To be perfectly honest, it isn't that hard to get a Ph.D. if one is not terribly picky about the name of the institution on the diploma. It's hard to write a great dissertation. Writing a bad one only takes the willpower to sit down and pound the thing out on a keyboard. Such a dissertation, if the author could find three to five Ph.D. holders willing to sign off on it (difficult but perhaps not impossible), would be useless for the purposes of academic employment. But hell, if he or she is just really excited about the opportunity to call oneself "Doctor" without being factually incorrect, this would do the job.
The point is, Ph.D. holders are not common but neither are they rare. We all would like to believe we are very special and brilliant, of course. In reality most of us just made it through the process with persistence and a little help from the people guiding us through grad school. I like to think of my degree not as a sign of brilliance, but as an indication that I was willing to stick it out in a process where most people get frustrated at some point and walk away. And in higher education, a field in which nearly everyone has a doctorate of some kind, you are just as likely to encounter knuckleheads as you would be in law, medicine, business, the military, social work, or any other profession. It's possible to be the holder of a real, hard-earned Ph.D. and to call oneself "Dr." and still be kind of a doofus. Trust me.
One thing that isn't common, though, is the Ph.D. equivalent of a "diploma mill" for a Bachelor's degree. There's kind of a well-defined process and most colleges and universities have no interest in doing the kind of hoop-jumping necessary to receive accreditation as a Ph.D.-granting institution. So the set of places where one can get a Ph.D. in at least one field is necessarily limited to a small segment of higher ed, tending toward the large and well funded research universities. Your local commuter school can't simply decide to grant you one at random unless they have a Ph.D.-granting program already in place in your field. They usually don't.
An established political scientist has done some digging into Trump favorite and self-described "terrorism expert" Sebastian Gorka's Ph.D. He and the conservative media just love throwing around the "Doctor" title as though it grants him papal infallibility on all matters Islamic. Gorka, it must be said, seems like a total fraud. One of my former students – so proud! – got him to melt down at a panel Q&A session by asking him about his membership in Nazi-affiliated organizations. Everything about him screams "Who the hell is this idiot and where did he come from?" Fortunately a guy with a real Ph.D. from a real university did the light digging necessary:
Gorka is a fraud – a charlatan of the most brazen hue – a snake-oil salesman whose supposed Ph.D dissertation would have never passed muster in America or Britain and to put the cherry on the cake was approved by an fraudulent panel of examiners.
Gorka is Hungarian-English. He gained an American passport in 2012. His nationalist parents fled to London from Budapest in 1956. His dissertation – Content and End-State-based Alteration in the Practice of Political Violence since the End of the Cold War: the difference between the terrorism of the Cold War and the terrorism of al Qaeda: the rise of the “transcendental terrorist” – was apparently granted in 2007 by Corvinus University of Budapest. The tract is long on Islamaphobia and the unsubstantiated claims of the polemicist but short on theory, evidence or academic rigor. Corvinus is not an institution with a profile, so I looked: sadly it doesn’t even make the top 1,000 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.
Even Gorka’s attendance poses a mystery. When exactly was he a graduate student at the university? Did he take classes? Did he receive any training in Islam or Islamic studies? His CV notes that he left Hungary in 2004 to work for the US Defense Department in Germany and then in 2008 relocated to the US. There is no evidence that he ever returned to live and study in Budapest.
Two of the three referees did not even have a Ph.D. One was the US Defense Attaché at the American Embassy in Budapest at the time, while the other was employed at the UK’s Defence Academy and just had a BA from Manchester University awarded in 1969. This ‘neutral’ examiner had published a book in Hungary with Gorka three years previously. While graduate students sometimes collaborate with their advisors the independent external examiners must have no nepotistic ties with the candidate. More important, a basic principle of assessing educational achievement is that your examiners have at least the degree level of the degree they are awarding. Undergraduates do not award Ph.Ds. In Gorka’s case the only examiner who lists a doctorate was György Schöpflin – an extreme right wing Hungarian Member of the European Parliament who recently advocated putting pigs heads on a fence on the Hungarian border to keep out Muslims. I have been told that Schöpflin was a family friend. Both Schöpflin and Gorka’s father fled from Budapest to London in the 1950s and both moved in exile right-wing nationalist circles.
If that is true, we are left in sum with a degree that was awarded in absence – on the basis of a dissertation without basic political science methodological underpinnings – and apparently from an examining committee of two of Gorka’s diplomat friends, with only BA degrees; along with an old family friend, Schöpflin.
In essence, that is a fake Ph.D. from a university nobody has heard of. He might as well have gotten two of his college roommates together with his fascist Dad's also-fascist friend and called it a dissertation committee.
Oh, wait. That's kinda what he did.