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A university typically awards an honorary doctorate to someone who has made great contributions in a field that is important to that particular school or as a token of thanks for assistance and support. This sort of degree is not awarded on the basis of scholastic achievement and does not indicate that the recipient has formally studied at the school conferring the honorary doctorate. Public figures, entertainers, and major donors are all often honored with this sort of degree. Anyone wishing to receive an honorary doctorate should work to achieve greatness in a particular field or strive to become a stalwart supporter of a school.
The precise meaning of an honorary doctorate varies somewhat from recipient to recipient. In many cases, these degrees are tokens of respect but not markers of scholastic achievement. Some recipients, however, are honored with this sort of degree as the result of specific academic or scientific work that they have undertaken and completed. A great poet, for instance, might receive an honorary doctorate in literature, with the understanding that this degree was a true marker of intellectual achievement.
An honorary doctorate is issued in order to confer status on a recipient and to strengthen the association between a particular school and the public figure receiving the honorary degree. Distinguished public figures with histories of community service often receive this type of degree. Celebrities, too, are commonly honored with this sort of degree, and in turn, agree to link their names to the awarding university or to speak at one or more events on campus, such as commencement, in order to enhance the prestige of the university.
Schools offering an honorary doctorate for achievement or to build an association typically select public figures whose work and achievements align with the awarding school's academic and social mission statements. A school of music, for instance, is much more likely to confer a degree on a great blues performer than on a prominent microbiologist. A famous law school, in turn, is less apt to honor a blues musician than a leading jurist.
Universities also use honorary degrees to recognize and reward important supporters. The award of an honorary doctoral degree is one way that a school can acknowledge the assistance provided by a generous benefactor or stalwart legislative supporter of the school’s endowment or mission. When awarding this sort of degree, a school will often attempt to select an award appropriate for the specific field of endeavor in which a particular benefactor has achieved greatness, but a perfect match is not always possible. Generous contributions to and support for a particular school do not guarantee such an award, but they make it much more likely.