Dr. Biden Isn't the Sort of Doctor Who Can Help You

Via Janet, the LA Times gets snooty about titles:

"Ordinarily when someone goes by doctor and they are a PhD, not an MD, I find it a little bit obnoxious," Sullivan said. "But it makes me smile because it's a reminder that she's her own person. She wasn't there as an appendage; she was there as a professional in her own right."

Newspapers, including The Times, generally do not use the honorific "Dr." unless the person in question has a medical degree.

I've had a low opinion of the LA Times since I was in Long Beach when Bill Phillips, Steve Chu, and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji won the 1997 Nobel in physics. The LA Times front-page story was headlined "Californian, Two Others, Win Physics Nobel." You had to continue to the inside pages to find the names of the other two laureates.

I have to say, spending eleven paragraphs on the question of why Jill Biden prefers to be addressed as "Dr. Biden" isn't doing much to improve my opinion of the paper.

I don't disagree with the claim that it's somewhat unusual for somebody with a Ph.D. to insist on being called "Doctor." It's frequently an indicator that the person in question is a pompous ass, and "Dr. Firstname Lastname Ph.D." is nearly infallible as a marker of asinine pomposity.

(I will be doing my best to avoid having my academic credentials listed on the front cover of the book when it comes out.)

But, honestly, she has the right to ask to be addressed in whatever manner she chooses. Yeah, fine, "Doctor" is usually reserved for medical doctors, but it's not like she's trying to prescribe medication, here. She's just asking to be recognized as an accomplished individual in her own right, and not merely an appendage of Senator Biden.

That hardly calls for eleven paragraphs of snickering about her title.


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As a faculty member (I believe it's adjunct professor) isn't she entitled to be referred to as "Professor Biden"?

The article also points out (against their will, it somewhat seems - though their will in this article seems more like passive-aggressiveness) that she likes the title because it puts her on an equal titular standing with her husband - instead of "VP & Mrs. Biden", it's now "VP & Dr. Biden"

Ph.D was the original "Doctor". Medical Doctors used to by called Physicians. They appropriated the title Doctor in order to get the prestige accorded to Ph.Ds.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the standard to use either "Dr Firstname Lastname" or "Firstname Lastname, Ph.D." but never both? (As Chad said, '"Dr. Firstname Lastname Ph.D." is nearly infallible as a marker of asinine pomposity'.)

"Ordinarily when someone goes by doctor and they are a PhD, not an MD, I find it a little bit obnoxious," Sullivan said.

From her comments in the article, I personally find Amy Sullivan more than a little bit obnoxious.

Newspapers, including The Times, generally do not use the honorific "Dr." unless the person in question has a medical degree.

Is this just an American convention? Certainly in Australia, it's not uncommon for Ph.D.s to use "Dr"; most (if not all) of my lecturers at uni used the honorific if they had a Ph.D. Without checking any sources, I'm fairly certain that the media here do the same.

I haven't actually earned a medical degree, but I am not sure why we have this idea that it is somehow harder or better than a PhD.

Also, as a woman, I can see why Dr. Biden wishes to be called that. It is hard for a woman - any woman, even one without a prominent husband - to be addressed in a way that doesn't refer fairly bluntly to her marital status and possibly age, and it is convenient to be able to rebut the "Miss or Missus?" query with "Actually, it's 'Doctor.'"

I find no strangeness in having non-MDs be addressed as "Doctor." My father worked at a university where many of the professors in the department were addressed as Dr. So-and-so instead of "Professor So-and-so", as they would elsewhere. I've since learned that this isn't all that common, at least in the northeast, where I did my undergraduate and now my graduate studies, but I don't find any reason why it would be objectionable.

I always thought PhD were the real doctors - in many countries (e.g. Australia) medical doctors don't usually have doctorates. They have a couple of bachelor degrees.

I agree with previous posters that the title of Doctor is far more appropriate for academics than for physicians, since doctor literally means "teacher". I also don't think that expecting to be referred to as "Dr." is necessarily pompous: at the institutions I've attended (in Canada), senior academics were always referred to as Doctor so-and-so out of respect for their life-long dedication to scholarship.

Yep. The fifty-year-old guy with no publications who never rose higher than a part-time adjunct assistant instructor at a two-year community college on accreditation probation?

Insists that his own mother address him as "Doctor."

And at CalTech, Richard Feynman had even the freshmen call him "Dick."

Lesson there.

By Emory Kimbrough (not verified) on 02 Feb 2009 #permalink

This is a problem in English. Many languages have a name for the people-mending profession - like Artz in German, médecin in French, or läkare in Swedish. English does not, and "doctor" has been appropriated to fill the vacuum.

Medicin is the only area where you can be a doctor without being a doctor. Confusingly, it is also the area where ordinary people are most likely to meet face-to-face with a real doctor (with a doctorate).

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 02 Feb 2009 #permalink

There's hardly an equivalent in Germany for that controversy as every doctorate comes with a doctor, not a Ph.D. If you'd want to distinguish you go by the even more formal titles of Dr. med., Dr. rer. nat. or even h.c. Happens hardly at all. From my possibly skewed viewpoint the med. is not even seen as the most profilic (also given that they spend the least time of all to earn the title).

It's true though that the title is mostyl used in formal, professional or celebratory situations, so physicians will get adressed as Herr Doktor a lot more often than a physicist. Even in the workplace, where physicists (below full professors) will already feel uncomfortable being adressed as Herr Lastname because it usually means trouble :-)

The only time I have ever put Dr. in front of my name is when dealing with physicians. The following story illustrates: I once had a question for my cardiologist after a cardiac ablation. So I called the office, and the nurse could not answer my question. She told me I had to make an appointment to come in to get the question answered. So for once in my life, I put Dr. in front of my name - and almost immediately the physician called me back. Professional courtesy goes a long way in many fields, especially medicine, even if I was a little sly about it.

Newspapers, including The Times, generally do not use the honorific "Dr." unless the person in question has a medical degree.

Excuse me, missus but I think you'll find the medical Dr title is the honorific one. PhD's who teach are the only people with an actual reason to call themselves Doctor, which means Teacher in latin. Get your facts straight.

At least in the UK. Dunno about you crazy merkins.

You should definitely put "Dr. Chad Orzel" on the front of your book. To the average person skimming the science section at Barnes and Noble, that's going to make a difference. Plus, at all the book signings you can be all "Oh man! Just call me Chad!" and people will be like "Chad Orzel is super down-to-earth!" Win win.

Not long ago, I read about a New York Carpenters' union that lost pension money in the Madoff scandal. I went to the website of the investment advisor they used, and was not surprised to find this description:

"Our firm was established as a Corporation in October, 1988. Dr. Jeanneret
was previously employed in investment consulting for approximately an
additional 15 years. John P. Jeanneret holds a Doctoral Degree in Economics
and Finance, and therefore has a significant educational and academic
background with respect to all areas of finance and portfolio management. "

Sometimes the use of Dr. is just overcompensation, but sometimes it's a case of trying to impress the rubes. In Biden's case it's probably just as Chad noted.

I work in a neurobiology lab at Harvard Med, and the only time anyone gets called 'Dr' is right when they get their PhD, usually over champagne. And these are people who do surgery (on NHP's).

My aunt, who had a PhD in English, actually had two business cards printed up in the early part of her career -- normally she went by Firstname Lastname, but if she felt she wasn't getting proper respect, out came the Firstname Lastname, PhD cards. Worked like a charm, apparently. (She was a speechwriter in the financial industry.)

I am also of the opinion that PhDs are more entitled to go by Dr. than MDs (or MBChBs or any other form of undergraduate medical degree), but unfortunately no style guide in North America will agree.

I am not sure why we have this idea that [an M.D.] is somehow harder or better than a PhD

There is an obvious reason why Americans tend to value the M.D. over the Ph.D.: on average, physicians are paid more. This point also explains one of the most prominent exceptions to the rule, Dr. Henry Kissinger. Kissinger has had extensive access to power and money, so people are eager to give him the respect implied by the title. Jill Biden's access to these things comes entirely through her husband, so people are unfairly reluctant to call her Dr. Biden instead of Mrs. Biden. I can understand why Dr. Biden would take a dim view of this practice.

In my field, the rule is to call someone working in a scientific capacity "Dr. Fulano" in written communication (even if Mr. Fulano is a graduate student, journal editors assume that he is allowed to use the title "Dr."), but similarly to Jon H's experience (I'm in a different field), the only time you would use the title in a F2F conversation would be in congratulating Dr. Fulano on completing his Ph.D.

There are, however, cultural differences. I have collaborated with a group in Japan for several years, and they--especially the students--always call me Dr. Lund. That is because I don't have a faculty position; otherwise they would call me Prof. Lund.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 03 Feb 2009 #permalink

I have a PhD in Chemistry, and my wife is a veterinarian. When somebody calls out "Dr. Goodyear" it's generally not for me....

More to the point of the post, when I was a college professor I tended to be very informal. I'm fairly enthusiastic in my teaching, and loud, and I can sometimes intimidate my students, so being informal seemed to help my students better relate to me. I noticed while I was there, though, that our younger female professors were often much more formal with their students because they needed to emphasize their authority to be taken seriously by their students. I always found that to be a bit depressing.

By Grant Goodyear (not verified) on 03 Feb 2009 #permalink

What a nanosecond. Are you saying that Herr Doctor Professor Obama can't help us?

The J.D. -- "Juris Doctor" -- predates the Ph.D. in Physics.

Off the top of my head (if I'm wrong, don't blame the rest of my head) is that the Doctorate was invented for Doctors of Theology, and then the Lawyers and Physicians copied it, with their own tweaks and twists.

The Doctor of Philosophy was good enough for a long time. I believe that J. J. Thomson was not a Professor of Physics when he discovered the electron, but a Professor of Natural Philosophy.

Engineering professionalized in the early 1800s, and the word "Scientist" wasn't coined until some years later, by William Whewell.

My wife is "Doctor Carmichael" because of her Ph.D. in Physics -- which always puzzled the rest of her family. He grandfather was a famous surgeon, her father a General Practitioner, her brother an Anaesthetist, her mother and sisters nurses. "Why," they asked, "couldn't you get a degree in something that helps people?"

I'm glad that so many others have pointed out that 'doctor' doesn't mean physician; it means a knowledgeable person who teaches in their are of expertise. Apparently, the reporters for this paper are just too lazy too look it up on Wikipedia. If anyone tries to suggest that is not standard practice to address a non-medical PhD as Dr., then they should tell that to all my college professors.

I don't often go by my title (I'm a physics PhD) and I don't think most PhDs do, but I expect a newspaper to use one's title as a matter of course, and not drone on about it. Complaining endlessly about someone's title speaks more of your own pretensions than of theirs.

"I haven't actually earned a medical degree, but I am not sure why we have this idea that it is somehow harder or better than a PhD."

It probably comes down to the MD being associated with a residency, etc. Plus the money earned, and the fact that medical doctors have peoples' life or health at stake, whereas other PhDs are perceived as bearing less risk. Many PhDs use their knowledge in rather more relaxed contexts, where they can check their recall of facts. A surgeon may not have that luxury, being instead required to do the right thing on demand in high-pressure situations with little margin for error. A PhD getting a paper or proof right is not the same as a surgeon knowing how to handle a situation during a procedure.

Also, there are lots of fields that people get PhDs in. Is a PhD in theoretical physics easier than an MD? Probably not. But an MD is probably harder than a PhD in, say, English lit or folklore.

But an MD is probably harder than a PhD in, say, English lit or folklore.

That may be true in individual cases, but I would hesitate to make that generalization.

As it happens, the guy who did my roof replacement last summer is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Local U. who does construction work to pay the bills. His research may not involve heavy-duty calculus or fancy lab equipment, but he does have to work with original sources: finding them, interpreting them, and so on. It's a vastly different skill set from what you need to get a Ph.D. in physical sciences, but it's not exactly trivial either.

His specialty is the American Colonial period, so we are talking about stuff that's ~300 years old. How many of you physics and chemistry types have read original sources that are even half to a third that old (e.g., Maxwell's displacement current paper or Einstein's annus mirabilis papers)? The oldest original source I have looked at is from 1910 (the original reference on the Haar wavelet, in case anyone is curious). I know Maxwell's and Einstein's work primarily from textbooks. I have read Nansen's Farthest North (from the late 1890s), but that was an English translation, not the original Norwegian.

[JvP's wife's] grandfather was a famous surgeon, her father a General Practitioner, her brother an Anaesthetist, her mother and sisters nurses. "Why," they asked, "couldn't you get a degree in something that helps people?"

I know at least one scientist who intentionally does not use the Dr. title because he does not want to be mistaken for a physician--when he travels to Australia (where he is originally from), he lists his occupation as "physicist".

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 03 Feb 2009 #permalink

Newspapers, including The Times, generally do not use the honorific "Dr." unless the person in question has a medical degree.

It's been my experience that "doctors" with PhDs in physics or mathematics are far more accomplished people than medical doctors, and I've always referred to them as such. (Dr. Don Cottrell, Dr. Arnie Villone, etc.) My experience has not led me to meet many PhDs in other fields.

At least the LA Times isn't as bad as the Washington Times, which tends to call men Dr, Secretary, Senator, or whatever, but women Miss or Mrs. Like Miss Rice (because apparently our former Secretary of State should be addressed like a 12 year old girl) and Mrs Chao. Nevermind that Chao is former Labor Secretary's original name. If she was going to be Mrs anything it would be Mrs. McConnell.

I have mixed feelings on this one. One the one hand I can sympathize with a woman (particularily oen with a powerful spouse) wanting to be recognized for her own accomplisments. At the same time I am reminded of a story a friend of mine told me recently. We both grew up in the same church. Our congregation was packed to the rafters with M.D.'s and Phd's (both male & female). One male M.D. actually reprimanded my then 15 year old friend for not addressing him by the title of Doctor. So clearly the whole business of wanting to addressed by a certain title can get out of hand. Just some food for thought.

But an MD is probably harder than a PhD in, say, English lit or folklore.

Ooo, no. I'd say that Humanities PhDs in the UK are, on average, smarter and produce better theses than Science PhDs, mainly because there's less funding, so you (usually) have to do better in your Undergrad to be accepted for grad school. Science PhDs in the UK use close-to-production-line methods to churn them out, mainly so that the Science PhD supervisors can rely on the continued income which comes through PhD completions.

And MD isn't difficult at all, intellectually. You just need a good memory and the ability to function on no sleep.

Except as a commenting pseudonym, I never call myself "Dr. Lastname"--partly because I think it sounds a bit pretentious (I have a Ph.D., but I don't work in academia), and partly because my least favorite uncle is also a "Dr. Lastname".

But I do include "Ph.D." in my work email signature, because in the field I work in (science writing and editing), others generally take you more seriously and treat you as a more reliable source if you have an advanced degree. I think that's ridiculous--one of my colleagues has no advanced degrees, but I'd trust her for content accuracy over two others with Master's degrees. But my company prefers that I include it, so I do.

Personally, I don't have any problem calling a Ph.D. or an M.D. "doctor". However, a lot of it is context-dependent. I think it's pretentious of an M.D. or Ph.D. to insist that everyone call him or her "Dr", even in informal situations or between friends. And I think it's odd for "Ds" of any sort to refer to each other as "Dr" if they are at essentially equivalent positions--i.e., I'd never expect a professor to refer to another professor as "Dr" unless it was in front of a class of undergrads, just as I'd never expect an MD to refer to another MD as "Dr" except in a formal setting.

What I do invariably find pretentious and obnoxious, however, is when people call themselves "Dr" when their degree is in something completely unrelated. For example, my degree is in geochemistry. I would not call myself "Dr. Lastname" if I were writing a book on English folklore, or hosting a self-help show.

Also, as I'm not a professor or researcher, I would not refer to myself as "Dr. Lastname" if I were visiting a university or college or research institution.

I've always found that the biggest pompous asses to be physicians who insist on "Dr." from people who aren't their patients. (And even with patients, the only reason for it that I can see is to remind the physician of his responsibilities to his patient, not for his own self-aggrandizement.) I always make it a habit to refer to them as "Mr.", "Ms." or "Mrs." just to make the point.

By Grant Canyon (not verified) on 04 Feb 2009 #permalink

I will be doing my best to avoid having my academic credentials listed on the front cover of the book when it comes out.

Why? Although I'm totally down with de-emphasizing being called "doctor" even though I am an M.D., I see no reason not to include your Ph.D. after your name in the book. It's a legitimate use of your degree.

The real issue here is that the LA Times felt the need to prattle on about it. If that's what the woman wants to be called that, and she's earned it, what's it to them?

Hardly anybody refers to me as "Dr." in conversation, and the only people I insist do are telemarketers (and only then for entertainment value). My general rule is go with however they introduce themselves. If she introduces herself as "Dr. Biden", I'd call her "Dr. Biden", if she introduces herself of "Jill", I'd call her "Jill"

I do however use my title it written communication (some of it, anyway), mostly because it gets me taken more seriously. I work as an industry researcher in a field dominated by academics, some of whom tend to be (I hope unconsciously) dismissive of industry researchers, many of which in my field have only minimal actual researcher training. Gently pointing out the PhD kind of says "I was once one of you"...

By Dr. Octoploid (not verified) on 04 Feb 2009 #permalink

FWIW, Jill Biden has an Ed.D. not a Ph.D.

In any case, she has a doctorate and can be called doctor if she wants.

I am a doctor (OD (optometrist)), my wife is a doctor(MD), and my mother-in-law was a doctor (PhD-Psychology). My MIL used to joke about Medical School and Optometry school being technical schools, and said that her PhD was the real doctorate. I actually think that is not far from the truth. I would, personally, NEVER want to have to write a dissertation and defend it. I detest writing papers, especially very long ones, and I don't like being grilled by a panel of people. For those reasons I have avoided seeking the FAAO designation with the American Academy of Optometry even though I have received encouragement from many with that honorific. I don't want to be grilled by a panel. (coupled with the fact that it really wouldn't help with patient care: it would just be peer recognition, and my ego doesn't need the stroking)

Who deserves to be called doctor? Everyone who has earned it. Who NEEDS to be called doctor? Some of us don't really care, while others seem to feel insulted if you don't acknowlege their self-perceived superiority. For those people, I would give the response from Richard Pryor to Eddie Murphy about Bill Cosby: "Tell him (her) to have a coke and a smile and shut the f!#@ up!"

By Michael Murphy, OD (not verified) on 23 Feb 2009 #permalink

I have a Ph.D. in history, and the only time I request "Dr. Clark," is when I would otherwise be referred to as "Mr. Clark." In formal situations, an honorary title is entirely deserved (and earned). However, I introduce myself by my first and last name without a title. In American society, I feel to introduce oneself as Dr. So-and-so by a M.D., a Ph.D., a O.D., a D.V.M., etc can be construed as pretentious.

I also work as a civilian in a military environment in which everyone goes by COL or SGT. In this case, I am "Dr. Clark." Again, the use of any honorific, I believe is dictated by the formality of the situation. If I was required to address, say, Sir Elton John, I would expect a polite Dr. in return.

Those who are calling the use of the term "Dr." obnoxious or pompous probably covets the title themselves and really has sour grapes! As the optometrist mentioned above.....writing a dissertation is a huge feat and then defending it with your life is another! I studied for three and a half years, wrote a dissertation for another year and a half! Address me as Dr. Alexander! A former professor told me that you should be addressed as "Dr." unless the person holds the same degree as you or by your permission! Everyone can not be addressed as "dr." because everyone has not EARNED one! I was not demanding to be addressed as Dr., until I read how many of those without it are the ones complaining and when I experienced some people going to great lengths to highlight their refusal to address me as doctor.

By Dr.S.N. Alexander (not verified) on 30 Sep 2010 #permalink