Many influential people in American history distinguished themselves academically during college when they were elected and inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Society, a national academic honor society commonly known as PBK.
Seventeen U.S. presidents and more than 150 Nobel laureates have been Phi Beta Kappa members.
Illustrious PBK members include Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, former NFL player Peyton Manning, award-winning actress Glenn Close and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. PBK’s membership list also includes notable activists of the past, including civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois, disability inclusion advocate Helen Keller and feminist icon Betty Friedan.
“There’s something very, very American at its best about Phi Beta Kappa,” says Frederick M. Lawrence, secretary and CEO of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. “You can’t inherit it, you can’t buy it, and it can’t be given to you. There’s only one way to become a member of Phi Beta Kappa. You have to earn it.”
What Is Phi Beta Kappa?
Phi Beta Kappa is a prestigious scholastic organization that requires an invitation to join. Once people enter the organization, they become members forever. “It’s not just a credential, it’s also a society to which you belong,” Lawrence says.
The society champions education in the arts and sciences, freedom of thought, and academic excellence, as its website states.
The standard pathway into this group is through stellar college grades in a wide range of challenging classes at an approved college or university. Only about 10% of U.S. undergraduate institutions have PBK chapters that induct students. Occasionally, chapters of the society admit alumni or honorary members who are at least 10 years out of undergraduate school and “have demonstrated exemplary service in the arts and sciences.”
PBK was established in December 1776, only a few months after the Declaration of Independence was published. It started off as a secret discussion group for undergraduates at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. The motto of the organization at its founding is the same as it is today: “Love of Learning Is the Guide to Life.”
PBK has dramatically expanded since, and it now has about 290 college chapters, nearly 50 alumni associations, an affiliated group in London and a national office in the District of Columbia.
Esther L. Jones, PBK’s vice president, says that the group’s founding in the midst of the American Revolution had a profound influence on its cornerstone principles. “Its identity and its foundational premises are very much bound up in a period of time of revolution and a period of time of revolutionary thought and thinking,” she says, noting the society’s commitment to freedom of thought, expression, and inquiry. “It is in many ways a uniquely American approach to thinking about education.”
Roughly a century passed before PBK began inviting African American students and women into its ranks. In recent years, the organization has made a concerted effort to recruit accomplished scholars from a variety of backgrounds. Now, many of PBK’s most prominent members are women and people of color, and 37 of its chapters are at minority-serving academic institutions.
“In 2021, our membership elected the most diverse body of leaders to the Phi Beta Kappa Senate in our history,” Ann M. McCulloch, PBK’s director of chapter and association relations, wrote in an email. “We have also launched a special Futures Task Force, made up of members of the Senate, to examine structures at the level of the national organization that are in need of change, in order to ensure that inclusive excellence is at the center of the Society’s work.”
Phi Beta Kappa Requirements
There are certain membership rules that chapters must follow (though the PBK college chapters that received their charters before 1952 technically have some flexibility on them).
Generally, in order for undergraduates to be eligible for Phi Beta Kappa, three-quarters of their bachelor’s degree courses must focus on liberal arts and sciences. Classical academic disciplines, such as biology or philosophy, fall into this category. Applied, professionally oriented or skills-focused coursework does not contribute toward PBK candidacy.
To qualify for PBK, college students typically need to demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language and have finished college-level coursework in an analytical or quantitative subject, such as logic, mathematics or statistics. Plus, they need to perform well in intermediate and advanced undergraduate courses and study a variety of subjects outside of their college major.
The PBK stipulations also state the honor “should be extended only to persons of good moral character.”
Some college chapters of PBK solicit recommendations from professors so they can narrow down the pool of candidates and identify the very strongest students, experts say.
“The requirements have to do with the courses you take, not necessarily the major that you have,” Lawrence says. He notes that, while it may be challenging to fulfill the requirements of Phi Beta Kappa while pursuing a college major in an applied or skills-oriented field like engineering, it can be done.
How Phi Beta Kappa Compares to Other Academic Awards
Graduating as a Phi Beta Kappa differs from receiving an honorary notation on a college diploma, such as “summa cum laude,” “magna cum laude,” “with honors” or “with distinction.”
Diploma honors are often, though not always, based on how someone’s overall grade-point average compares to that of his or her classmates. Alternatively, such honors may depend on how well a college student did on courses that relate to his or her major or whether the student wrote a thesis paper that was well-reviewed by professors.
In contrast, winning admission to a college’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter typically means that a student excelled in an interdisciplinary array of demanding courses.
The PBK prize differs from “student marshal” nominations that some undergrad institutions grant to exemplary college students, since both academic and extracurricular accomplishments are usually evaluated when a school picks someone as a marshal. PBK elections are made entirely on the basis of a student’s academic performance.
That said, college students who get into PBK tend to win other academic accolades, too. PBK membership is often the “crowning achievement” in a long list of scholastic honors for extremely accomplished college grads who received liberal arts degrees, says Jennifer Lewton-Yates, secretary-treasurer for the PBK chapter at Millsaps College in Mississippi.
Reasons to Accept a Phi Beta Kappa Invitation
Having Phi Beta Kappa on a resume is a symbol of prestige, and it also gives a person increased access to PBK-sponsored events and programs.
“There’s a lot of opportunities for growth,” says Levi Roth, a vice president of membership and young professional co-chair for the Greater Detroit PBK association. He notes that PBK allows him to meet creative people outside of his professional area of specialty — computer science — so that he can avoid the type of “group think” that is common within any particular field. “Phi Beta Kappa has been an outlet for me to explore other ideas,” he says.
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