himself). So Lord Chief Justice Stronghart humors him and lets him practice law in Britain if he can successfully win, with no preparation, what seems to be an Open-and-Shut Case case for London's most infamous prosecutor. He succeeds (though not without his very guilty defendant tampering with witnesses and evidence behind his back), and Stronghart keeps his word.

     Web Original 
  • In this Funhaus video, Omar jokes that he was a doctor in Cuba, but can only get work as a video editor in America.

     Western Animation 
  • Bordertown: In one episode, Bud Buckwald is in a taxi, complaining about the lack of respect he gets, both as a border guard and as part of the community. The drivers response?
    Taxi Driver: I used to be President of Estonia!
  • Family Guy one of the Portuguese fishermen (who, oddly enough, have thick Brazilian accents) employed on Peter's boat claimed that back in Portugal he was a cardiologist.
  • The Simpsons:
    • It is revealed that Indian convenience store clerk Apu graduated as a top-of-his-class computing scientist back in Calcuttanote . Then again, it's also implied that he could get a better job if he wanted; he's just really devoted to working at the Kwik-E-Mart.
    • Groundskeeper Willie was a doctor in his native Scotland. When he came to America, they took away everything, including his last name.
    • Parodied in "Super Franchise Me". When Homer starts working in Marge's sandwich franchise because she can't keep staff, Lisa comments "This is so sad. In his homeland, Dad was a nuclear engineer!"
  • Futurama has one episode where Fry was told that being a college drop-out back in his pre-freezing days was like being a High School drop-out in the series' time. Wanting the same respect he believes college drop-outs have, he enrolled at Mars University just to drop out. He even took it as a compliment when Leela told him he'd not last two weeks. During the "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue, it's revealed that Fry successfully dropped out after the events of the episode.
  • "Doctor" Venture in The Venture Brothers straddles the line between this and Phony Degree. He dropped out of "State University", never even receiving a bachelor's degree. He claims the title "doctor" via an honorary doctorate from a college in... Tijuana.


Video Example(s):


Reluctant cab driver

Dr. Abdul Mazdaki is living in Queens as a taxi driver after he moved to the US from Iraq. He's found by Harry Keshegian after searching medical journals online. Harry appeals to him to help out in a hostage crisis involving a sick girl, but Abdul is reluctant to do so. It's until Harry tries again and explains that the sick girl is dying and the last thing she needs to ask is with his Iraqi medical credentials that aren't recognized in America. He later agrees to help out.

How well does it match the trope?

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