I'm just still a student, and the question doesn't concern me, but I'm really curious about the answer.

In class, during a break, our assistant was discussing with us (the students) the research that was being carried out in his department, his own research, the areas of study of him and his colleagues, ... and so on. At one point in the discussion, he mentioned a rather "large research project" (I don't know what that is) that a former student, let's call him John (being a Masters graduate), who was in the same class as our assistant, had been doing for several years as a personal project during his free time, in computer science. If I've understood correctly, he's still working on it. Our assistant then told us that "his project is worthy of a doctoral thesis". The class resumed after that.

I'm curious to know whether our assistant said this last sentence simply to underline a certain admiration or whether it is really possible for John (or anyone in a similar situation) to promote his personal work to obtain the title of doctorate or at least to pursue his personal project as a doctoral research project with an approved organisation. That is my question.

PS: I'm European, and so is John. I don't know if that makes any difference in different countries.


11 Answers 11


I'm curious to know whether our assistant said this last sentence simply to underline a certain admiration or whether it is really possible for John (or anyone in a similar situation) to promote his personal work to obtain the title of doctorate...

Others have noted that the answer to the question in the title is technically "yes".

However, in your specific case, the TA's statement is almost surely just an expression of admiration. I've heard that kind of statement before, and it's always been in a context where no prospect for a doctorate actually existed. Unless the TA said explicitly "he plans to submit it as a stapler thesis" or the like, assume the opposite.

Of course, feel free to ask the TA for clarification in this specific case.


That a "project is worthy of a doctoral thesis" does not mean it is equivalent of a thesis, let alone the entire process including things such as a doctoral defense.

Rather, it means the project would be suitable to write a thesis about it. Notably, this may still involve deeper research as the project currently entails - writing a doctoral thesis implies that questions and issues that come up are investigated.


Yes: for example, at Cambridge University, there's the Ph.D. under special regulations, which one obtains by submitting a stapler thesis without necessarily having been a doctoral student first; and the doctorate of divinity, similarly but specific to certain sub-fields of theology. In both cases, one has to hold a Cambridge University degree (e.g. bachelor's or master's) already to qualify.


The answer is "yes", see Wikipedia on honorary doctorate.

  • 2
    When I started at university many years ago, our very reputable maths professor told us someone had received an honorary maths degree for writing a maths book for children. Obviously no hard maths at all, but an excellent book that would get many kids into maths.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Apr 21 at 20:37
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    @gnasher729 If possible, could you please provide some details about this kids Math book like title, author, … Commented Apr 22 at 4:43

In the Netherlands it is yes too. The dissertation is judged by an expert committee and if judged sufficient leads to a PhD. I would not recommend it if you want to pursue an academic career as you get much less support and less networking opportunities. The approach is most common for junior researchers in an institute who are working in research already for whom it can open up a next career stage, or very senior experts who want to consolidate their learning such as my great uncle who started and finished his PhD after retiring

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    Indeed. The formal requirement for a PhD in the Netherlands is writing a thesis, a professor ("promotor") willing to host the defence, and a committee approving the thesis and defence. There is no course work requirements, and so it is not necessary to have ever enrolled at a university. Commented Apr 22 at 16:05
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    The legal requirement for obtaining a PhD is a completed Mac or special dispensation (based on lifetime experience, not given lightly) and the professor needs the right to host a defence ( is promovendi granted to full professor of research university automatically but can also be given to senior staff by the university board for individual experience). Some details to specify the comment by Chris Commented Apr 23 at 6:13

Some universities have a degree called "Doctor of Science", which is based on published papers, rather than a thesis. When I did my Masters, one of my supervisors, who did not have a PhD, was awarded a D.Sc., based on mathematical research (partial differential equations) that he had carried out while employed the government. The requirements for the D.Sc. specified that there had to be a substantial body of work built up over ten years.


I am going to provide a spectrum of answers, as parts of your question can be interpreted in very different ways.

First, in the title, you ask about getting a degree "without having been a doctoral student". But what exactly constitutes "being a doctoral student" here?

  • Is it about being enrolled as a doctoral student? In that case, the answer is very much yes, as some universities have no formal requirement to enrol at all while you work toward your doctoral degree. You may well be employed there as a research assistant by the department where you work on your doctoral research, but whether you also enrol as a student during that time may be unrelated, irrelevant to your department, and based on totally tangential criteria (e.g. whether you need the public transportation ticket that comes with enrolment).

  • Or does it mean having an (at least informal) agreement with a possible supervisor that you are working on research that is supposed to bring you a doctoral degree? That is indeed adviseable, though it is not totally inconceivable that you may be working on some research questions without any such clear goal, and only later on manage to assemble all of them under a common topic that happens to be of sufficient interest to a professor so they agree to supervise you on the "last few meters" until your defense.

    This means, however, that you need to get much of the input on procedures and customs in research from elsewhere, preferrably by already being embedded in a group of researchers beforehand. For, even though you may already have the right ideas on what to investigate, it is this operational knowledge - what is a paper and how do you write one, how and where do you publish it, what should be included, etc. - that you (have to) pick up while working toward the doctoral degree. And this does not even touch upon having non-paywalled access to the relevant literature.

    Thus, without being embedded in a research environment at all, the answer is rather no.

In the question body, you then ask "whether it is really possible for John (...) to promote his personal work to obtain the title of doctorate or at least to pursue his personal project as a doctoral research project with an approved organisation".

Here again, I'd say the answers is generally yes - ideally, your research project for the doctoral thesis (or projects, as there is often not just one singular "thing" to look at) should kind of be your personal project, in the sense that it is something you came up with and defined, possibly built yourself in part or in full. Again, you need to know what you are doing research-wise, so creating a project (and using it in a way that produces results relevant for research1) before having any exposure to a research environment and its conventions is not impossible, but very unlikely.

1: i.e. running user studies, doing software benchmarks, analyzing data sets, depending on whether the project is the research topic, or is a tool that allows you to gain new insights on the research topic.


In Norway such person could go for a "dr. philos" degree,

https://lovdata.no/dokument/SF/forskrift/2011-01-05-841 + Google translate:

The degree doctor philosophiae (dr.philos.) is an unsupervised doctoral degree that can be awarded to people who have completed a higher degree exam, i.e. a master's degree or equivalent. The research work and doctoral dissertation have been carried out independently without formal connection to the university.

A Dr. Philos. degree qualifies for research activities and other work in society where great demands are placed on scientific insight, working methods and analytical thinking in accordance with good scientific practice and research ethical standards.

The Dr.philos. degree is awarded on the basis of:

  • scientific thesis
  • doctoral exam.

The doctoral examination consists of two trial lectures and a public defense of the thesis, also called a defense. One trial lecture is on a specified topic, while the other trial lecture is on a self-selected topic.

Based on Wikipedia it may exist in Denmark too.


I think the assistant was being supportive as I have received similar comments about my assessments from my supervisor(s) during my postgraduate studies. However, I think it is possible to be awarded a PhD without being a traditional student. Some universities allow potential applications to apply for a PHD by publication in which you need to demonstrate significant contribution to the field in the form of already published papers. Alternatively, you can apply to a pre-approved projects and be invited to interviews to work with the researchers. For example, one of my current potential supervisors told me about their upcoming project which has received funding from the British Council. Therefore, you could apply to work on their project and receive an annual stipend, and you would ultimately complete a doctorate at the end of the project. These types of PhDs are generally advertised on the website of funding providers and the associated university.


In Germany, typically no, but exceptionally typically yes ;-).

The reason is that universities want to keep loopholes open for exceptional people and situations. For example, in the regulations of the faculty for math and science of the Humboldt-Universität Berlin, the "normal rule" laid out in §3(1) is, as expected, that you need a masters degree. Or an equivalent degree from a foreign institution ($3(2)). But this requirement can be waived by the doctoral committee "if the candidate's qualification is ensured". The committee can require the candidate to take additional courses, but that is not mandatory. The next 14 year old math prodigy who never had a formal education is welcome to revolutionize the field while pursuing their PhD at the HU. The faculty will probably habilitate them shortly thereafter for the contents of their paper basket lest they continue their revolution elsewhere. It would be silly to make this impossible by regulations without loopholes.

For the rest of us, there is perfect deniability through §3(1) ;-).


I would think your assistant was impressed by the quality/standard of the work - which could form a chapter of a PhD Thesis.

To convert a personal project into a full blown doctoral thesis might involve rigorous processes, involving substantial interest from a doctoral advisor. It's rarely the case. He could, however, publish his work and earn an honorary doctoral degree if the piece of work benefits society.

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