Is there any specific rule that requires someone supervising and awarding a Ph.D. to have a Ph.D. themselves? I learned recently in some parts of Asia it is possible to have a Masters degree and award a Ph.D. One point made was, in the example of Korea, there was no education system and as such it was required for this to be the case at some point. This seems to have continued. Does this exist in United States or Europe as well?

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    In the UK I think this officially depends on each institution's own rules, although within different subjects there will be different "standard practices". – Yemon Choi Aug 29 '16 at 11:02
  • The language my school uses is "terminal degree" in their field, not necessary a PhD. I'm not sure where that might apply though since in my field they're the same. – Jeff Aug 29 '16 at 14:44
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    Inception: If all PhD supervisors require a PhD, then what would have been the qualification of the first PhD supervisors? – Ébe Isaac Aug 29 '16 at 15:38
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    i don't think that Freeman Dyson has an earned PhD. i would be honored to have him for my advisor. – robert bristow-johnson Aug 29 '16 at 18:02
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    @ÉbeIsaac Guess what? The rules have probably changed since then. – David Richerby Aug 30 '16 at 9:54

No, there isn't any general rule.

First, a PhD degree is awarded by a university, not by an individual.

The education system of a country or the university rules usually define which positions can officially act as supervisors. The same education system or the university rules establish which titles should have a person to be eligible for those positions: if the PhD is not required, which is not uncommon, there can certainly be PhD supervisors without a PhD.

Another case is the following: in Italy the PhD degree has been established some thirty-odd years ago. This means that most of those who became professors in Italy before that time don't have a PhD (as Federico rightly observes, some might have taken it abroad), but they surely can supervise students officially.

  • I wonder if the rules might be more centralized in e.g. France? – Yemon Choi Aug 29 '16 at 11:02
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    @YemonChoi In the above I said "education system" exactly for that kind of cases. An education system is defined by the government. – Massimo Ortolano Aug 29 '16 at 11:04
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    All those who became professors in Italy before [1980] don't have a PhD: not necessarily: some got them abroad. You are correct that most of them don't, though. – Federico Poloni Aug 29 '16 at 11:12
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    An education system is defined by the government Not everywhere, fortunately. – Cape Code Aug 29 '16 at 12:31
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    @YemonChoi Indeed in France I believe the rules are more centralized, and you normally need not only a PhD but an Habilitation (HDR) to supervise a PhD (you can co-supervise without one). There are some loopholes though, whereby professors with foreign experience can get to professor positions and supervising roles without the HDR. – user3780968 Aug 31 '16 at 15:12

Different systems are in place in different universities and countries to govern who can formally supervise PhD dissertations. This is sometimes called promotion rights. There are, as far as I know, two ways how one can conventionally acquire promotion rights:

  • Due to holding a position that grants promotion rights, such as being a Full Professor in Germany, being an Assistant, Associate, or Full Professor in Switzerland or the United States, or being a faculty member on any level (I think?) in the UK. Note that, in some cases, promotion rights can also be negotiated even if the position per se does not grant them. I know a case in Austria of an Assistant Professor who negotiated promotion rights as part of his job package when accepting his post, even though Assistant Profs. typically do not have promotion rights at this university.
  • Due to having habilitation or whatever the national equivalent is. This seems to be a bit of a historical residue primarily in central and northern Europe (e.g., Austria, Germany, Sweden, ...). Habilitation can be earned not unlike getting a PhD degree (with a thesis and a public defense), and pretty much by definition grants the holder not the job of a professor, but all the "rights" associated with being one (primarily advising graduate students and teaching courses and giving lectures). Historically, to become a professor in countries that had habilitation one was expected to get habilitation first. This is not necessarily the case anymore, but habilitation still exists. A person that has habilitation but no professor position is, in German, called a "Privatdozent" (private teacher). Such a person is able to advise PhD students, but without close collaboration with somebody within the university, the formal proceedings are cumbersome for all involved.

Note that both versions not necessarily require a PhD (one could for instance be appointed Full Professor without a doctorate, and there are indeed disciplines and cases where this happens). However, in practice, you can assume that all typical and realistic career paths that lead to promotion rights include doing a PhD yourself first.

  • in Germany, it is typically the institution that awards the PhD not a professor. The professor has the right to lead and supervise somebody formally towards the degree. – user122146 May 30 '20 at 19:11

I'll speak from my experience in research in France and in Canada.

As pointed out in other answers, the supervisor do not award the diploma themselves, it is the university that does, and it only happens after a comittee made of different people decide that the thesis and defence are worth a PhD. So, there are two goups of people whose diploma we can consider here: the supervisor(s) and the comittee.

Supervisors: it is fairly common to have more than one spervisor, officially or not. The official supervisor has to comply with official rules: in France, they need a PhD + a "HDR" (habilitation à diriger des recherches = authorization to supervise research, which you obtain with yet another thesis); in Canada, I think you need to have a PhD + be a professor. On the other hand, the daily supervisor (the one that interacts the most with the student) may be this official supervisor, but they may be someone else, and in this case I don't think there is any official rule, as I've seen professors, postdocs, or people with Masters having this role.

Comittee: the composition of the comittee depends on the countries and on the universities, but I'm fairly certain you need PhDs for at least part of the comittee members. In France for example, you need to follow strict rules with a certain number of professors, a certain number of people from outside you university, etc.

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    I might be wrong but technically the university doesn't award the diploma in France, the State does. That's why the diploma has to be signed by a representative of the State (a minister, a rector...). That's splitting hairs though. – user9646 Aug 29 '16 at 14:24
  • @najib-idrissi I don't have it close by now, but I'm fairly certain my French PhD diploma was awarded by my university and signed there, and that's also why we are "Docteur de l'Université ..." rather than only Docteur. I'll have look at the diploma when I get home to be sure. – E. Pitopy Aug 29 '16 at 14:41
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    Well, all the pictures of diplomas I can find online are signed by an academy rector and says in big letters "Ministère de l'éducation nationale, de l'enseignement supérieur et de la recherche" at the top. More info. There might be a distinction between "diploma" and "degree" though... – user9646 Aug 29 '16 at 15:14
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    In your Wikipedia link I read "délivrés sous l'autorité et au nom de l'État par les universités et les établissements habilités à cet effet", so I guess we're both right, as the Universities award the diploma/degree in the name of the State. – E. Pitopy Aug 29 '16 at 15:23
  • @NajibIdrissi I believe it is to establish the authority of the university. Official univerisities are endorsed by their local académie or by one ministère. Official schools by the local rectorat. – Steve Dodier-Lazaro Aug 30 '16 at 12:23

The Swedish mathematician Jan-Erik Roos never completed a PhD thesis. He has advised several students.


Echoing answers already provided: no, that necessarily isn't the case (at least in North America -- I cannot speak for Europe). In clinical research and experimental medicine, for example, it is not uncommon to see an MD supervising a PhD student or even a Post-Doc. Examples of a similar nature may exist in other fields.


Andrew Casson, a renowned geometric topologist, never received his PhD. And the institutions where he worked have (gladly, and proudly, I suspect) bestowed degrees on his PhD students.


Are there rules dictating that a Ph.D. supervisor must have a Ph.D.?

Yes, there are rules, at least occasionally. I am aware of one Australian university which requires supervisors to have a PhD "or equivalent" qualification. These rules are not available to the public.

Most universities do not have these rules, as the other answers mention.

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