Call the doctor

In the circles in which I once moved when I was still an active law lecturer, one of the regular questions colleagues from the United States of America would ask is whether, with a J.D. degree (‘Juris Doctor‘), they were entitled to style themselves ‘Dr’. This often led to long discussions about how academic qualifications should be used by their holders to declare their status.

I was awarded my own Ph.D. in 1982, and to be honest I immediately had my university letterhead amended to include my new title. And when I had done that I felt slightly sheepish, and for the rest of my career tended to avoid reference to my doctorate except in necessary contexts (as on my curriculum vitae).

Anyway, over the past few days there has been something of a Twitterstorm about academic doctorates. It began with the historian Fern Riddell, who last week tweeted as follows:

‘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 earn my authority, and I will not give it up to anyone.’

This earned her a number of critical responses, some saying that she was arrogant and was holding herself out to be better than others. But Dr Riddell was having none of that, and started the hashtag #ImmodestWomen. So before you could say ‘trending’ her tweet produced a tsunami of others, mostly women, proclaiming their entitlement to publish their academic status. Though somewhere in there we also had a man – a surgeon – proudly proclaiming his status as ‘Mr’, which as you know is the title of qualification and honour for that profession.

So there are two issues caught up in this. The first is to do with recognising and proclaiming expertise; the second is about recognising women as equally meriting such recognition.

Regarding the first of these, I guess that someone with long training and established expertise in some field outside of the academy might ask why academics merit titular recognition where others don’t. This might be less of an issue in other cultures, where titles more routinely display status in non-academic professions: ‘Herr Direktor’, ‘Frau Oberamtsrat’. But in British (or indeed Irish) society, should academic qualifications uniquely be attached to a name, where other qualifications are not?

On the other hand, in the context of gender it has taken a long time for women to secure easy recognition of expertise and leadership in universities; even now it is not unusual for heavily qualified women to be treated unequally and unfairly- sexism in the academy is far from dead, as a previous post by guest blogger Dr Anna Notaro also found.

So, on balance, I say to the #ImmodestWomen, go for it, claim what is your right.

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6 Comments on “Call the doctor”

  1. Vince Says:

    Have you received a missive from an valuer, a banker or a vet. And that Mr. with the doctors is a convention within a society and has nowt to do with academic recognition.
    The only post nominals that people snuff at are academic ones. Ohh, with the exception of the law groups.
    To be frank it’s time all grads join Dr Riddell and quit pandering to anti-intellectualism.


  2. Her argument was that the title Dr. inferred that she had expertise. I have met many without the title who have considerable expertise and many with the title who don’t (and who certainly are not intellectual – they know a “lot about very little). A most unreliable title. Go ahead and use it if you’re trying to impress people or get a into academia and away from the world. Just beware that if you use it where it is not necessary, people will think you are a pompous pillock.

    • Vince Says:

      I believe it was the 180 of that. Her sex required her to have the title front and centre for if it wasn’t there she’d be lessened by a system designed to draw from a very small cohort until very very lately.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      Brian, you seem to have packed in a short comment a lot of (wrong) assumptions, as I happen to be a bit of an expert in deconstruction as a methodology, let me share the following with you. First of all you base your opinion on anecdotes (I have met many without the title who have considerable expertise and many with the title who don’t (and who certainly are not intellectual – they know a “lot about very little)). From such shaky premise you derive the conclusion that a PhD is “A most unreliable title”, then you rehearse the trite metaphor.of academia as not being the ‘real world’ (Go ahead and use it if you’re trying to impress people or get a into academia and away from the world) before concluding with the caveat against pomposity (which some with Dr before their name might find a wee bit patronising). In your tirade against the title you have actually missed the main point of the discussion, the gender dimension to using it or not (which the post alludes to with the link to the article “The academics tackling everyday sexism in university life”, (an issue I have addressed myself in a previous guest post https://universitydiary.wordpress.com/2015/03/05/50-shades-of-sexism-in-the-academy/).
      But you will be pleased to know that comments such as yours have been very common in response to Dr Fern Riddell’s original tweet, a fellow immodest woman put it pertinently when she tweeted “Its a shame that white male colleagues think using “Dr” is a show of elitism and arrogance, when actually often for women, BME and non straight colleagues its a demonstration of breaking elitist boundaries. #ImmodestWomen”

  3. Vince Says:

    It seems the debate on this has shifted through yesterday from one of recognition and respect to one of authority. And not in the narrow meaning of being within their direct area of study but the wide and old meaning to that of forelock tugging class.


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