Graduation season is upon us and across the world, bright young minds are trying on their cap and gown apparel and preparing to walk across that stage in order to get that degree they worked so hard for. With this in mind, let’s turn our attention to a group of people generally not associated with academia – celebrities. While many celebrities opt to forego higher education entirely in order to pursue their dream careers, whether this be actor/actress, musician, or professional athlete, there are many who do have Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degrees to their names.
While B.A. and B.S. degrees are certainly extremely admirable accomplishments, the PhD is a whole different animal. PhD students commit at least five years, sometimes closer to ten, in order to pursue their academic goals. They work tirelessly and spend long hours in the library or laboratory making small steps of progress on their dissertations.
The honorary degree is becoming more common, wherein celebrities are given degrees and advanced degrees, including doctorates, because of contributions they have made to fields outside of the strictly academic. However, these are not the kind of people this list is focused on. The doctoral life is not an easy route, and not many choose to embark upon it – but sometimes, the people who do will surprise you. The individuals on this list, while better known for their status as actresses, musicians, or athletes, all earned their PhDs through hard work and a lot of research.
10 Wladimir Klitschko
While fans of boxing will have been familiar with Klitschko for awhile, thanks to his relationship with Hollywood star Hayden Panettiere, he has become increasingly in the public eye. In paparazzi photos of the two, the size difference is astounding, with the muscular 6’6 Klitschko towering over Panettiere’s petite 5’0 frame. More and more people outside the world of boxing have been asking who the man Panettiere is engaged to is – well, it’s Dr. Steelhammer.
Why was he given this nickname for the ring? Is it just because he’s great at what he does? No – it’s because he actually has a legitimate doctorate to his name. Klitschko started at Kiev University as a postgraduate student in 1996, and he made sure he saw his doctorate all the way through. In 2001, Klitschko presented his dissertation and earned his PhD in Sports Science: one could say he’s mastered boxing in both theory and practice. He also speaks four languages: Ukranian, Russian, German, and English. So next time someone makes a crack about athletes being more brawn than brain, perhaps point them Wlad’s way.
9 Bill Cosby
At 39 years of age, having fit in courses and practical teaching requirements between his many gigs, Cosby was granted a Doctor of Education degree. He cites this moment as one of the proudest of his life, as his mother instilled in him the fact that education was necessary and incredibly important.
He finished with a 242 page dissertation entitled “An Integration of the Visual Media via Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids Into the Elementary School Curriculum as a Teaching Aid and Vehicle to Achieve Increased Learning.” That’s right – Cliff Huxtable wrote a dissertation about the Huxtables. His success has led him to be granted countless honorary degrees and doctorates, but the one he truly earned through hard work at the University of Massachussetts was the most meaningful.
8 Milo Aukerman
Singer, songwriter… research biochemist. Punk’s not dead – it’s just clad in a white coat, spending time in a research laboratory at an institution of higher education. Milo Aukerman, the lead singer of Los Angeles formed punk band The Descendents, alternates between the stage and the lab, and has done so for his entire career. The band’s first studio album was entitled Milo Goes To College, as Aukerman had made the decision to start studying biology at the University of California, San Diego when the band was working on the album.
He stayed at UC San Diego for a couple more years, eventually earning his PhD in biology. His dissertation was entitled “Analysis of Opaque-2 Function in Maize.” Aukerman followed this up with a stint doing postdoctoral research in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He now works as a plant researcher at DuPont, and manages to keep both passions alive as he alternates between working on musical pursuits and working on academic research.
7 Miuccia Prada
When you think academia, you generally don’t think of individuals decked out head to toe in Prada or, Miuccia’s more quirky brand, Miu Miu. However, once upon a time the fashion powerhouse was studying at the University of Milan, where she first got a degree and then a doctorate in political science. Prada, who was a member of the Communist Party during her youth, was incredibly reluctant to take over the family business (founded by her grandfather, Mario Prada, in 1913). Fairly revolutionary and feminist, Prada initially thought her time could be better spent in other pursuits than fashion. As she told the Evening Standard later in her career – “I never actually decided to become a designer. Eventually I found that I was one.”
6 Dan Grimaldi
Hey, just as the Soprano gang’s finances needed tending to, papers need grading. Daniel Grimaldi is most known for playing twins Philly and Patsy Parisi on the popular television series The Sopranos. He also holds a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Fordham University, a Master’s degree in operations research from New York University, and a PhD in data processing from the City University of New York. The only time you’ll see him on television now is when they rerun the Sopranos – he’s busy teaching at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York, in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science.
5 Drew Daniel
One half of the experimental electronic music duo Matmos is Drew Daniel, who currently teaches at Johns Hopkins University. While the band name Matmos might not ring bells for everyone, the name Bjork likely will. Matmos spent upwards of three years touring in various capacities with Bjork, and they have an incredibly distinctive sound – and, incidentally, Matmos’ partnership with Bjork is the reason earning his PhD took Daniel 10 years. Daniel has had his foot in the academic waters for years, first studying philosophy and English literature at the University of California, Berkeley, before moving on to get a second B.A. at Oxford University, and finally returning to Berkeley to earn his PhD in English literature in 2007. His dissertation was entitled “ ‘I Know Not Why I Am So Sad’: Melancholy and Knowledge in Early Modern English Portraiture, Drama, and Prose.” He teaches at Johns Hopkins and has published countless reviews and articles as well as given artist’s talks and participated in a variety of seminars.
4 Shaquille O’Neal
While it was likely a unique challenge to find a cap and gown to fit the 7’1, 300 plus pound former NBA star, the individuals at Barry University managed to do so, and Shaquille O’Neal walked across the stage to collect his doctorate in education. His doctoral thesis focused on how CEO’s and business leaders employ humor within the workplace, and the effects of doing so. O’Neal praised his parents for their strong valuing of education, which they instilled in him from a young age – though he left university early to begin playing in the NBA, he returned to earn his first degree from Louisiana State University in 2000, an MBA online from the University of Phoenix, and now his doctorate from Barry University. “The adults have to address me as Dr. O’Neal” now, he stated humorously in an interview with ABC News.
3 Greg Graffin
At the tender age of fifteen, Greg Graffin formed the punk rock band Bad Religion with some classmates, and the band has been going ever since. Interestingly, so has Graffin’s passion for learning – after double majoring in geology and anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, Graffin went on to earn a master’s degree (also from UCLA) and then headed off to Cornell University, where in 2007 he earned his PhD in zoology. His dissertation was entitled “Evolution, Monism, Atheism, and the Naturalist World-View: Perspectives from Evolutionary Biology.”
For several years after earning his PhD, Graffin taught as a lecturer at UCLA, lecturing in life sciences and paleontology. He’s recently returned to his doctoral alma mater to teach evolution and develop a series of three courses. The structure of his new position at Cornell allows Graffin a bit more freedom with open long weekends that he uses to schedule performances with Bad Religion. Graffin has also recently had an ancient bird fossil named after him, the ‘Qiliania graffini,’ discovered by a team of paleontologists in China.
2 Brian May
As if being a member of Queen, one of the most revered and beloved bands of all time, wasn’t enough, Brian May also has a PhD in Astrophysics. He began his doctoral studies at Imperial College in the early 1970s, when the band was still in its youth (called Smile, rather than Queen, at first). The eventual success of the band led May to abandon his doctoral studies.
However, his love of astronomy persisted through the years and he was a regular on Patrick Moore’s television program Sky at Night. May’s comments about astronomy and his expressed desire to complete his PhD led Michael Rowan-Robinson, then head of astrophysics at Imperial College, to reach out to May and encourage him to come in to Imperial College for a chat. May made the jump, re-registered, and submitted his revised dissertation in 2007, proving that it’s never too late. He has since been appointed a visiting researcher at Imperial College, participated in a workshop which focused on discussions for a new instrument, ZODIACS, and given a talk on his work at the Royal Astronomical Society.
1 Mayim Bialik
Bialik plays the super brainy Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory, but fiction doesn’t fall too short from reality in her case, as she’s also earned the distinction of being called Dr. Mayim Bialik. While Dr. Fowler has a doctorate in neurobiology, Dr. Bialik holds one in neuroscience.
After playing the title character on beloved 90s sitcom Blossom, Bialik decided to take a break from show business and return to the classroom. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, and then stayed to pursue doctoral studies before earning her PhD in 2007. Her 285 page dissertation was entitled "Hypothalamic Regulation in Relation to Maladaptive, Obsessive-Compulsive, Affiliative, and Satiety Behaviors in Prader-Willi Syndrome."