Sorry, Not That Kind of Doctor

My grandfather, who had a Ph.D. and taught at a university for many years, never called himself “Dr.” because, he said, he wasn’t “that kind” of doctor, a title he felt should be reserved for medical doctors. I’d guess that’s a familiar experience to many academics, the feeling of not properly owning the title that they’ve spent a good deal of their life earning–often much, much longer than medical doctors.

For the most part, academics would be laughed out of company if they tried to insist on “Dr.” when, say, making a flight reservation. (Although, my father likes to point out that medical doctors actually use the title “Dr.” incorrectly, since a “doctor” is actually a teacher.) Sure, doctors spend years and years in residency and fellowship programs, but they earn their title after only four years. That’s one year longer than, say, lawyers have to spend in school, and certainly lawyers have to take a killer set of exams. But we don’t use a title for lawyers. Nurses spend plenty of time in school and, like doctors, are charged with saving lives, but they don’t customarily get a title, either.

While some colleges and universities do refer to faculty as “Dr.,” it seems fairly uncommon. In my undergrad program, I called faculty “Professor X,” or even more commonly just “Professor.” As a grad student, I usually start out with “Professor” to be polite and then switch to first names. In the case of especially august faculty, I’ll stick with Professor, unless I’m around other faculty, in which case I usually go with “Um “¦” in order to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings that I call some faculty “Professor” and others by their first name. (Like any other aspect of academia, it’s way more fraught than it needs to be.)

I certainly don’t plan to use “Dr.” once I file my dissertation in (fingers crossed) a few months. I am, however, beginning to suspect that the move to disavow one’s title, which seems to have become more common with academics of my grandfather’s generation, is part of the overall trend to disregard expertise that has such a pernicious effect on contemporary politics, culture, and science. It’s a truism that Americans don’t trust experts, and that’s probably always been true, to some extent–it’s part of our legacy of newness, a distrust of authority. Among the general public, I would say that the reluctance to use “Dr.” for academics is part of a distrust of the university, expertise, higher education, and so on.

Among academics, on the other hand, I think it comes down to reverse elitism, the idea that broadcasting your degree is something that pseudointellectuals do. In my decade and a half of higher education, I’ve tended to agree with that last point. But I was talking recently to a friend who teaches at a university that serves a primarily underprivileged and first-generation population, and she pointed out that, in her institution, everyone–faculty and administration–who has the credentials goes by “Dr.” In that setting, the work of getting the degree and the expertise it conveys still matters. Compare that to my elite undergrad, where a large portion of the students grew up around academics. They had parents, grandparents, other family members, or friends of family who were academics; they took the culture of the university for granted. In that context, “Dr.” doesn’t mean very much. I think, however, there’s something to be said for a culture in which “Dr.” still means something–a culture that values expertise and sees intellectualism as a worthwhile pursuit.

I know many readers are in academia of some sort, or have at least spent a lot of time in it. What was the culture at your university? How do you feel about using or not using a title?

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Firstmute has a seventeen-month old, a nearly finished dissertation, and a pile of unfolded laundry. In between dealing with those three things, she likes to read, craft, watch movies, and get outraged.

35 thoughts on “Sorry, Not That Kind of Doctor”

  1. I’m working on a dual graduate degree – J.D./Ph.D.  I’ve worked hard for my title and in professional settings I expect to be called “Dr. (last name).”  The nameplate on my door will also have “Esq.” affixed to the end.  I’m proud of what I have accomplished and it comes off as being shameful when people say,”but I’m not a ‘doctor’ doctor.”

    As for “esquire,” the rule of thumb in the United States is that you are a lawyer after training in the law (you’ve graduated from law school and have a J.D.  An attorney is someone who practices the law, which in all but 1 state requires passing the bar and earning a license.  These are the people who generally have “esq.” in their title.

  2. My mother is a GP, and although she calls herself Dr when she is at work, she doesn’t consider herself a “real” Dr because she doesn’t have a Ph.D. Also, she is technically Dr [maiden name], but Mrs [married name] because she’s registered as a GP in our state under her maiden name and she didn’t want to change that. But Doctor is her job, not her title as far as she’s concerned. We were always taught growing up that only Ph.Ds were “real” Drs.
    In Australia it’s also becoming increasingly common for vets and dentists to call themselves Dr without Ph.Ds, which is slightly on the ridiculous side – my dad (who “only” has a B.Vsc) thinks it’s hilarious when he gets mail addressing him as Dr, but it’s fairly frequent.

  3. My father was a professor at a state college in a small town in Michigan.  The family rule was that the first year after someone got the Ph.D you had to be sure to always call them “doctor.”  After that, it wasn’t so important.

    I think the main difference now, besides the general move to informality (we never called adults by their first names, either) is that there are so many fake doctorates out there that I’ve found myself suspicious when I see the title.  Too often it’s acquired (“earned” would be much too strong a term) at some on-line institution with no credibility whatsoever.  Even in my time, my father was suspicious of people with an Ed.D degree as opposed to the Ph.D.

    But the real Ph.D.,– the degree you earned after passing rigorous prelims and sweating for months and years in some un-airconditioned library somewhere, and writing and rewriting and writing again, and then finally successfully defending your thesis–that was a degree to take pride in.  Anything else, including an M.D. or, horrors, my J.D., was frankly a trade school degree.  Perfectly useful, but not a mark of any particular intellectual distinction.

  4. Sure, doctors spend years and years in residency and fellowship programs, but they earn their title after only four years. That’s one year longer than, say, lawyers have to spend in school, and certainly lawyers have to take a killer set of exams. But we don’t use a title for lawyers.

    Bolding mine. The phrasing of this makes it sound like M.D.s don’t have to take exams… they do. Their licensing exam is actually a set of four exams given throughout their fours years in med school. Not meaning it to be a “well, they do this, too!” kind of thing… just wanting to clarify that.

    On a practical note, they get their titles after four years, yes, but (in almost three years working in medical education) I’ve never met a resident who expects anyone (except patients) to refer to them as Dr. They typically don’t take that title onto themselves until post-residency. At least from my experience at this institution.

    1. Med school lacks many things, but exams are not one of them. Here in Canada, we take the first part of the licensing exam after med school, part 2 during residency, and then our specialty exams at the end. In some parts of med school there are exams every 3-6 weeks – both written, and with simulated patients.

      I use the title only for registering with medical colleges, or other medical business. I introduce myself to everyone as Firstname – including most patients – unless I am dealing with more acute situations where Dr. Lastname (but call me Firstname) inspires a little more confidence in an ‘I may look ‘like a child’ (direct quote from patient) but I am old enough to be doing this and qualified enough to be assessing your chest pain’ kind of way! But most of the time I go with Firstname with most of my patients…. and leave it up to them to choose how they are most comfortable addressing me.

      I haven’t decided what I’ll do next time I fly..

      In undergrad though (physiology) the vast majority of the faculty had PhD’s and unless they expressed a preference for ‘Firstname’ it was Dr. so and so.

      1. Oh yeah! I know doctors have to take lots and lots of exams–sorry if that wasn’t clear. (I lived (non-romantically) with a guy through medical school and part of his residency, so I know all about the exams.) I was just making some comparisons.


        I didn’t know about people waiting until after residency to use their title–makes sense. I’d probably feel like I needed a few more years to use it, too!

  5. I have always felt weird about titles.  Always.  In my new position as a professor, I asked the chair of my department what the culture was, and if I should expect the students to call me Dr. or just by my first name, which I was more comfortable with.  He said, “the students are paying a lot of money to be in your classes.  They should respect the fact that you are an expert.  You can do what you want, but the culture of the school is to use Dr.”

    Not wanting to go against the culture, I use Dr.  I thought it would be awkward.

    But I really like it.  Not because it is an ego trip, but because it more clearly defines the line between students and professors.  My school is really small, and students and professors have very close relationships.  My predecessor did not keep very good boundaries, at all, and it was hugely unprofessional of him.  In an environment where boundaries are easily fuzzed, that extra layer of “this is a professional relationship” is very valuable to me.

  6. In the UK, only those with doctoral degrees are considered ‘real’ Doctors, for title purposes – younger medical doctors use Dr, but it’s an honourary designation, and senior medical consultants usually go back to using Mr and Ms.

    You’re damn right I’m going to use the title (my viva, oral defence, is in three weeks… eeeeeek!). I’m going to change my cards when they’re up for renewal and everything. I earned it through blood, sweat and tears, and I plan to use it to the full!

  7. If a professor has a doctorate I refer to them as Dr. [surname].  The others I refer to as Professor and I pretty much never refer to them by first name, even if they request it.  Then again, I don’t refer to half of my friends by their nicknames.  I may have distancing issues ;)  I did have a few professors who insisted on being called doctor and would correct you if you didn’t refer to them by that title.  Usually they were newly minted doctors.  (If you’re interested, this is in ND/MN).

    I’ve noticed in my school the culture varied by major as well.  All of the English teachers wanted you to call them by their first names, as did the Anthro teachers.  One of my friends would actually make fun of me if I referred to an anthro professor as Dr. [so and so] instead of George.  The “hard’ sciences always insisted on the correct titles.  Psychology professors (my major) pretty much all insisted on their titles except for one teacher, who, funnily enough, went to undergrad and got a degree in English and went and got his doctorate in Psychology.

  8. My grandfather is a geologist with a PhD, and while he refers to himself as Dr. (Last Name) in a professional setting, in a more informal setting he just gets people to use his first name. A lot of his mail is addressed to Dr. (Last Name) as well. In university I’ve noticed that my film program is a lot more informal than other majors. We either refer to our profs exclusively by their first name or their last name, regardless of whether they have a PhD or not. Other profs have different guidelines – one of my second-year English profs wanted us to call her Dr. (First Name), so we did. Generally if they use their first name in an email I just use their first name, otherwise I’ll refer to them as Professor (Name) or Dr. (Name) if they’re listed as having a PhD.

  9. In undergrad, I called people Dr. or Professor based on whether or not they’d earned associate or full professorship. If they had, they were Professor. If they were not tenured or not tenure-track, they were Dr. If they didn’t have a doctorate, they were Mr./Mrs./Ms. or whatever name they preferred. In my PhD program, all the professors are addressed as Dr. That’s just the culture of our program.

    When I finish my doctorate, you can guarantee I will expect to be addressed as such. I am working too fucking hard to be modest about this.

    1. Oh, interesting, I’ve never heard of that. Was there a particular reason for that? The head of our TA program at my university always told us that, actually, ‘professor’ just meant anyone who taught at a university, so we all could, if we wanted, go by ‘professor.’ No one did, of course. I’ve just never heard of basing it on tenure.

  10. While I won’t ever ask to be called “Doctor”  in normal interactions, I sure as hell will enforce the use of “Dr.” as my formal title. If I ever see or hear “Miss” or “Mrs.” attached to my name, I will ream the perpetrator out. (Ms. gets a pass because, like Dr., it is marital-status-neutral.)

  11. My organic chemistry professor in undergrad once requested during a lecture that we address him as Professor rather than Doctor, since a professorship is an advanced title that he earned after his doctorate – not every doctor is a professor. However, the Chemistry department seemed more formal to me than my department, Biology – professors always wearing suits and never cracking jokes (with one notable exception, who could make a sex joke out of the most boring material. He was by far my favorite). In my department, it was taken for granted that students would address professors by their first names. My dad has a Ph.D. in engineering and has always been addressed as ‘Dr.’, which I plan to do once I’m a Ph.D. too – fuck being perceived as pretentious, this degree is hard work and I’m going to be an expert in my field. Still, when it’s necessary to use formalities, I find that I usually refer to someone as ‘Dr. So-and-so’ rather than ‘Professor So-and-so’ because it’s fewer syllables/letters – I could work on that.

    1. This sounds like what Stephanie said up above. I know in Germany there are multiple levels of higher degree-earning–was this in an American institution? Did he explain what you have to do to earn ‘professor’? I’m so interested in all these variations people are bringing up!


      1. In Britain, the title ‘Professor’ is specific – it refers to someone who holds a named chair or professorship, e.g. ‘Regius Professor of X’. So not everyone who teaches at university can or should be called Professor, but most should be called Dr. My students refer to me as Dr Rah, which is cute since I haven’t technically earned the title until I defend my dissertation next month and have my official graduation (I submitted months ago). But to be safe that’s generally the way to address people – if I was writing to an academic I didn’t know, I’d go with ‘Dr’ unless I knew the person was actually a Professor.

      2. I went to a medium-sized, major research university in the Northeastern U.S.  Tenure-track faculty hold the title of Assistant, Associate, Full or Emeritus professor, in that order, and are either hired as tenure-track assistant professor if they haven’t held a tenure-track position beforehand, or associate or full professor if they are transferring from other colleges/universities (I think). There are also adjunct professorships, which I don’t believe are tenure-track (but I could be wrong, so please correct me if you know more). From what I understand, a person who holds an appointment at a non-university research institution (such as a museum or a zoo) can be appointed adjunct faculty at a university to teach classes and take graduate students, but earns her/his salary and benefits from the career at the other institution. All of these people should be listed under ‘Faculty’ on the department website and are technically the only ones who should be addressed as ‘Professor’. Other academic employees of the department who hold Ph.D.s, including lecturers/teaching associates, research associates and post-docs, should be listed separately from faculty in the department’s directory and are addressed as ‘Dr.’. Still, whether or not a person should stress about what to call a particular person depends on the culture of the department or institution, as other people here have said. Personally, I preferred to interact with more relaxed professors, who also tended to have students address them by their first names. I never lost sight of my position relative to theirs, but these professors always seemed more sympathetic and approachable to me.

  12. As an M.A. student, I feel weird calling my professors by their first names, since they have Ph.D.s and I won’t, even when I finish this program. My adviser signs emails with his first name, though. I guess I could call him that? I’m cool with switching to first names after graduation after they’re done being my superiors/graders.

  13. My dad’s biggest pet peeve is that Dr. is used by medical doctors when “they are physicians. Most of them don’t even have a doctorate.” He’s got a real chip on his shoulder about it. He’s a geologist and got his Ph.D. over seven years or so and was in school forever. Anyway, he insists on being called Dr. “Dad” in most formal situations. He’s a big pain in the butt about the whole thing, if you hadn’t guessed.

  14. I believe back in the UK in the old days, lawyers could put “Esq” after their names. My legislation professor, who trained in Scotland said he missed those days. He was actually one of my few professors who did have a doctorate in law. Most of the others just had Masters, so went by Professor or Mr/Ms Last name, depending if they had a chair or not.

    I wouldn’t mind being Cesy, Esq though. Barrister and Solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand is a bit of a mouthful.

  15. I’m getting my PhD, too (2nd year, fisheries ecology). I have already made it clear to my fiance that when I pass my defense (some magical, far away day…) that I will demand a t-shirt that says “Trust me, I’m a doctor” on it. And I will wear it for days on end until somebody forces it from my body.

    At my various universities, institutions, research labs, and whathaveyou that I’ve been a part of, everyone just goes by first names, no Drs. Granted, all of those aforementioned places are tiny. Like stupid tiny. Like my doctoral cohort is 9 people in a graduate school barely 2,000 large (undergrad was only 700). So a first name basis comes with the territory. But I don’t come from a particularly academic family either. Actually everyone else in my immediate family is in some form of arts/humanities (writers, photographers, etc). I’ve worked my ass off to get to my PhD and while I don’t expect people will call me “Doctor” on any kind of a regular or irregular basis, I’m totally going to live it up when I can. I will change stationary (okay, buy stationary in the first place) to say Dr. and Mr. Awesome-Sauce. I will use it when I buy plane tickets or make reservations at hotels or conferences. But pretty much not for any other reason than that I am totally, awesomely, in awe that I’m doing this. One should never feel like you can’t hang onto your accomplishments, especially as a lady in science.

    And as for people who don’t trust “experts” (no argument that that is the case so painfully often), what better way to help break that distrust than to be a most excellent and trustworthy expert?

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