This question addresses why it's a bad idea to try to do a lot of independent work before PhD in the hope of finishing PhD quickly.

Nevertheless, are there famous examples of people who have done so much work before PhD that they get a PhD pretty much automatically (say, 1-2 years or less)?

  • @ff524 Thanks, I've changed the focus of the question to another part. Even though this part was asked in the linked question, it was hardly addressed in the answers.
    – Maram
    Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 23:38
  • I'm not sure about the new question (it might be seen as a list-type thing, not an answerable question, which can go either way)... but I've reopened it, so we can let the community decide.
    – ff524
    Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 23:39
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    There are universities which allow a "cumulative doctorate" where you don't write a thesis, but you have to publish a predefined number of papers concentrating on one topic. I have not heard of cases where the person enrolled into such a program after having published the papers, but it's not hard to imagine that it may happen.
    – rumtscho
    Commented Jan 18, 2015 at 20:30
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    Maybe I misunderstand the question, but it sounds like you are referring to an honorary degree, of which many have been given out.
    – user23776
    Commented Jan 18, 2015 at 22:13
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    I would also like to mention, that in most German universities, there is often no PhD programme in the US sense. No one requires you to be officially registered as a PhD student until you submit your thesis.
    – Johanna
    Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 12:24

9 Answers 9


The closest example I can think of is Mihai Pătraşcu. After publishing several extremely strong results as an undergraduate, Mihai earned an MS in one year and then a PhD in one year, all in computer science at MIT.

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    Hmm... did he do any work at all to get the PhD in one year? Presumably he actually contributed something, and was awarded a PhD in recognition of that contribution. This sounds quite different from doing previous work and then getting a PhD "automatically" as was the question. Great example, though!
    – Behacad
    Commented Jan 18, 2015 at 21:18
  • Yes, of course, he remained amazingly productive durig his year as a PhD student. But he really didn't need to.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jan 19, 2015 at 2:50

Ludwig Wittgenstein was awarded his PhD from Cambridge in June 1929, having enrolled as a student in January of the same year. The PhD thesis was an English translation of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which had been published in German in 1921 (under the title Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung).

Wittgenstein circumvented the usual rule on terms of residence, because he had previously been resident as an undergraduate student in 1911-1913; he left Cambridge in the summer of 1913 without proceeding to a degree. Further, the reason for his being awarded the PhD at all was in order to make him formally eligible to teach at the university: there was no doubt as to his abilities.


This happens, not often from super-gifted young researchers (although such do exist as outlined in other answers) but from people who are already professional researchers but do not have doctorates.

Some universities in the UK allow people like this to obtain a "PhD by publication", where a body of existing work - perhaps 3-5 high quality papers - is linked together by a (sometimes lengthy) narrative and submitted. Typically a doctorate by this route must be completed in one year rather than three. (some universities also now offer a three year "by publication" route for new researchers, but that has a different intent)

  • General such "stapler theses" are not just made up of high quality papers but lengthy high quality papers with a theme running through them. They're quite rare though I knew someone years ago who was working on one. He was a medical doctor who had moved over to medical research.
    – Chris H
    Commented Jan 18, 2015 at 19:44
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    They're quite rare — I don't think I've ever seen a PhD thesis in computer science that wasn't assempled out of 3-5 published papers.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jan 19, 2015 at 2:52
  • +1 because my dad (having spent a long time in industry before going into academia) has just done exactly this.
    – MD-Tech
    Commented Jan 19, 2015 at 9:31
  • @JeffE I had one high quality publication during my PhD and a couple of conference papers. The PhD thesis added substantially to the papers though. I agree with Chris H, in my experience the "stapler thesis" isn't common. Commented Jan 19, 2015 at 11:52
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    @JeffE Interesting. To be clear, did you mean "every PhD thesis I saw was based on 3-5 previously published articles [but includes other material]" or "every PhD thesis I saw was basically 3-5 previously published articles staples together plus some glue"? Afaik, the former is definitely the norm (in CS and in Germany, at least) but the latter is controversial.
    – Raphael
    Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 8:30

George Dantzig solved two previously unsolved statistics problems while in graduate school (without realizing it). His advisor told him that he would accept his papers as his thesis (though I'm unable to confirm that he actually did this).


In several countries in Europe (I can confirm by personal experience Spain, Austria and Sweden) there is the concept of "PhD by papers".

This means that the PhD Dissertation is a set of papers put together with a unified introduction (motivation, state of the art). Although some of these papers can be extended, they are pretty much the published version.

If you already have the papers, the whole process can take as little as 3 months.

Also I can't help to mention Honoris Causa doctorates, which are awarded by universities to people who have accomplished outstanding contributions to some field of knowledge. These are the only ones who are awarded "automatically" to somebody.

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    The "honoris causa" doctorate is a bit like a "lifetime achievement" award more than an actual degree.
    – aeismail
    Commented Jan 18, 2015 at 21:21
  • There is a similar "PhD by papers" system is Japan, too.
    – Greg
    Commented Jan 19, 2015 at 4:29

There are several types of PhD - one which is, in effect, a book, one which is, in effect, a series of papers, and one which is, in effect, a single giant paper.

The first form is common in arts and social sciences here in Ireland, and many of theses end up being published as books.

The third format was the usual format here, both in physical and biological sciences, and was often laid out as 'Introduction', 'Materials and Methods', 'Results' (usually more than one chapter), and 'Discussion'. This is falling out of favour, because it is too hard to produce papers from it.

We are moving, slowly, to the second form, which is the norm in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Finland ( and may be in other places too). This is a short introduction, a series of papers, or chapters in paper format, some of which have been published, possibly a linking narrative between chapters, and a final discussion section.

I've supervised one person, whose PhD was ten papers, eight published, and two or so, in draft. He was (and is) a capable and prolific researcher, who had just never got around to a PhD, and was applying for a chair. Needless to add, he got the PhD and the chair :-)


Apparently Lars Onsager (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1968) did not have a PhD when he was admitted to the faculty of Yale's Chemistry Department. Thus he was informed that he could merely submit one of his previous publications, as a formality, in order to satisfy the requirements of a doctorate. However Onsager did some original research anyway on Mathieu functions and was subsequently admitted to the doctorate.


My father got his PhD in Theoretical Physics instead of a diploma in Munich: they counted his diploma thesis as a PhD thesis and his defense was accordingly quite longer and with a different setup (and the relatives waiting outside the examination room were rather worried at first because he took so much longer than anybody else and then floored as he had not bothered to clue anybody in in case it did not work out). However, this must have been about 1964 or so and the respective examination regulations do no longer permit this kind of shortcut and have not done so for a long time.

So this is not more than a historical anecdote.


Schmitt found the Schmitt trigger circuit as a part of a project in his bachelors. He got a PhD for that.

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    Can you back this up in any way?
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jan 19, 2015 at 10:10
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    Wikipedia says "The Schmitt trigger was invented by US scientist Otto H. Schmitt in 1934 while he was still a graduate student, later described in his doctoral dissertation (1937) as a "thermionic trigger."; there are some references. So it seems he got a PhD for writing a thesis about something he invented as a student, but not for inventing it.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jun 1, 2015 at 13:33

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