"You became a professor at Cornell without ever having received a Ph.D. You seem almost proud of that fact.

Oh, yes. I’m very proud of not having a Ph.D. I think the Ph.D. system is an abomination. It was invented as a system for educating German professors in the 19th century, and it works well under those conditions. It’s good for a very small number of people who are going to spend their lives being professors. But it has become now a kind of union card that you have to have in order to have a job, whether it’s being a professor or other things, and it’s quite inappropriate for that. It forces people to waste years and years of their lives sort of pretending to do research for which they’re not at all well-suited. In the end, they have this piece of paper which says they’re qualified, but it really doesn’t mean anything. The Ph.D. takes far too long and discourages women from becoming scientists, which I consider a great tragedy. So I have opposed it all my life without any success at all.

How is it that you were able to escape that requirement?

I was lucky because I got educated in World War II and everything was screwed up so that I could get through without a Ph.D. and finish up as a professor. Now that’s quite impossible. So, I’m very proud that I don’t have a Ph.D. and I raised six children and none of them has a Ph.D., so that’s my contribution."

(From [1])

Which are the Academic alternatives to a Ph.D.? (Actively participate in seminars, write papers,) being supervised without earning a degree? How you become deeply involved in the community of your research interests without a Ph.D.? How you become known in your field? How do you write to a professor for supervision without earning a degree?

[1]: A 'rebel' without a Ph.D. A conversation with the mathematical physicist Freeman Dyson on quantum electrodynamics, climate change, and his latest pet project.

  • 24
    To borrow a phrase from Churchill: "A PhD is the worst way to educate researchers, except for all the other ways."
    – ff524
    Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 15:29
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    Having some familiarity with the quoted party, let me say: he leaves out some context. Dyson went to Cornell to do a PhD in physics in 1947: he was then 24 and already on his second academic career, having published two math papers. By 1949 (age 26) he had made fundamental contributions to QED, for which many feel that he should have won the Nobel Prize, but was prevented by the technicality that at most three can share one (here: Schwinger, Feynman, Tomonaga). This path towards PhDless academia -- i.e., be ridiculously precocious and brilliant -- may yet be open to the Dysons of today. Commented Jan 24, 2017 at 1:16
  • 4
    "How do you write to a professor for supervision without earning a degree?" I don't get why you'd want that. It appears like you want to do all the work required for a PhD but not get the reward.
    – user9482
    Commented Jan 24, 2017 at 8:08
  • 5
    @PeteL.Clark I'm reminded of the (probably apocryphal) anecdote about a novice composer asking Mozart how he should go about writing a symphony. Mozart tells him he's probably too young to start such an ambitious work. ‘But Herr Mozart, you were writing symphonies when you were ten!’. ‘True,’ replies Mozart, ‘but I didn't have to ask how.’
    – Pont
    Commented Jan 24, 2017 at 9:01
  • 2
    The question is not clear to me. You say you want to do all the things Ph.D. students try to do: write papers, have a supervisor, become known in your field, etc. What part of the Ph.D. is it that bothers you? Commented Jan 24, 2017 at 12:40

4 Answers 4


Freeman Dyson had two advantages on his side: (i) He was brilliant. (ii) He was educated at a time when, as he put it, everything was "screwed up".

(ii) is no longer the case for any of us, or at least not in any of the countries where I take it that you want to be a professor. (i) may be true for you, but statistically speaking is not true for all but a very very small number of people; consequently, (i) also does not provide a route to becoming a professor, and certainly is not something anyone should bank upon.

In other words: Forget about becoming a professor without a PhD. While it may not be completely impossible, it is so unlikely that nobody could reasonably advise anyone to take that route. In actual practice, almost all professor job ads contain a phrase similar to "PhD in X or a related field is required", and there truly have to be exceptional reasons for a hiring committee to ignore this.

[I will add that all of the above specifically only applies to the sciences and mathematics; professors are frequently hired out of industry in engineering, education, and business departments, and I would not be surprised if other criteria apply in such cases.]

  • 4
    Even if you are super brilliant, why wouldn't you get a PhD? Unwillingness to make an effort to get a PhD would probably be a red flag for hiring committees, since it could indicate that you do not play by the rules or maybe even laziness (many would argue that strong work ethics and dedication are as important, if not more, than brilliance for a researcher).
    – Bitwise
    Commented Jan 24, 2017 at 9:13
  • 2
    @Bitwise -- precisely. In the grand scheme, maybe the PhD system has its downsides, but it is not purposefully onerous. It is a time of learning, and at the end you get a title. The time of learning can not be substituted one way or the other. Commented Jan 24, 2017 at 13:45

I'm not sure if PhD is a hard requirement to become a professor, but assume there are 100 candidates, and 99 of them have PhD, then why would the one without PhD stances a chance?

If you want to be treated as a special case, you need to be special, simple as that. I also know some professors without a PhD, and all of them were genius. Coincident? I think not.

For example, Freeman Dyson nearly won the Nobel prize (@Peter L. Clark). Robert Floyd won a Turing award. Tim Berners-Lee, well, no need to mention about him.

Which are the Academic alternatives to a Ph.D.? (Actively participate in seminars, write papers,) being supervised without earning a degree? How you become deeply involved in the community of your research interests without a Ph.D.? How you become known in your field? How do you write to a professor for supervision without earning a degree?

Why would you want to do that without a PhD, because it would be much much easier if you do those things with a PhD. In particular, "being supervised without earning a degree", are you serious? you want to be a free labour for your supervisor?

Alternatively, go to some countries where professorship is not that competitive. I have some Bangladeshi friends, who were my classmate in Master. They are all assistant professors now, without a PhD, although they were horrible in class :)


(Actively participate in seminars, write papers,)

Unless you're going to a scam university, a PhD is where they pay you to do these things, and you have someone whose job it is to mentor you in how to do these things.

The answer to your question is "do the things that a PhD entails, without the funding of a PhD, then reject the degree, then try to convince others that you've completed everything a PhD entails despite not having the degree."


For my answer, I will assume that you have decided not to get a PhD, despite your desire to engage in research, and will address your questions based on that assumption. This answer is not intended as support for such a choice.

How do you become known in your field?

Publish. Apply for grants (with a co-author if need be). Collaborate. Attend department seminars regularly. Go to conferences, participate in discussions and give presentations.

How do you write to a professor for supervision without earning a degree?

The same as in the other situation (in which you are seeking a degree). There are questions here about that, so I won't duplicate that guidance. Here's one of many questions about that: How to approach a professor for research?. From there you can explore some more by looking at the similar links in the sidebar.

  • 5
    This answer makes it sound like this is a routine thing, that one can do this by following much the same steps as a PhD student would. I think we've learned (from the many questions on this site by people struggling to get mentorship and supervision, funding, other kinds of support while not enrolled in a degree program) that it's not at all the same path.
    – ff524
    Commented Jan 24, 2017 at 0:36
  • @ff524 Thanks for the feedback. Does the edit make my position clearer? Commented Jan 24, 2017 at 0:48
  • 2
    It's a clear position, I just don't agree with it. I don't think that "do what a PhD student would do, the same way as a PhD student would do it" is a good approach - the difference in circumstances calls for a different approach. I also think that a good answer would describe specific strategies for overcoming the extra challenges that someone might face in this situation. (For example, in this answer I did not say "just write to professors following the advice elsewhere on this site" for similar reasons.)
    – ff524
    Commented Jan 24, 2017 at 0:58
  • 4
    I don't really disagree with this answer, but I read it much as follows: "I am not going to challenge your stated assumption that you want to be an academic and not get a PhD. But I'll advise you to do what largely amounts to simulating a PhD student, up to and including spending time at a university department in your field." Is the idea that eventually the OP will see that it would be similar but easier to actually become a PhD student? Commented Jan 24, 2017 at 1:01

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