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?