Honorary degrees are usually awarded at regular graduation ceremonies, at which the recipients are often invited to make a speech of acceptance before the assembled faculty and graduates – an event which often forms the highlight of the ceremony. Generally, universities nominate several persons each year for honorary degrees; these nominees usually go through several committees before receiving approval. Those who are nominated are generally not told until a formal approval and invitation are made; often it is perceived that the system is shrouded in secrecy, and occasionally seen as political and controversial.
The term honorary degree is a slight misnomer: honoris causa degrees, being awarded by a university under the terms of its charter, may be considered to have technically the same standing, and to grant the same privileges and style of address as their substantive counterparts, except where explicitly stated to the contrary. Recipients of honorary degrees typically wear the same academic dress as recipients of substantive degrees, although there are a few exceptions: honorary graduates at the University of Cambridge wear the appropriate full-dress gown but not the hood, and those at the University of St Andrews wear a black cassock instead of the usual full-dress gown.
An ad eundem or jure officii degree is sometimes considered honorary, although they are only conferred on an individual who has already achieved a comparable qualification at another university or by attaining an office requiring the appropriate level of scholarship. Under certain circumstances, a degree may be conferred on an individual for both the nature of the office they hold and the completion of a dissertation. The "dissertation et jure dignitatis" is considered to be a full academic degree.
Although higher doctorates such as DSc, DLitt, etc., are often awarded honoris causa, in many countries (notably England and Scotland, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand) it is possible formally to earn such a degree. This typically involves the submission of a portfolio of peer-refereed research, usually undertaken over a number of years, which has made a substantial contribution to the academic field in question. The university will appoint a panel of examiners who will consider the case and prepare a report recommending whether or not the degree be awarded.
Some universities, seeking to differentiate between substantive and honorary doctorates, have a degree (often DUniv, or Doctor of the University) which is used for these purposes, with the other higher doctorates reserved for formally examined academic scholarship.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has the authority to award degrees. These "Lambeth degrees" are sometimes, erroneously, thought to be honorary; however, the archbishops have for many centuries had the legal authority (originally as the representatives of the Pope, later confirmed by a 1533 Act of Henry VIII), to award degrees and regularly do so to people who have either passed an examination or are deemed to have satisfied the appropriate requirements.
Between the two extremes of honoring celebrities and formally assessing a portfolio of research, some universities use honorary degrees to recognize achievements of intellectual rigor comparable to an earned degree. Some institutes of higher education do not confer honorary degrees as a matter of policy.Some learned societies award honorary fellowships in the same way as honorary degrees are awarded by universities, for similar reasons.