Did Capt. Mark Kelly ‘Receive’ or ‘Earn’ a Degree?

Astronaut Mark KellyIt happened again … in fact, twice in one week.

First I read that Mark Kelly, retired astronaut and husband of former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, launched his campaign to run for the U.S. Senate seat once occupied by the late John McCain. The Arizona Republic described Kelly’s background:

He received a degree in marine engineering and nautical science from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, graduating with highest honors in 1986, according to his biography with NASA.

Then I got an email announcing a staff change at the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering, an entity with which I have a longtime affiliation:

Dr. Leyuan Shi, a professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at University of Wisconsin-Madison, has taken over as the new director of the Center for Quick Response Manufacturing.

Professor Shi received her Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Harvard University in 1992. Her research interests include simulation modeling and large-scale optimization with applications to operational planning, scheduling, and digital supply-chain management.

Does someone ‘give’ you a degree?

Excuse me, but to my ruthless editor way of thinking, one does not “receive” a degree; one “earns” a degree.

receive: to be given, presented with, or paid; to come into the possession of

earn: to receive as return for effort, especially for work done or services rendered

Did either of these accomplished individuals float through higher education and “come into the possession of” a degree at the end? Of course not. To suggest so is highly insulting.

They spent years and a tremendous amount of energy, working hard to acquire the knowledge and develop the expertise that warrants the distinction of their titles.

Please, please, PLEASE: If your role includes talking or writing about people with academic credentials, honor their efforts and accomplishments with the right verb: earn

Do you have colleagues who need a reminder about receiving versus earning? Please share!

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

4 thoughts on “Did Capt. Mark Kelly ‘Receive’ or ‘Earn’ a Degree?

  1. AvatarM. Laura Kooger

    Definitely “earned” and not “received”. It makes me think of some celebrities and others who were granted/presented degrees at prestigious universities. A big hullaballoo is made over the presentation; they received the degree, they did not earn it. Some may be deserving and some may not, that is one’s own personal opinion. Still, they received the degree.

    1. Kathy WatsonKathy Watson Post author

      Laura, what an excellent example: Celebrities “receive” degrees, whether deserved or not.

      I heard from a woman who is in the final stages of her Ph.D. dissertation, and she fully agrees that she is “earning” that academic distinction!

  2. Avatarwilliam

    I think the difference is more in the connotation than in the strict definition and more in the inference than in the connotation.

    Unless one reads “received” as implying “and it was a gift” how much difference is there? I’ve never felt the need to state, including on my CV, that I “earned” my degree from Boston University. It went without saying, and “received” sufficed.

    1. Kathy WatsonKathy Watson Post author

      William, thanks for your comment. I agree that words have nuances and connotations, and I might be ultra-sensitive to those nuances and connotations. Congratulations on earning your degree from Boston University!

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