Obtaining a PhD is a huge undertaking that requires endless hours of research, testing, and writing. In the end, a thesis is written and if defended successfully a PhD degree is awarded. If it is not successfully defended, all of the time and effort you put into it was for nothing – in most cases.
Here are 60 famous Ph.D. theses throughout history. Some were successfully defended, while others were rejected and mocked. Yet somehow they have still made history. Take a tour through history!
1. Marie Curie
Curie wrote a PhD thesis titled “Research on Radioactive Substances” in 1903 for which she was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics. Her handwritten thesis and other documents are kept in a lead-lined box to this day because they are too radioactive to be touched.
2. Albert Einstein
Einstein’s PhD thesis titled “A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions” was completed in 1906 and is the world’s most cited work.
3. Bernhard Riemann
Riemann’s PhD thesis titled “On the Hypotheses Which Lie At the Basis of Geometry” was completed in 1968 and gave rise to Riemannian geometry, which was used by Albert Einstein to explain the concept of relativity.
4. Kim Eric Drexler
When Drexler completed his PhD thesis titled “Molecular Machinery and Manufacturing with Applications to Computation” in 1991 he had discovered and invented the field of molecular nanotechnology.
5. Karl Marx
Marx’s PhD thesis titled “The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature” was completed in 1841 and debated between freedom and determinism.
6. Claude Shannon
Shannon’s PhD thesis titled “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits” was written in 1937 and laid the groundwork for all digital technology.
7. Stephen Hawking
Hawking’s PhD thesis Properties of Expanding Universes laid out his theory of how the universe was created.
8. John Nash
Nash and his beautiful mind wrote a mere 27-page PhD thesis titled “Non-Cooperative Games” in 1950 which led to him being awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1994.
9. de Broglie
de Broglie wrote a PhD thesis titled “On the Theory of Quanta” in 1924 which became one of the core ideas of quantum mechanics. He was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1929.
10. Richard Feynman
Feynman wrote a PhD thesis titled “The Principle of Least Action in Quantum Mechanics” in 1942 which introduced the now-famous Feynman diagrams.
11. Max Weber
Weber’s PhD thesis titled “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” was completed in 1905. Weber is known as one of the founders of sociology.
12. Ivan Sutherland
Sutherland completed a PhD thesis in 1963 titled “Sketchpad: A Man-Machine Graphical Communication System” and created Sketchpad, which with the first GUI (graphical user interface) program.
13. Hans Rutger Bosker
Booker won the 2014 AVT/Anéla Dissertation Prize for the PhD thesis titled “The Processing and Evaluation of Fluency in Native and Non-Native Speech” completed at Utrecht University.
14. Michael P. Mendenhall
Mendenhall won the 2015 Dissertation Award in Nuclear Physics for the PhD thesis titled “Measurement of the Neutron Beta Decay Asymmetry Using Ultracold Neutrons” written at California Institute of Technology.
15. John Criswell
Criswell won the 2014 Doctoral Dissertation Award for the PhD thesis titled “Secure Virtual Architecture: Security for Commodity Software Systems” written at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
16. Shayan O. Gharan
Gharan won the Doctoral Dissertation Award 2013 for the PhD thesis titled “New Rounding Techniques for the Design and Analysis of Approximation Algorithms” written at Stanford University.
17. Eric A. Vandre
Vandre’s PhD thesis titled “Onset of Dynamics Wetting Failure: The Mechanics of High-speed Fluid Displacement” written at the University of Minnesota won the 2014 Andreas Acrivos Dissertation Award in Fluid Dynamics.
18. Ezgi Akpinar
Akpinar wrote a PhD thesis at Erasmus University Rotterdam titled “Consumer Information Sharing: Understanding Psychological Drivers of Social Transmission” which won the McKinsey Marketing Dissertation Award 2014.
19. Keith N. Snavely
Snavely’s PhD thesis titled “Scene Reconstruction and Visualization from Internet Photo Collections” written at the University of Washington won the 2009 Doctoral Dissertation Award.
20. Susannah Taylor
Taylor wrote a PhD thesis at the University of Ottawa titled “Effacing and Obscuring Autonomy: the Effects of Structural Violence on the Transition to Adulthood of Street Involved Youth” which won the 2018 Joseph De Koninck Prize.
21. Carl Friedrich Gauss
Gauss wrote a PhD thesis titled “A new proof of the theorem that every integral rational algebraic function of one variable can be resolved into real factors of the first or second degree” in 1799 and is sometimes called the Prince of Mathematicians.
22. Arthur Schopenhauer
Schopenhauer wrote a PhD thesis titled “On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason” in 1813 which influenced many other philosophers since.
23. Ludwig Büchner
Büchner’s 1848 PhD thesis was titled “Contributions to the Hallerian Theory of an Excitomotor Nervous System” and proved that irritability causes muscle contractions rather than consciousness.
24. Johannes Diderik van der Waals
in 1873 Diderik van der Waals completed a PhD thesis titled “On the continuity of the gas and liquid state” which gave a semi-quantitative description of the phenomena of condensation and critical temperatures.
25. Hans Vaihinger
in 1877 Vaihinger completed a PhD thesis titled “The Philosophy of ‘As If'” which explained his philosophy, based on his study of Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche, that while sensations and feelings are real, the rest of human knowledge and logic consists of “fictions” that can only be justified pragmatically.
26. Svante Arrhenius
Arrhenius’ 1884 PhD thesis titled “Investigations on the Galvanic Conductivity of Electrolytes” which was initially not well received by his professors, but eventually earned him the 1903 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
27. Émile Durkheim
Durkheim’s PhD thesis titled “The Division of Labour in Society” was completed in 1886 and is a fundamental statement of the nature of human society and its development.
28. Poul Heegaard
Heegaard’s 1898 PhD thesis titled “Preliminary Studies Towards the Topological Theory of Connectivity of Algebraic Surfaces” that introduced ‘Heegaard decompositions’ and the associated ‘Heegaard diagrams’ that are still relevant today.
29. Louis Bachelier
Bachelier completed a PhD thesis titled “The Theory of Speculation” in 1900 which modeled the stochastic process now called Brownian motion.
30. Henri Lebesgue
Lebesgue’s 1902 PhD thesis titled “Integral, Length, Area” made his theory of integration famous.
31. John Augustine Ryan
Ryan was a Catholic priest who wrote a PhD thesis titled “A Living Wage” in 1906 which argued for a minimum wage.
32. Lev Vygotsky
Vygotsky’s PhD thesis titled “The Psychology of Art” was completed in 1925 but not published until the 1960s.
33. Ludwig Wittgenstein
Wittgenstein’s 78-page PhD thesis titled “Logical-Philosophical Treatise” was completed in 1921 and published as a book, which was his only published work.
34. Brian May
Queen guitarist Brian May finished his PhD thesis titled “A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud” in 2008. He started his research in 1970 but took a long break to tour with the band and enjoy being famous.
35. Peter Higgs
Higgs’ PhD thesis was titled “Some problems in the theory of molecular vibrations” and he became famous in 2013 for his discovery of the Higgs Boson (the God particle) and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.
36. Jim Al-Khalili
Al-Khalili’s PhD thesis was about “Immediate energy deuteron elastic scattering from nuclei in a three-body model” and he went on to present science topics on radio and television.
37. Rosalind Franklin
Franklin’s PhD thesis studied the molecular structure of coal and other organic materials, but she is best known for creating the X-ray diffraction images of DNA that led to the discovery of its double-helical structure.
38. Jocelyn Bell Burnell
While researching and writing her PhD thesis, Burnell discovered radio pulsars. These pulsars were famously visualized on the cover of Joy Division’s album Unknown Pleasures.
39. Kurt Gödel
Gödel first presented his PhD thesis “On Formally Undecidable Propositions of ‘Principia Mathematica’ and Related Systems” in 1929 and it was published as an article in 1930. The thesis presented a theorem of the first-order predicate calculus.
40. Jacques Lacan
Lacan’s PhD thesis “On Paranoiac Psychosis in its Relations to the Personality” completed in 1932 presented the post-structuralist theory rejected the belief that reality can be captured in language, which made Lacan a specialist in paranoia.
41. Edward Franklin Frazier
Frazier’s 1932 PhD thesis “The Negro Family in Chicago” analyzed the cultural and historical forces that influenced the development of the African-American family from the time of slavery. It was later published as a book that was awarded the 1940 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for the most significant work in the field of race relations.
42. Lars Onsager
Onsager completed his PhD thesis “Solutions of the Mathieu equation of period 4 pi and certain related functions” in 1935 but was not granted a PhD. He went on to work as a theoretician in the physical sciences and won the 1968 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
43. Alan Turing
Turing’s 1938 PhD thesis “On Computable Numbers, With An Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” suggested a theoretical machine that became the basis of modern computing.
44. Paul Samuelson
Samuelson became known as the Father of Modern Economics after his 1941 PhD thesis “The Observational Significance of Economic Theory: A Study in the Foundations of Analytical Economics” was published. The thesis provided the framework of “Foundations of Economic Analysis,” the best-selling economics textbook of all time.
45. Claude Lévi-Strauss
Lévi-Strauss’ PhD thesis was the foundation of the 1948 book “The Elementary Structures of Kinship” which is widely regarded as one of the most important anthropological works on kinship.
46. Kenneth Arrow
Arrow’s 1951 PhD thesis “Social Choice and Individual Values” led to “Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem” for which he and John Hicks were awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics.
47. Noam Chomsky
Chomsky completed his PhD thesis “Transformational Analysis” in 1955 and is now known as the “father of modern linguistics.” Today he remains a major figure of analytic philosophy.
48. Hugh Everett III
Everett completed his PhD thesis “Theory of the Universal Wave Function” in 1957 and was ridiculed by his peers. It was not published until 1973 as part of an anthology about the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. It was only then that Everett gained some respect for his contributions to mathematics and quantum theory.
49. Stephen Jay Gould
Gould completed his PhD thesis titled “Pleistocene and Recent History of the Subgenus Poecilozonites In Bermuda” in 1967 which led to his theory of punctuated equilibrium.
50. Robert Allen “Laud” Humphreys
Humphreys completed his controversial PhD thesis titled “Tearoom Trade” in 1968. He studied anonymous male-male sexual encounters in public toilets and confirmed that over 50% of the men were heterosexual.
51. Kate Millett
Millett’s PhD thesis “Sexual Politics” was published as a book in 1970 and became a cornerstone of radical feminism.
52. Michael Spence
Spence’s PhD thesis “Market Signalling” in 1972 led to him being awarded the 2001 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.
53. Harry Binswanger
Binswanger’s PhD thesis “The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts” was completed in 1973 presented a new theory of the goal-directedness of living action.
54. Camille Paglia
Paglia’s 1974 PhD thesis “Sexual Personae: The Androgyne in Literature and Art” was the basis of her first book, which became a best-seller.
55. Edwin Earl Catmull
Catmull’s 1975 PhD thesis titled “A Subdivision Algorithm for Computer Display of Curved Surfaces” made four key computer graphics discoveries: Z-buffering, texture mapping, subdivision surface, and the fast rendering of bicubic patches.
56. Paul Milgrom
Milgrom completed his PhD thesis titled “The Structure of Information in Competitive Bidding” in 1979. He is an expert in game theory and pricing strategies.
57. Robert “Bob” Anton Wilson
Wilson earned a PhD in 1979 with his thesis “Prometheus Rising” from the unaccredited and now closed Paideia University in California. However, Prometheus Rising was published in 1983.
58. Irene Heim
Heim produced her PhD thesis titled “The semantics of definite and indefinite noun phrases” in 1982 and is now a linguist and specialist in linguistics.
59. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Goldhagen’s PhD thesis titled “The Nazi executioners: A study of their behavior and the causation of genocide” was completed in 1992 and was the basis of his book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners.”
60. Rebecca Mercuri
Mercuri’s PhD thesis titled “Electronic Vote Tabulation: Checks and Balances” was completed in 2001 and is of particular interest during voting years.
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