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Is it possible at all to do a PhD without a Master or a Bachelor's degree?

Every now and then I meet someone who claims he knows someone who knows someone who was able to do a PhD without previous degrees (maybe only with high-school).

Is that true, was it true in some specific cases?

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In some fields and some places (e.g. mathematics in the US) most people who get a PhD do so without getting a Master's. –  Mark Meckes Mar 6 at 19:14
@MarkMeckes, re your example (mathematics in the United States): My impression is (and I haven't looked up stats on this) that most U.S. math Ph.D. programs offer so-called "master's degrees without thesis" after the required coursework is done. –  msh210 Mar 7 at 3:19
As an undergraduate, I had an economics professor who had only a high school degree and a PhD—he left college in Europe early and moved with his advisor to a school in the US to do his graduate work. –  aeismail Mar 7 at 4:47
@msh210: Some (I don't know about most) US math PhD programs do offer such a thing, but the vast majority of the students (nationwide) don't get a master's degree if their eventual goal is a PhD. In some departments, Master's degrees are only given to students who decide to leave the PhD program after completing enough coursework. –  Mark Meckes Mar 7 at 7:00
@MarkMeckes it gets worse. At the university I got my PhD in math from (UConn) you only the masters on the way to the PhD if you remembered to fill out the right form. Of course if you forgot you didn't get the pay raise. –  BSteinhurst Jun 28 at 15:32

5 Answers 5

My (former) thesis advisor, Barry Mazur, has only a PhD. In fact, according to Stephen Krantz's Mathematical Apocrypha Redux, he does not have a high school diploma either, having left Bronx High School of Science after his junior year to attend MIT.

The story is that he had not completed an ROTC requirement at MIT but had already been accepted for graduate school at Princeton. Princeton was not insistent that this requirement be completed, so Barry did not take it seriously. (I have heard more colorful stories about this, but not from him, so I won't repeat them here.)

You might say that this is a technicality. I would agree with that but still claim it to be an interesting (even slightly inspirational, in some weird way) case. Moreover, Barry was 22 when he attained his PhD, so some actual schooling must have been skipped (or highly abridged).

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I think Mike Freedman also got his Math Ph.D. from Princeton without finishing his undergraduate degree. –  Noah Snyder Mar 6 at 17:43
Ah, Princeton, that clown college. Maybe we should look into getting its accreditation revoked... –  Pete L. Clark Mar 6 at 17:44
The question is also who enforces the necessity of a previous degree. Some accreditation body, or a college, that could use other quality standards, if they deem them equivalent. –  Quora Feans Mar 6 at 17:46
I do assume that he has a high school diploma! By the way, it's actually much easier to get a BA without a high school degree than a PhD without a BA (I never got a high school degree or equivalent). –  Ben Webster Mar 6 at 18:45
@Ben: Thanks for your comment. I should not have assumed that, as it turns out. –  Pete L. Clark Mar 6 at 20:16

It was possible in some departments of German universities to start studies after a high-school diploma ("Abitur") directly with the PhD as target degree.The German Wikipedia page about the PhD degree discusses that point. Unfortunately the English version doesn't mention it. While that possibility was abolished about 25 years ago, there's still people around who got their PhD in that way.

One such person is the former German minister of research and education, Annette Schavan. She got her PhD as first degree with six years of study after the high-school diploma. But now that the university disclaimed her degree due to plagiarism in the thesis, she is essentially left without any academic degree.

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In mathematics, it is indeed possible to be accepted to a PhD program without a bachelor's degree, but only in special cases.

First, the person (the candidate) has to be exceptionally precocious and gifted with mathematical aptitude.

Second, the person has to apply to a very strong PhD program - the kind where the math faculty might have enough sway to convince the university to accept the person. At non-elite schools, the graduate college is likely to veto anything like this. And extremely strong letters of recommendation will be needed.

Third, the person must have at least one strong faculty advocate at the destination university who is able to sway opinion to get the person accepted.

As you can guess, this is not something that happens very often.

And that is for the best. It is a serious risk for a school to accept someone to a PhD program who does not have a bachelor's degree - perhaps the person will fizzle out. Worse, perhaps the person would have been able to complete a PhD if they earned a bachelor's degree first, but they ended up not earning the PhD when they were accepted early to a PhD program. For these reasons, it takes a truly exceptional candidate - more than just "seems able to get a PhD" - to convince a school to accept them to a PhD program without a bachelors.

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Mortimer Adler is one case. Buckminster Fuller got in, was kicked out then invited back. There are other ways of earning stripes.

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I have a BA and a PhD, but no MA/MSc. More common than this are people who get into graduate school with an undergraduate degree in a completely different area of study. Just in my household, my wife's did Information Technology as her undergrad degree, and then got into a Chinese History graduate program.

Really, all it takes to get into grad school is convincing the admissions committee that you are a good enough student of their field. Completing a lower degree in the appropriate area of study is typically the easiest way to convince them, but if you have the necessary background knowledge and a lot of potential, nobody is going to turn you down just because you lack a diploma.

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I think that from the perspective of the departments, you're right that actually finishing the degree doesn't matter too much. But at least in the US, most schools have an institution called "The Graduate School" whose mission is to make it hard to be a grad student. In particular, they have bureaucrats whose job it is to check that you did get your undergraduate degree. (For example, see here: gsas.virginia.edu/new-students. They will not let you register for classes unless you prove that you have a BA.) –  Ben Webster Mar 6 at 18:51
It's noteworthy that they don't care what subject that BA is in (as your wife's example shows), but they do have to check their box. –  Ben Webster Mar 6 at 18:52
It's not that simple, and I think my wife's case illustrates how the system works. After her BA, she worked a number of years as a sysadmin for a Humanities department. She learnt a lot about Chinese history just by working there, and then she took some classes on the side prior to applying to grad school (including spending a couple of summers in China just to learn Chinese), just to complement her base knowledge. The grad school admissions committee (and we are talking about a good grad school for this particular field) believed this was sufficient to accept her. –  Koldito Mar 6 at 18:58
That's completely orthogonal to what I'm saying. Obviously, the first step to graduate admissions is convincing the department you're a good candidate and it's absolutely true that there are lots of ways of doing that other than getting a BA in the subject. But there's also a bureaucrat who won't let you register for classes if you can't prove you got a BA. They don't care in what subject or when you got it, but they want to see an official transcript. Probably there are cases where this gets massaged, especially for people coming from overseas... –  Ben Webster Mar 6 at 19:06
but at most American universities, there is somebody who job it is, quite specifically, to turn you down if you don't have a diploma, independent of the department's decision. –  Ben Webster Mar 6 at 19:07

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