No, I'm not that kind of doctor. So what?

In case you missed it, my Sciblings are abuzz about journalists' dismissal of Jill Biden's education.

From the LA Times:

Amy Sullivan, a religion writer for Time magazine, said she smiled when she heard the vice president's wife announced as Dr. Jill Biden during the national prayer service the day after President Obama's inauguration. "Ordinarily when someone goes by doctor and they are a PhD, not an MD, I find it a little bit obnoxious," Sullivan said.


"My feeling is if you can't heal the sick, we don't call you doctor," said Bill Walsh, copy desk chief for the Washington Post's A section and the author of two language books.

Uh-huh. How much of "healing the sick" is based on chemical and biological research by PhDs? Pasteur was not a medical doctor. (I wonder if the WaPo routinely removes the "Dr." honorific from Martin Luther King's name, too?)

PhDs like Jill Biden have a perfect right to be called "Dr." A PhD is not a "lesser" degree. On average, it certainly earns less for its holder than an MD (or JD), but it usually takes significantly longer to earn a PhD than an MD. Plus, PhDs contribute to medicine all the time. Comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges: MDs aren't "better" or more deserving of respect.

Nevertheless, I eschew the title "Dr." in my daily life. I use it in professional contexts, where it's necessary for my qualifications to be apparent, but I always go by my first name with colleagues and acquaintances. In fact, I spent several years going using my first name with my college students - although my experience convinced me that young female professors should be very careful adopting that policy. (Generally, in an academic setting, professors should be addressed as "professor", not "doctor" - and yes, titles do affect how students and colleagues treat you. See Dr. Stemwedel's discussion of that issue here.)

On two occasions, I've insisted upon being "Dr. Palmer." On the first occasion, all the male faculty in my department (with PhDs) received name plaques titled "Dr.", but I did not. (I requested a new plaque.) On the second occasion, someone at work called me an "intern." No - she didn't mean the medical kind of intern; she meant the unpaid undergraduate type. I've already been there, done that, thank you. I politely corrected her. In both cases, I was being treated inequitably compared with older/male colleagues, which was a precedent I thought it wise to discourage.

Honestly, I'm sometimes inclined to use "Dr." simply because it allows me to avoid defining myself by marriage status, as our society expects. It irritates me to have to select from "Miss", "Mrs.", and "Ms." Selecting "Dr." instead gives me a nice little out that most women don't have.

The annoying LA Times article does go on to mention a little-known point: that in some countries and states (Germany, in particular) the authorities only recognize PhDs awarded in their own geographical region:

Last year, according to the Post, at least seven Americans (with degrees from places like Cornell and Caltech) were investigated for the crime of "title fraud" for calling themselves doctor on business cards, resumes and websites. Only people who have earned advanced degrees in Germany or other European Union countries may legally call themselves that.

I discussed this very issue with a friend who returned from Germany recently - she has a PhD and is a professor at a major US university, yet she ended up being treated like a graduate student by her colleagues. Perhaps working to ensure mutual international respect for scientists (especially female scientists) would be a good goal for our new administration?

The sad truth is that in our society, titles do impact how you're treated, and how effective you can be at your job. I've earned my PhD and if I choose to use the title, I can. So can adjunct professor Dr. Jill Biden. Enough said.

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"My feeling is if you can't heal the sick, we don't call you doctor," said Bill Walsh, copy desk chief for the Washington Post's A section and the author of two language books.

My opinion is that someone on the staff of a major U.S. newspaper shouldn't be this ignorant of the English language. The etymological root of the word "doctor" is the Latin "doctere", meaning "to teach". If anything a PhD. is closer to the original meaning of the word.

I have to say that Bill Walsh sounds like a... how to put this delicately... a self important colostomy bag. The world is full of those. I think they generate so much feces just to avoid feeling empty.

At the university I got my BSc at (Flinders University, South Australia), students always addressed lecturers simply by their first names. The only exception from my experience was the case of an Indian mathematics lecturer whose first name was difficult to pronounce.

The idea of a university where first name address without titles is not the convention feels very strange to me, and I would certainly experience some culture shock if I visited such an institution. I guess it's all about what we're used to.

The use of the term Doctor to refer to someone who completed advanced academic work goes back 1,000 years. So tell the journalists to suck it.

When I met my adviser in graduate school I asked him if he was a PhD or MD. He said, "I am a real doctor. I am not a physician."

My wife and I also state that we are "real" doctors, and not MDs on occasion.

For us (OK, my wife), it is even more difficult because family (mostly mine) do not address us as Drs. A & B, but rather Mr. & Mrs. X, even though she kept her maiden name. We correct them all the time, but it is like flogging a dead horse.

Getting PhDs in areas with little external funding, we incurred substantial debt obtaining these degrees, and aside from that, we EARNED them!

We are DOCTORS, dammit!

I find it obnoxious that MD's go by "Doctor". I professor of physics I work with delights in telling medical doctors that he is a "real" doctor. It is they who usurped the word. It takes a lot more work to earn a PhD.

By minouette (not verified) on 05 Feb 2009 #permalink

As someone who works alongside many PhDs, MDs and MD/PhDs, I think the sparring (on display in the comments section of this post) over degree significance is embarrassing. It doesn't always take "a lot more work to earn a PhD." They come in all shapes and sizes, just as MDs run the gamut from polymath to narrow-minded dope. As Jessica writes, "comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges."

It all reminds me of an accident that took place in a biology lab where I spent a summer internship. A visiting researcher who was using the lab microtome cut her hand badly (microtomes are razor-sharp). She came running out into the main lab gushing blood. At least four or five postdocs were in the lab at the time; while one of them called 911, two of the others started giving her medical advice, placing pressure on the wound, etc. One of them said something along the lines of "It's okay, I'm a doctor," and the other said "me too!" The victim, clearly more irritated than frightened, said, "I'm a doctor too, thank you very much!"

They were all MD/PhDs. ;)

It was quite hilarious reading all your comments. Whatever you may choose to believe, there is absolutely no doubt that when you say "doctor" to over 98% of the American public, they think PHYSICIAN and not PhD. So I suggest you get over title envy, professional jealousy or whatever else is the reason for your collective sour grapes, and start feeling proud in what you do, not what you're addressed!