Everyone wants a title, but Americans have only one that is universally available and respected: doctor. Our Constitution did away with titles of nobility. Of the other options, political offices are too politicized, religious positions are too sectarian (and many of the American faithful rely on the plain “pastor” anyway), and military ranks are too separate from civilian life.
However, the title “doctor” is honored in everyday life by nearly everyone. It conveys authority and shows someone has reached a certain level of schooling. In the United States, the title has become almost entirely synonymous with physicians, to the chagrin of some PhD holders who complain that they are being denied their due.
My title is Dr Fern Riddell, not Ms or Miss Riddell. I have it because I am an expert, and my life and career consist of being that expert in as many different ways as possible. I worked hard to earned my authority, and I will not give it up to anyone.
— Dr Fern Riddell (@FernRiddell) June 13, 2018
I Have A PhD, But Please Don’t Call Me Doctor
There are a few exceptions to this rule. Doctoral degree holders should be addressed by their title in the academy and in some professional settings. In the classroom, lab, or other relevant places, PhD-holders should be called by the academic title they have earned. It would be rude for a student to address a biochemistry professor as “miss” instead of “doctor” or “professor.”
But in the rest of life, the title should rightly disappear (although I doubt I am alone in finding it difficult to address any former professor of mine on a first-name basis). The “Dr.” from an M.D. travels, but the title for a PhD holder should not.
I am not disparaging my degree; I worked hard for it. I include it in my author bio here because it is a relevant qualification for my reviews of academic books and my writing about politics and philosophy. But I do not expect the honorific be applied to me as a writer, let alone at the store, at church, or on the soccer field. That is reserved for medical doctors. It is one thing to note a relevant scholarly qualification; it is quite another to always insist on such a title.
Scholarly Relevance vs. Everyday Service
I sympathize with scientists who feel that it is disrespectful for the scholarly title they have earned to be ignored. Other cultures and countries, such as Germany, are more insistent on using academic titles outside academia. However, those who wish to emulate this should reflect on the practical disparity between a doctorate and a medical degree that the American usage is based on.
The academic title is earned in the classroom and is at home there. In contrast, the everyday title of “doctor” was earned by physicians in operating rooms and delivery rooms. It is based on service, not scholarship, and that is unlikely to change soon, no matter how insecure it makes some non-medical doctors feel.
Of course, there are PhD-holders, such as medical research scientists, who are engaged in service in the same way as medical doctors, but they are also jumbled together with a vast menagerie of other disciplines. A PhD is available in a variety of scholarly fields, from physics to journalism, and there is much more variation in standards for earning a PhD than an M.D.
Nor is a PhD the only doctorate available! Jill Biden, wife of former vice president Joe Biden, got flak for persistently calling herself “Dr. Biden” after she received a doctorate in education. Graduates of American law schools receive a J.D. (juris doctor) but no sane person refers to a lawyer as “doctor.” Those who become doctors of canonical law in the Catholic Church receive impressive hats as part of their regalia, but I am not persuaded that this magnificent haberdashery entitles them to an everyday honorific.
Reserving the everyday use of “doctor” for those in the medical profession may slight some deserving PhD-holders, but it is consistent with common use. It may be reasonable to address exceptional scholars as “doctor” outside of their academic and professional sphere, but this courtesy should not be expected, let alone demanded, by everyone with a doctoral degree.
Perhaps trends in medicine (like specialization and corporate consolidation) will weaken the respect that has given medical doctors an everyday title. Or perhaps not. Either way, non-medical doctors will not gain any respect by insisting on their academic titles outside of the traditional academic and professional realms in which they are used. These attempts to force status distinctions are unlikely to succeed, and they will probably produce more resentment than respect.
This is an old truth that today’s status-seeking PhD-holders should learn. The great English novelists, for instance, found endless material in the vain follies of those preoccupied by rank. In “Pride and Prejudice,” Jane Austen shows us Lydia’s vulgarity through her eagerness to claim pride of place over her unmarried sisters after her wedding.
Those insisting on being addressed by their academic titles might learn something from this admonition in “Persuasion,” another Austen novel: “Nobody doubts her right to have precedence…but it would be more becoming in her not to be always insisting on it.”