20 Celebrities Who Have PhDs

Some people are impressed by a person who has a PhD while others are repulsed. Whether you think someone who has a PhD (otherwise known as a doctoral degree) is brilliant or just full of themselves, actually earning a PhD is an achievement very few people will attain. Celebrities who have obtained a PhD are rare, but it shows that being an actor or celebrity is not reserved only for people who can make faces or have great bodies. Of course, not every celebrity is an actor, so expect men and women who have obtained celebrity status because of their PhD to show up on the list. To be fair to the non-PhD celebs, there often is the choice between working and going to school. This is a list that is often duplicated because of the small number of celebs who actually have accomplished the feat. You should find some new names in this list of 20. Also keep in mind that the number of PhD programs available today far outnumber those available even 25 years ago. And some people remain celebrities long after their death.


1. Shaquille O’Neal

As a current ad man for Icy Hot and The General auto insurance, O’Neal attained a PhD in Education from Barry University in 2012. He has amassed a number of professional basketball achievements, including NBA champion, NBA Finals Most Valuable Player, NBA Most Valuable Player, NBA All Defensive Team, and the BET award for Sportsman of the Year. He has taken his knowledge and experience to television as co-host of the TNT basketball program “Inside the NBA.” His combination of athletic talent and education has made his net worth rise to an estimated $400 million. But his accolades are not his current interest, but encouraging teens to stay in school and pursue their dreams.

2. Bill Cosby

Though the name has become both famous and infamous in the world of entertainment, Bill Cosby was an advocate for education on television and in the community, encouraging young black men to stay in school and move forward to get a college degree. Cosby graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1976. Like O’Neal, he attained a PhD in Education and over the years has accumulated a number of honorary PhDs (which is not the same as going through the drill). Legally, the jury is still out on his infamy. Whether his positive achievements will offset any future revelations about his private life will likely be a matter for the history books.

3. Condoleezza Rice

It seems fair to be considered a celebrity if you have been the 66th Secretary of State of the United States, especially when dealing with the American public during a time of war. Considered by many to be the smartest person involved in government policy, she earned her PhD at age 26. Deciding on political science as her academic choice, she completed her dissertation on military history at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Serving in the Bush administration was a challenge as, like the Vietnam war, the Iraq war was not a popular one. Though she is moving into her golden years, she still is sought after as a contributor to various political shows and continues to be active in national politics.

4. Martin Luther King Jr.

The “doctor” that appears in front of his name was not by chance. Dr. King was awarded his PhD in Systematic Theology from Morehouse University in 1955. What many people do not know is that he began attending college classes at the age of 15 without having graduated from high school. This achievement deserves serious recognition because while the number of people receiving PhDs today is tiny, 60 years ago the number of PhD candidates being considered was significantly smaller. Undoubtedly Dr. King was the largest influence on social justice and equal rights for all Americans in the last 50 years. He took his credentials and began a non-violent movement to change the direction of the American culture. When most people hear the name “Dr. Marting Luther King” the subject of civil rights immediately jumps to mind.

5. David Petraeus

Here is a name that you will not find on every list. Though his celebrity status has somewhat faded over the last few years, his name still resonates in conversations about the Iraq War. His PhD in International Relations was earned from Princeton University in 1987, attending the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. His formal education had a military leaning, as he attended West Point Academy, graduating in the top 5 percent of his class. He has been Director of the CIA and Commanding General of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

6. Vitali Klitschko

Most boxers are not at the top of the academic intelligence chart (boxing knowledge is a whole other animal) but someone had to be the first professional boxer to break the mold. That person is Vitali Klitschko, who has a PhD in Sports Science from Taras Shevchenko University in the Ukraine. Strange as it may seem, this PhD actually makes sense for Klitschko. The field of sports science continues to grow and who better to have firsthand knowledge of both the science and its practical application than a boxer? But he has moved on and now uses his brains as Mayor of Kiev, Ukraine. He has been politically active since retiring, and has held office in the Ukraine Parliament.

7. Wladimir Klitschko

No, this is not an duplication error. Wladimir Klitschko just happens to be Vitali’s brother. Like his brother he is a professional boxer, and like his brother he has a PhD in Sports Science. He earned his PhD in 2001 from Kiev University, but unlike his brother he has not retired yet from boxing and lives in the United States. Wladimir has taken to the American culture as he has appeared in at least one Hollywood movie (Oceans Eleven!) and resides in Nashville, Tennessee.

8. Mayim Bialik

On the opposite side of boxing and sports science is acting and neuroscience. Enter Mayim Bailik, star of The Big Bang Theory, one of the most popular comedies in television history. After attending UCLA, she wanted to take things further and get an advanced degree. She was accepted to both Harvard and Yale, but after considering the time and distance she would have to be away from her family, she decided to stay put at UCLA. That likely was one decision that resulted in Mayim seeking Hollywood as a career direction. She earned her PhD in 2008 from UCLA. She is obviously as good an actress as a neuroscientist, stacking up four nominations for Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, and finally won a Critic’s Choice Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.

9. Brian May

What do you think of when you think of the musical group Queen? Right. Not astrophysics. But composer and guitarist Brian May of the group has achieved the honor of a PhD in Astrophysics from Imperial College. While his academic achievements have not gained him notoriety among the Rock listeners, his guitar playing definitely have. Voted the 7th greatest guitarist of all time in a Planet World poll, he also strummed in at number 26 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Guitar aficionados continue to appreciate him, as he was number 2 in a Guitar World reader’s poll taken in 2012. There is no existing evidence that his PhD has been instrumental in his musical abilities, but who knows?

10. Peter Weller

His name may not immediately bring a face to mind, but Peter Weller is known to Star Trek fans as Alexander Marcus, Carol Marcus’ father and commander-in-chief of Starfleet Command in the reboot of Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness. Now what makes Weller interesting is he got his PhD in 2014 at the age of 67. And if you are wondering when he started his doctoral journey, it began in 2007 at UCLA. His field of study was Italian Renaissance Art History. That made him 60 years old when he decided to go for it. He has a Master’s degree in Roman and Renaissance Art from Syracuse University. If Weller shows us anything it is it’s never too late to take it to the next level. But another thing to consider is that most people cannot find a good use for a degree in Italian Renaissance Art History. Follow your passion.

11. Rachel Maddow

Host of the MSNBC The Rachel Maddow Show she was the first openly gay person to host her own television show. She earned her PhD in 2001 in the area of Politics, attending the University of Oxford. Maddow is an example of how distractions and disabilities can be overcome and achieve success. She has been dealing with cyclical depression from a very young age and has worked to deal with its negative ramifications. Focusing on politics, she wrote Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power which was published in 2012 and was at the top of the New York Times best seller list. The book examines the role of the military in the discussion of politics in a post-war era.

12. Dan Grimaldi

When you think of Dan Grimaldi, the next to last thing you think about is someone who has a PhD. But Grimaldi does indeed have a PhD, in Data Processing, from the City University of New York. For his role in The Sopranos he usually only had to count to two, but he has a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from Fordham University. After moving on from his role(s) in The Sopranos Grimaldi currently teaches – what else? – Mathematics at a New York university without any known mob connections.

13. Phil MacGraw

Most people know him as Dr. Phil, who used his regular appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show to launch his own show. He obviously is a doctor, but his road to success, fame, and fortune was more of a crooked path. He attended the University of Tulsa as an undergraduate, playing middle linebacker as he was awarded a football scholarship. McGraw’s team was to achieve a thorough beat down, losing to the University of Houston 100–6. But he moved on and was awarded a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1979 from the University of North Texas. After combining psychology with television, he amassed a net worth in excess of $280 million.

14. Miuccia Prada

If the devil wears Prada, then he must have also known something about political science. Granddaughter Miuccia holds a degree in political science from the University of Milan. Her educational achievements and the continuing positive reputation that Prada holds are the result of her commitment to maintaining the brand name and continuing its success. Prada is one of the wealthiest design houses in the world, and that didn’t come by accident. Earning a PhD is hard work, and was a good experience for Miuccia. One little quirk though: she may need to brush up on her poli-sci as she is a member of the Communist Party.

15. Angela Merkel

Recently re-elected as Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel is the first woman to hold the position and the first woman to be re-elected to the position. She also holds the honor of being the first citizen of the German Democratic Republic to be elected to its highest office. (Remember, prior to the Berlin Wall tear down, there was an East Germany and a West Germany.) Her PhD is in Quantum Chemistry, attaining it from the Central Institute for Physical Chemistry of the Academy of Science in Berlin, making her one of the few people who actually understands the stuff. She has learned to speak fluent Russian as well, a useful asset as the leader of a Western nation.

16. Neil deGrasse Tyson

Appearing occasionally on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show when Jon Stewart was the host, Tyson did for astronomy what Dr. Phil did for clinical psychology. Using his TV appearances and cable specials as a springboard, he brought the science of astronomy and physics to the average person. Having attended Columbia University as a doctoral candidate, he was awarded his PhD in Astrophysics in 1991. He has used his voice to promote racial and gender equality in the areas of science, and is politically motivated to address issues of social justice.

17. Greg Graffin

Near the top of the list we had Dr. King with a PhD in Systematic Theology. Balancing off the list is the founder of the band Bad Religion. What is interesting about Graffin is that even though he got the idea of starting the band while he was in high school, he never took his eye off the importance of education. Not many entertainers have the moxie at a young age to realize their success might be fleeting – or not see the light of day tomorrow. He went to UCLA and majored in Geology and Anthropology as an undergraduate. He finally earned his PhD in Geology at Cornell.

18. Robert Vaughn

Robert Vaughn is a necessary addition to the list as he was the first actor to both perform and academically specialize in the field of their career. Vaughn, most famous for his role as Napoleon Solo in the television series The Man From U.N.C.L.E, had earned a PhD in Communications from USC in 1970. His education was put to political use as he was the first actor of notoriety to publicly come out against the Vietnam War. During those years he was politically active, forming or being involved with a number of anti-war organizations. Though Vaughn had a number of movie roles, he never achieved the level of high profile success as he did on television.

19. Ken Jeong

If you have never seen one of the three Hangover movies, then you are not likely to be familiar with Ken Jeong. Some actors and actresses find themselves doing low paying work such as bussing tables or waitressing. People who earn their PhDs may have their lean years, but Jeong had the advantage of his father being a professor at North Carolina A & T State University. Jeong has a South Korean heritage, and we know how serious Asian parents are about their children’s academic success. He earned his PhD in 1995 and went to New Orleans to continue his medical career while doing standup comedy. He currently is licensed to practice in the State of California.

James Franco

20. James Franco

The last person on this list is really an act of optimism. Franco does not actually have his PhD just yet. So why include him? Well, his continued pursuit of a Ph.D. in English at Yale has blossomed into being accepted to the University of Houston as a doctoral student in Creative Writing and Literature. Two PhDs? Yes, it is possible, and with all the academic pursuits it may be a while before we see Franco making any long term filming commitments. He seems ferocious about education, as he holds three master’s degrees, including a writing degree from Columbia and one in directing.

So what can we say we learned from this list? One of the first things is that regardless of how busy you are or no matter what your age is, starting down the road to a PhD can be done if you are willing. But before you start to think about it, you have to have some prerequisites, such as a graduate degree. In most cases, being accepted to a PhD program requires more than just high grades and quality references. A professor at the university you want to attend has to accept your application and be willing to work with you. Another thing we have learned is that most people on this list made education a priority from a relatively young age. Whether they were forming a rock group or working as an actor, they concluded that it was in their long term best interests to continue going to school. James Franco, despite his success, has prioritized education. One final thing. Chasing a PhD is not for everyone. It seems all these celebrities were chasing an interest they had, rather than using it as a way to make tons of money.

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