What Is an Honorary Degree?

Honorary degrees are awarded at most graduation ceremonies, but what have the recipients done to achieve these awards and what is their affiliation to the university? Here, Churchill Gowns Managing Director, Ollie Adkins, explores what it means to receive an 'honorary degree' and some of the most notable recipients of this honour.

The Recipients

Honorary degrees are awarded to people who have made an impressive impact in their field of expertise. This can be anything from business to the arts, politics and research. Many well-known public figures have received honorary degrees at graduation ceremonies around the world. Whilst these are a great privilege to be awarded they are only a symbolic degree; don't expect Dr Dizzee Rascal (honorary doctorate from the University of East London) to understand most doctoral thesis titles any more than most of us do!


Some honorary degree holders are expected to give the commencement speeches at graduation ceremonies and some of these people can be truly inspiring. If you're lucky you might have the likes of Jim Carey speaking, which would certainly jazz up the day! Here are some of our favourite speeches of all time:

JK Rowling at the Harvard Commencement Ceremony:

Elon Musk at the CIT Commencement Ceremony:

Tim Minchin at the Mountview School of Theatre Arts Graduation Ceremony:

Jim Carey at the Commencement Ceremony of the Maharishi University of Management:

Who holds the most?

If a lifetime of hard work and excelling at pretty much everything you do doesn't sound impressive enough, some lucky people have more then one honorary degree to their name. We looked into who holds the most and you might be surprised at the answer... Some people that might spring to mind might include, Oprah Winfrey, Prince Charles and David Beckham and whilst these people have done their fair share of commencement speeches they pale into insignificance compared to the top three honorary degree holders...

David Attenborough (32 honorary degrees)

This one might come as no surprise, He is literally a living legend and no self-respecting British person could argue with this. He holds degrees from The University for Cambridge and LSE so he was well used the wearing a graduation gown long before the endless offers of Honorary degrees came flooding in.

The Dalai Lama (40 honorary degrees)

His Holiness the Dalai Lama holds a staggering 40 Honorary degrees as well as a Nobel Peace Prize, Liberty Medal, International League for Human Rights Award and a probably Nandos black card! However, he is the reincarnated custodian of Buddhist teachings... so the bar was set pretty high to begin with!

Daisaku Ikeda (322 honorary degrees)

For those of you how don't know, Daisaku is Buddhist philosopher. This man has been given honorary doctorates and professorships in over 50 countries (and counting) and, with his last degree being awarded to him in October of last year, there seems to be no end to the long list of awards this man holds.