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Last semester, I was graduated from a four-year university, and am now a Ph.D student at another university. I received two separate degrees: one in Pure Mathematics and one in Computer Science, both Bachelors of Science. The honors in question are:

  • Summa Cum Laude (1): This is a direct, university-wide, GPA-related thing; it applies to both degrees. I fulfill these requirements and so deserve the honor.
  • Summa Cum Laude (2): This is applied if the student does a Mathematics thesis. I did not do this, so I do not deserve this honor.
  • Computer Science Departmental Honors: This is applied if the student does a CS thesis. I did do this, working independently to produce not just one but two theses, containing publishable work. One won best paper at a small conference.

The two separate diplomas were shipped well after graduation, and well after I had moved to a different state. They contain:

  • Mathematics: Summa Cum Laude
  • CS: <nothing extra>

Clearly, there is a problem. Since I didn't do a mathematics thesis, the "summa cum laude" on the mathematics degree refers to the strict GPA thing (the mathematics department confirmed this). However, by the same reasoning, I should clearly have gotten the same on my CS diploma. And, in any case, I might have expected the departmental honors to show up too.

The first thing I did was ask the university help office, which directed me to the (single) email contact at the registrar's office. This email contact ignored repeated, direct questions asking to clarify the above; replies consisted mostly of one-line, semi-incoherent, half-caps, half-cut-and-paste of irrelevant information I'd already seen on the University's webpage.

Were it not for the typos, this lady wouldn't pass the Turing Test.

The mathematics diploma is correct (since I do meet one of the options for having the honor). However, the CS diploma needs to be fixed. I have surmised that the only way to get a fix is to send the original diploma back with a somewhat ambiguous correction form.

This leads me to two questions for the academic community:

  1. Is it common practice to include both a summa cum laude honor and a lesser honor? In my opinion, my theses represent far more value, especially research value, than a stupid GPA. The contact was . . . unable to clarify whether the university has an established policy on this--but my impression is that it does not. The CS department says it's not their format, so they don't know.

Under these assumptions, I am forced to conclude that there is no established format at my university. Further, as it seems they are taking suggestions, I will submit my correction form to list both honors. If they really do have a policy, they'll know and can contact me.

  1. I am having trouble thinking up a good way of stating the honors, however. If this contact was representative of the registrar's office at large, then I definitely want my correction to be verbatim. What is a simple phrasing of the honors that makes them clear that they are distinct?
  • Note: "diploma" and "bureaucracy" are not tags; I suggest them. – imallett Oct 7 '14 at 3:29
  • Re: the suggested tags, (1) I think 'diploma' is already within the scope defined for graduation in its excerpt, and 'diploma' is ambiguous, which is undesirable for a tag name (people also use it to mean degree). (2) I think paperwork and administration pretty much cover 'bureaucracy' already :) – ff524 Oct 7 '14 at 3:41
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    As I'm sure you're aware, summa cum laude literally means with highest honors. Anything else that the university could print would be a lesser distinction or a less universal phrasing (thus less meaningful to admissions and hiring panels). Just get summa cum laude on both and move on. Literally nobody but your family will see your diploma, so it doesn't actually matter what's printed on it, only what is recorded by the university. – Tim Oct 7 '14 at 8:02
  • Agreed with @Tim. If you need to put it on your resume or whatever, just write Received BS in Computer Science, Summa Cum Laude. Technically people with Summa Cum Laude also qualify for Cum Laude and Magna Cum Laude, but to see someone write BS in CS, Summa Cum Laude, Magna Cum Laude, Cum Laude looks terrible and really doesn't change the fact that only the highest level matters. – Compass Oct 7 '14 at 13:47
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In my opinion, the most important statement in your question is "I ... am now a Ph.D student." Assuming that you follow through in your doctoral program, everything about your undergraduate career will rapidly fade into insignificance. Please understand that I do not mean to downplay your accomplishments in any way: it is simply that you are entering a new realm in which you will be judged very differently on a very different type of accomplishment.

Given that, what's important here is to make sure that nothing on your C.V. could be interpreted as a lie in the unlikely case that somebody bothers to check with your undergraduate institution. Check what the CS department believes about you, and write that down on your C.V. You can always update it later if the bureaucracy gets fixed.

Beyond that, it's really more for your own personal satisfaction than for any career value, particularly as regards the pieces of paper that you were shipped. My own personal experience as a working scientist... I recently rediscovered my degrees while going through a box throwing out old papers, and they have now been relocated from a box in a closet to a box in the attic.

  • This is definitely not the answer I wanted, but I think it's the right one. Ultimately, being a researcher and having the background knowledge to be good at it is what counts. – imallett Oct 22 '14 at 3:00

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