In the discussion made in comments to this question, it has been stated that in France, it is possible (though improbable) to become a professor without having PhD. It made me curious if there is such possibility in the United States. I know that in 1970s there were leading professors in the US university who had only MSc. However, I think the main focus was on knowledge in the past, but now formalities are much more important.

Anyway, I am curious if the current regulations in the US universities allows this at all? For promotion to full professor, one needs to be assistant/associate professor. In the past, having a PhD was privilege, but it is now mandatory for holding any assistant/associate/full professor.

Does the current regulations allow a professor without PhD to teach PhD students?

This question is about impossibility vs. improbability.

  • 13
    If somebody proved the Riemann hypothesis without having a PhD, I am willing to bet that they could get a tenure-track position at a quite good university. Some of the top universities might have rules prohibiting it, but one of them would surely make an exception in this case. And if they produced some more good research, tenure would certainly follow. So I would say it is definitely possible. Commented Mar 7, 2013 at 0:36
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    If somebody proved the Riemann hypothesis without having a PhD, I am willing to bet that they could get a tenure-track position at a quite good university. — Yes, but I'm also willing to bet that any university that had a regulation about only hiring PhDs and wanted to hire her would offer her a PhD as well.
    – JeffE
    Commented Mar 7, 2013 at 6:36
  • 5
    No, I mean a normal PhD. And what do you mean "without academic works"? They have a proof of the Riemann hypothesis!
    – JeffE
    Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 0:10
  • 3
    Discussion should take place in chat, not here. Please continue this conversation there.
    – eykanal
    Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 12:34
  • 2
    Trivia: in Italy, PhD programs were only introduced in 1980, so most Italian scholars in their late fifties or sixties, including top ones, do not hold any postgraduate title. Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 22:01

7 Answers 7


At most US institutions, you need the terminal degree in your field. For many fields this is a PhD, but in some it might be an EdD, a DMA, a DPH, a ThD, etc. However, all of these degrees are considered to one level or another to be research doctorates. Presumably faculty positions at a medical school require an MD or equivalent. Likewise for other professional schools. Positions in the visual arts, theater, dance, creative writing, cinematography, etc., may only require the MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree, as it is considered to be the terminal degree in those fields.

"Regulations" about the requirements to hold certain academic ranks and perform certain academic duties (like mentor graduate students) are made at the institutional level.

  • 3
    Any citations for this claim? It certainly seems plausible, but I'd like to see some actual examples of schools with that as an explicit policy. Commented Mar 21, 2013 at 2:23
  • The University of Connecticut. See the first item in the qualifications for an assistant professor. hr.uconn.edu/employment_services/facdicttp.html Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 14:03
  • 1
    Accrediting bodies, both of institutions and of individual programs, may also have requirements that X percent of their full-time faculty have a specific terminal degree.
    – Ben Norris
    Commented Sep 25, 2015 at 23:58

I was thrown out of a small mid-western college (not a university) in my first year. I was persuaded to apply to Harvard about 8 years later. I took the exams and was admitted. I paid my way by working a 40 hr/week full-time job, admittedly against the rules, at an electronics firm throughout the 4 years. I graduated with a decent, but not outstanding A.B. in a scientific field, and had, incidentally, become Chief Electronics Engineer at the firm where I had been employed. This was followed by employment in diverse research environments, then in a think-tank in Cambridge and, finally with two offers of tenured full professorship at major universities. I took one, and thus became a full professor at a major university without ever having taken a course in graduate school or having had any prior appointment as Assistant or Associate Professor. I am currently Professor Emeritus and continue to direct PhD candidates. The answer to the question is, therefore, YES

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    Welcome to AC.SE. As you are currently emeritus, can you just confirm that your appointment as a professor was "recent" as the question is specifically focuses on can it be done "today" and not 40 years ago. Even better would be if you could explain any departmental policies/politics associated with not having a PhD.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jan 12, 2014 at 15:38

Andrew Casson never completed his Ph.D. and is a Professor at Yale University (and was previously a Professor at UT Austin and UC Berkeley).

  • 1
    Good to have an example, but his appointment was in 1980s, and it is not strange to offer a professor position to someone who already has a similar position in another university of same level.
    – Googlebot
    Commented Mar 7, 2013 at 1:07
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    He was hired by Yale in 2000, so they can't have had a hard rule against it then, and probably don't now. Commented Mar 7, 2013 at 4:59

Whether you get special consideration probably depends on how special you are. Lynn Conway joined the University of Michigan as a full professor of EE and CS in 1985 with only an MSEE. But she had some other stuff going for her, like having co-created the Mead-Conway revolution in chip design. She didn't have a PhD but she had already become a Fellow of the IEEE.

Lynn is a friend of mine and when I've asked her about her appointment, she's waived the question away, insisting that exceptions can always be made. But I'm a lecturer today in that same UM EECS department where she held her appointment before retiring and when I recently asked our chairman if it could still be done today, he insisted it would never happen. Not anymore.


Short answer - it depends. You mention teaching PhDs, so I assume you don't mean community or state colleges where a PhD may not necessarily be required. If you mean tenure-track or tenured professor at a "University", then I would say it's difficult, although certainly not impossible. To make a blanket statement applying to all U.S. institutions would just be silly. But I would consider it a rare occurrence for a non-PhD to step into the tenure-track role.

There are a number of non-tenure track professorships (adjunct, teaching, practicing professional, or whatever title an institution gives them) that don't necessarily require PhDs. Note that these professorships are typically focused on teaching rather than scholarly research and usually don't come with any tenure guarantees.


Another counterexample: Walter Russell Mead, who joined the Bard faculty in 2005 and received tenure in 2010 if I am not mistaken. Admittedly, Bard does not grant doctorates, but it is regarded as a strong liberal arts college.

I'm under the impression that there are strong incentives to have faculty with terminal degrees for accreditation purposes, but historically it was not unusual and you can find more recent examples, though they certainly fall in the improbable category.


The ability to enter academia without a PhD varies substantially by faculty. In faculties that train people for "the professions" it is more common to encounter academics that have come from a professional background but do not have a PhD. For example, many academics in Law faculties are professional solicitors and barristers and their expertise comes from this background, rather than from a postgraduate research degree. Many academics in Medicine faculties are medical doctors who do not have PhDs (though they still have the title "Dr" from their medical degrees). The same is broadly true of other "professions" such as Actuarial Mathematics, some areas of Business and Commerce, so areas of Engineering, etc.

Having said this, there is no doubt that the situation is changing rapidly over time, due to a rapid increase in the supply of PhD graduates in all faculties (see e.g., Cyranoski et al 2011, McCook 2011, Larson, Ghaffarzadegan and Xue 2014). As the pool of PhD graduates increases, there is greater competition in credentials for academic positions, particularly at entry level. This seems to be leading to a situation where entry-level academics are expected to have a PhD. In some places this is now mandatory (see e.g., Gibney 2018, Baker 2018). Growth in PhD graduates and the resultant inflation of entry-level qualifications has been so rapid that there is growing concerns of an oversupply of PhDs that cannot be absorbed into academia (see e.g., The Economist 2010). Senior academics who entered the university system prior to this boom have usually achieved enough in research and their profession that having this degree is not an important addition, so there are still many academics at higher levels without PhDs. However, for people seeking entry into academia at lower levels, the proportion of entrants with PhDs is increasing rapidly.

Speaking from personal experience (though not at US universities), when I went through university in the late 1990s and early 2000s (in Australia) there were many academics without PhDs, mostly in the faculties listed above. In the Law faculty at my university, most academics were professional lawyers, and less than a quarter held a PhD. In the Actuarial school, the academics were actuaries, and none of them held a PhD (though one was working towards it). Encountering an academic without a PhD was extremely common. Since this time it has become uncommon to encounter an entry-level academic without a PhD.

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