eli5: What exactly is an honorary degree when a public figure receives one from a prestigious university.

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Lots of people who have been in the public eye a long time tend to receive these honorary degrees from big schools that they didn’t ever attend. What exactly is it? Just a PR move for both parties? Why did Walter Gretzky (father of Wayne Gretzky) have an honorary law degree from McMaster University? I’m generally confused by this.

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It’s what it says, purely honorary. It doesn’t give you any benefits of the real degree. With a honorary legal doctorate, you still can’t practise law. The university just thinks you did something valuable for that field and honours you this way. Its like getting a medal.

The original idea of an honorary degree: Sometimes, somebody has contributed a lot to a field of science, without ever having got a degree in it. Maybe a self-taught scientist or technician who became successful and earned the respect of the professors at a university, who then may want to confer the honorary degree to show that they consider him as one of their peers.

What it became: Well, as you guessed, more often than not a PR move: Technically, an important politician contributes much to political science by producing a lot of things to discuss. So, let’s give him an honorary doctorate for his contribution to the practical aspects of theory and hope that he then supports the university’s next funding request.