From Dolly Parton and John Bon Jovi to George Foreman and Kermit the Frog, it seems nearly every celebrity now has an honorary doctorate. But how many can say they obtained the highest degree in their fields without that “honorary” disclaimer? The following is a list of 20 famous people – actors, musicians, sports players, and public figures – who have earned doctorates the old fashioned way. Some obtained their degrees after becoming famous, while others already had the title of “Dr.” in tow, but all show that a doctoral degree is far from boring.
[Can’t promise they’ll make you famous, but check out our ranking of the top online PhD programs.]
Mayim Bialik, known for her roles as Blossom on the popular ‘90s sitcom and Amy in The Big Bang Theory, doesn’t just play a scientist on television. In 2007, she earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA, for her research on hypothalamic regulation in adolescents with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Prader-Will syndrome. Bialik credits her interest in science to a biology tutor she had on the set of Blossom. Originally planning to leave acting for a life in academia, Bialik was drawn back when she was offered the part on The Big Bang Theory. A vocal advocate of women in the sciences, Bialik has said that she hopes her portrayal of a female scientist on the popular sitcom will encourage more girls to follow her lead off camera.
Robert Vaughn has had a prolific acting career, appearing in a wide range of films and television series, from his early role as spy Napoleon Solo in the 1960s series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to his more recent stint as a card shark on the British series Hustle. Early in his career, he also found time to obtain a Ph.D. in communications from the University of Southern California. His dissertation, Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting, was completed in 1970 and published as a book two years later. Vaughn continued to stay active in current affairs throughout his acting career.
The original RoboCop completed his Ph.D. in Italian renaissance art history at UCLA in 2013. Weller got interested in the subject through friends in show business who introduced him to the medieval and renaissance art world. As luck would have it, he defended his dissertation, Alberti Before Florence: Sources Informing “De Pictura,” on the premiere date of Star Trek Into the Darkness, in which he played Starfleet Admiral Marcus. And despite the fact he has appeared on camera countless times, Weller has said he was still nervous as he took the academic podium to discuss his research. Weller, who does indeed teach and publish papers in addition to acting, told Vulture, “the bureaucracy of academia makes the movie business look like Mary Poppins, man; the movie business by comparison is cream cheese.”
Most people know Dan Grimaldi for his roles as twins Philly and Patsy Parisi on the HBO hit The Sopranos, but students at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn know him as professor. Grimaldi holds a Ph.D. in data processing from City University of New York and currently teaches mathematics and computer science. Grimaldi got into acting after he had obtained his Ph.D. and was working at a lab.
A four time NBA champion, Shaquille O’Neal spent 19 seasons on the court before retiring in 2011. Just one year later, O’Neal received his doctorate in leadership and education from Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida. Graduating with a 3.81 GPA and a specialization in human resource development, O’Neal completed a doctoral capstone project entitled, “How Leaders Utilize Humor or Aggression in Leadership Styles.” O’Neal had previously also earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees while playing in the NBA. O’Neal told Parade magazine that he decided to go back to school because he had promised his mother he would get an education, and he wanted to show his fans an example of how it can be done. Yet, he also admits he had a more reason– showing business executives he worked with that he could indeed hold his own in conversations, claiming “any term they throw out, I’m familiar with it!”
Mikhail Youzhny, known as “Colonel” to his fans, is a world-ranked tennis player and number one-ranked in his home country of Russia. Between tournaments, he completed his Ph.D. in philosophy from Moscow University in 2010. Famous for his racket-smashing outbursts on the court, Youzhny wrote his thesis on a familiar subject: a comparative analysis of how various professional tennis players approach the game. According to Youzhny, his main goal in writing about the subject was to help young players and coaches as they develop the game.
Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko
The Klitschko brothers are not only both heavyweight boxing champions from Ukraine, but they also hold doctorates in sports science from Kiev University. Vitali, “Dr. Ironfist,” was the first boxing world champion to hold a Ph.D. He completed his dissertation on “talent and sponsorship in sport” in 2000. After continuing his fighting career for more than a decade, he retired from boxing to enter the political ring, and is currently serving as the mayor of Kiev. Wladimir, “Dr. Steelfist,” completed Ph.D. in 2001, with a dissertation on pedagogical techniques for training young athletes, and continues to box professionally. Education runs in the family for the brothers, as their mother was a professional teacher.
Former Major League pitcher “Iron Mike” Marshall is considered one of the best throwers of the screwball in baseball history. The 1974 Cy Young Award winner obtained his Ph.D. in kinesiology from Michigan State University in 1978, while playing for the Minnesota Twins. His dissertation was entitled, A Comparison of an Estimate of Skeletal Age With Chronological Age When Classifying Adolescent Males for Motor Proficiency Norms, and in the years since he has perfected and taught a pitching method he believes can reduce arm injuries. Although he has had limited success in spreading his technique, Marshall insists that he remains dedicated to research. “I’m a researcher. People forget that about me. That’s where my heart is. I pitched baseball, really, as the lab experiment of my research to see if it worked. Turned out it did.”
Former quarterback Frank Ryan led the Browns to an NFL championship in 1964, just six months before completing his Ph.D. in mathematics from Rice University. He went on to teach at Case Western Reserve University while he was still playing football, often teaching in the morning before attending practice in the afternoon. Long since retired from football and teaching, he continues to lecture and spend time each day working through number theory problems for leisure.
The lead guitarist for Queen has a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Imperial College in London. May, who penned hits such as “We Will Rock You,” put his doctoral pursuits on hold when Queen’s popularity took off. He eventually returned to his studies, earning his doctorate in 2007 for a dissertation on interplanetary dust. He has also co-authored several books, including an astronomy guide titled Bang! The Complete History of the Universe.
Gaffin is best known as the lead vocalist and songwriter for Los Angeles-based Bad Religion. He earned his Ph.D. in zoology from Cornell University in 2003 with a dissertation entitled, Monism, Atheism, and the Naturalist Worldview: Perspectives from Evolutionary Biology. Gaffin has taught at UCLA and Cornell, penned several books on science and religion, and even has a species of ancient birds named after him.
Leonard sang in the rock group Sha Na Na and opened for Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, but left music to pursue his doctoral degree in linguistics. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1982 and is now a professor of forensic linguistics at Hofstra University. Leonard has also trained law enforcement officers in linguistic detection, quipping, “I like to say I’m one of the very few people in the world who have worked with the FBI and the Grateful Dead.”
One of the founding members of Velvet Underground, Sterling Morrison completed his Ph.D. in medieval studies at the University of Texas at Austin in 1986. To help finance his graduate education, Morrison worked on tugboats in the Houston Ship Channel, eventually becoming a captain. Morrison continued performing around Austin during his studies and performed several Velvet Underground reunion tours before he died of lymphoma in 1995.
Precoda played guitar for alternative rock band The Dream Syndicate in the 1980s before going on to earn his doctorate in English from the University of Virginia. He now teaches cinema and cultural studies at Virginia Tech, but continues to play guitar on the side.
One half of Car Talk’s “Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers,” Tom Magliozzi has a Ph.D. in marketing from Boston University, but might best be called a doctor-of-all-trades. He earned his doctorate while running a do-it-yourself- auto repair shop and hosting the famous radio show, both with his brother Ray. He went on to teach at Boston and Suffolk University for eight years before deciding teaching wasn’t for him. Nevertheless, listeners continued to benefit from Tom’s quick whit before the duo called it quits after 35 years on the air in 2012.
It was while MSNBC host Rachel Maddow was finishing her Ph.D. in politics from Oxford University that she broke into the broadcasting business. While writing her dissertation in Massachusetts, she took a part time job at a local radio morning show to supplement her income. Assuming she would continue her previous work as an AIDS advocate, Maddow didn’t initially have plans to return to broadcasting after receiving her Ph.D. in 2001. However, she was offered a spot on Air America soon after, where she stayed until she began her MSNBC gig in 2008. Maddow’s dissertation focused on AIDS health care reform in prisons, but has since gone on to publish a book on American Military Power.
The fashion designer and genius behind Prada and Miu Miu had original plans to become a politician, earning her Ph.D. in political science from the University of Milan in 1973. Before taking over her family’s luggage business and debuting her now-famous handbags, Prada also spent five years training as a mime at Milan’s Piccolo Teatro. Known as a “fashion intellectual,” Prada has said of her ingenuity, “”I had to be the first one to have an idea. The same obsession still drives me in my work, never doing things like the others. It’s been a constant strand in my life.”
Before she served as national security adviser and later secretary of state for President George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice spent several decades in the halls of academia as a professor of political science. After receiving her Ph.D. from University of Denver in 1981 for her dissertation on military policy in Czechoslovakia, she began teaching at Stanford University. In 1993, she became the first woman and first African American to serve as a provost at Stanford. Setting the pace for others was nothing new for Rice; she graduated college at age 19 and had her Ph.D. in hand by age 26.
The former secretary of defense obtained his Ph.D. in Russian and Soviet history at Georgetown University in 1974, while he was working for the CIA. Between government offices, Gates returned to higher education, as president of Texas A&M and, later, chancellor of the College of William and Mary.