Growing up, I couldn’t figure out why people sometimes called my mother “Doctor.” The doctor was the guy with the excessive white nose hairs who put the cold stethoscope on my back once a year and drew a Pac-Man around the pinpricks of my tuberculin test. My mom wasn’t a doctor. She worked at a desk.
But I heard her introduce herself as “Doctor Ruben” a few times. And sometimes the mail would arrive addressed to “Mr. and Dr. Ruben.” What was going on? Was my mother leading a double life?
Of course, I was too young then to know what graduate school was (and thank goodness no one told me, because it surely would have caused nightmares). I didn’t know that the “D.” in “Ph.D.” bizarrely grants one the same title as a practitioner of medicine.
And now that I’ve had my own Ph.D. for almost 9 years … I still don’t know what to do about my title.
It turns out I’m not alone. I polled many of my friends with science Ph.D.s for their thoughts about the “Doctor” question. I’ve categorized their replies into 11 groups:
I call myself “Doctor” because, damn it, I’ve earned it. It’s not easy to get a Ph.D., and there’s often a feeling, upon emerging from the abysmal stagnancy of graduate school, of “What exactly do I have now in exchange for those 5 to 10 years of my life?” Well, relative poverty for starters. Your name as the third author on a couple publications. Generalized Anxiety Disorder. And, horror of horrors, a postdoctoral fellowship. But wait—you also have a degree that lets you legitimately call yourself something special. So a lot of scientists call themselves “Doctor” at least in part to validate the experience of earning the title.
I never call myself “Doctor,” because ick. There’s something inherently pretentious about the title in the first place. Worse, there’s no delicate way to correct people who fail to call you “Doctor.” You can’t gently say, “Actually, let me stop you right there—it’s DOCTOR So-and-so, and while I sympathize with your confusion, I refuse to further engage with you until you bestow the accurate honorific. So let’s just start this conversation over again with the proper attention paid to my elevated status, shall we? Thank you, Grandma.”
I call myself “Doctor” deliberately in situations where the title flies in the face of someone’s expectations of my position or achievements. Many scientists who are members of groups typically underrepresented in the sciences told me that they’ve introduced themselves as “Doctor” and witnessed dramatic about-faces in someone’s assessment of them.
Administrator: Hi! You must be our new maintenance person.
Scientist: No. I’m not.
Administrator: My mistake. Then you must be our temporary intern peon. Remember that the coffee maker is not a toy, and if I catch you playing Bejeweled on your phone—
Scientist: Actually, I’m DOCTOR So-and-so.
Administrator: Sorry. I mean, I just assumed, because …
Scientist: Because what.
Administrator: Well … so … um … let me show you to the postdoc lounge.
Scientist: I’m the new department head.
I call myself “Doctor,” but I clarify that I’m not the helpful kind, which is especially important in case someone faints on a plane. I don’t know how this specific concern became so common, but—completely independently—multiple Ph.D. recipients described to me an imaginary scenario in which they have to explain, presumably to a shocked flight attendant, that while they really wish they could help the elderly gentleman experiencing coronary ischemia, they’re actually the kind of doctor who applies for research funding and presents at journal clubs, not the kind who, you know, does stuff.
I call myself “Doctor” and do so with pride, because there’s nothing second-place about a Ph.D., you jerk. I give points to my mother for this one. She says that when anyone would accuse her of being not-a-real-doctor, she’d remind them that a Ph.D. requires more schooling than an M.D., that Ph.D.s walk ahead of M.D.s in academic processions, and that she has taught medical students. It’s just a shame she’s not medically qualified to treat that EPIC BURN.
I call myself “Doctor,” but only in customer service situations. Admit it. You know you’ve found yourself arguing with your cable provider, and you’ve whipped out the Doctor Card. It’s almost like you’re expecting them to reply, “Whoa, a doctor? We’re so sorry. If we knew you were one of those noble, highly educated doctors, we would never have tried to screw you over with these made-up monthly fees. Here, have a free Science Channel. That’s what you doctors like, isn’t it?”
I’m a woman, and I call myself “Doctor” so that I don’t have to declare my gender or marital status. A few female scientists reported their relief at no longer having to choose between Miss (“I’m a single woman looking to mingle!”), Mrs. (“I’m a married woman and unlikely to mingle”), and Ms. (“I’m a woman, my marital status is none of your business, and I’ll mingle on my own terms, should I choose to mingle in the first place, thank you very much”). Now they can select “Dr.” from the drop-down menu, and there’s nothing our misogynistic society can do about it (short of inventing a term like “Doctress”).
I call myself “Doctor,” but only when trying to improve a loved one’s medical care. It’s kind of awful that this works. But it does.
What physicians tell you if you call yourself “Doctor”: Your uncle has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but there are several promising treatments in clinical trials, and I’ve taken the liberty of signing him up for the one with the greatest chance of success.
What physicians tell you if you don’t call yourself “Doctor”: Your uncle is going to die.
I call myself “Doctor,” but I make it seem informal by pairing it with my first name. Nothing makes you seem more accessible and beloved than this little linguistic trick. You’re not a big, scary doctor! You’re Doctor Emily, or Doctor Jim! You have a SpongeBob SquarePants lunchbox! You’ve got some serious talent, but you also know how to have fun!
I sure as hell call myself “Doctor” if my graduate alma mater has the nerve to address me by any other title when they ask me for money. You gave me my damn degree. If anyone knows the title I’ve earned, it’s you. Also, because you gave me the degree, you should know that I have no money.
I call myself “Doctor” to make undergrads respect me when I teach. Nice try. Undergrads will never respect you.
If you think about it, this whole issue is bizarre. There are very few professions that use the name of the profession as a title to begin with—at least, outside of Richard Scarry’s Busytown storybooks, in which Farmer Fox crashes vegetable-shaped cars into Janitor Joe and Postman Pig. But in the non-illustrated world in which worms don’t wear hats, who calls themselves Barista Smith or Freelance Wallpaper Hanger Williamson? It’s mostly royalty, clergy, military, and heads of state.
Even stranger, the title we Ph.D.s use is the name of a profession that’s not actually our profession. Yes, technically we’re Doctors of Philosophy (which is also weird, because I don’t know about you, but I’ve never studied philosophy). But although many of us would introduce ourselves as “Doctor So-and-so,” we would never say, “I’m So-and-so. I’m a doctor.”
I don’t think we’ll reach a consensus on this. Nor do we really need to. I’m happy to live in the messy world in which we care more about our research than about what to formally call ourselves and each other.
Unless someone faints on a plane. Then you should probably decide pretty quickly.