Fact Check

Did Michelle Obama 'Complete' a Ph.D. in Law Since Leaving White House?

She has been keeping busy after eight years as first lady.

Published June 26, 2020

COLLEGE PARK, MD - MAY 17:  First lady Michelle Obama delivers the commencement speech during the Bowie State University graduation ceremony at the Comcast Center on the campus of the University of Maryland May 17, 2013 in College Park, Maryland. Obama received and Honorary Doctor of Laws degree before addressing the 600 graduates of Maryland's oldest historically black university and one of the ten oldest in the country.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Image Via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Claim:
Former first lady Michelle Obama completed coursework for a Ph.D. in law after U.S. President Barack Obama left office and her children left home.
What's True

Michelle Obama obtained a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree in law from Harvard University in 1988, and as first lady of the U.S., she received numerous honorary doctorates, including one in law.

What's False

A J.D. is a professional degree, not a Ph.D. No evidence indicates Obama pursued coursework to obtain a Ph.D. in law after serving as first lady.

Michelle Obama may have accomplished a lot since leaving the White House in 2017, but getting a Ph.D. in law was not on her to-do list. A popular internet rumor that made the rounds in June 2020 claimed the former first lady completed her research doctorate in law after U.S. President Barack Obama left office and their daughters went to college.

Snopes readers asked us if this was true, and we found no evidence that she completed coursework for a Ph.D.

We know that Obama graduated from Harvard Law School in 1988 with a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree, which is a professional degree required to practice law in the United States. One usually has to have a J.D. in order to get a Ph.D in law — also known as a research doctorate — which mainly prepares students for careers as legal scholars and teachers.

Obama was a practicing lawyer in the late 1980s and early '90s, but in her 2018 book "Becoming," she famously recounted hating the work. She told Oprah Winfrey:

I was like, “I can’t do this for the rest of my life. I can’t sit in a room and look at documents.” I won’t get into what that is, but it’s deadly. Deadly. Document production ... I’m just not happy. I don’t feel my passion.

Based on this recollection, it seems highly unlikely that Obama would have gone back to study more law.

She did, however, receive a number of honorary doctorate degrees, which are given to outstanding non-students. In 2013, while still first lady, Obama received an Honorary Doctorate of Law from Bowie State University. Such degrees are recognition of achievement, don't require completing coursework, and recipients don’t really use them for anything, mainly because such people are already so accomplished.

Since departing the White House in 2017, she has written a memoir, received an honorary induction into the Academy of Arts and Sciences, and signed a production deal with Netflix.

In sum, while Obama has indeed received degrees in law, including an honorary doctorate, she did not actively pursue or complete coursework for a Ph.D. in law. We thus rate this claim "Mostly False."

Sources

Chen, James.   "Juris Doctor (JD)."    Investopedia.   8 April 2019. 

Encyclopaedia Britannica.   "Michelle Obama."    6 May 2020. 

GW Today.   "A Capitol Commencement."    16 May 2010. 

Jackson State University.   "Michelle Obama, J.D., Ph.D., ’16 Former First Lady of the United States."    1 March 2017.

Merriam-Webster.   "Honorary Degree." 

NBC News.   "Michelle Obama Gets Honorary Degree, Gives Speech at Bowie State Graduation."    17 May 2013.

Oregon State University.   "First!"    21 June 2012. 

Robinson, Jessica.   "Honorary Degree: What Is It Good For?"    NPR.   10 May 2012.

UIC Today.   "Faculty Fellow Elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences."    16 April 2019. 

Winfrey, Oprah.   "Michelle Obama Gets Candid With Oprah About Her New Memoir, 'Becoming.'"    Town and Country.   12 November 2018. 

Yale University.   "The Ph.D. in Law Degree."

Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.