Why we need to show respect to all types of doctors

The dedication and years of hard work required to complete a PhD entitle the recipient to be considered a bona fide doctor, says Marrisa Joseph

June 23, 2018
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“So, what do you do?” The usual small talk at a party, an easy conversation starter when meeting someone new. 

I smile and reply, “I’m a lecturer at a university.” I say no more, waiting for the response to see which direction the conversation is going to take. 

“Oh, so do you have a PhD?” I’m asked, to which I respond, “Yes.”

“So, you’re a doctor?” the person will inevitably ask. I nod and smile, feeling extremely proud that I can confirm that this is my title.

“You’re not a proper doctor though, are you…”

It’s not even framed as a question, but an emphatic statement dropped with such a weight that my smile drops with it. A light-hearted conversation replaced with that tiresome assumption that having a PhD is not sufficient to warrant using the title “doctor” outside the university campus.

This is a true story, and unfortunately, in some shape or form, this statement has been addressed to me on more than one occasion. When faced with this, I have learned not to be dejected, but instead I use it as an opportunity to correct this general presumption. I always answer: “I have a PhD. I am a proper doctor.”

I studied for four years for the right to call myself by that title and should be referred to as such if I choose.

I know what people usually mean by this somewhat ignorant statement – they presume that only medical doctors are “real”. But why should having a PhD not make me a real doctor? I studied, was examined and awarded with a doctorate, yet some believe that we PhDs should be excluded from being bestowed the honour of an official title reflecting our hard work and expertise.

When I graduated two years ago with a PhD in business and management, I couldn’t wait to update my email signature, business cards and LinkedIn profile. I still have the congratulations cards from friends and family proudly addressing me as “Dr Joseph”. Even now, I am still in the honeymoon phase. My tummy sometimes does a little flip when my students refer to me as “Dr”, and I still revel in the fact that I earned the right to be called one. 

I find it outrageous that some media outlets would not use this honorific because I have a PhD rather than an MD. After years of studying, taking in my stride the highs and lows of doing such an extensive piece of research, if I decide to use the title “Dr”, that is my choice and should be respected. No one has the right to decide which title I use and in which context. I earned it and I want to proudly display it. 

Recently, Twitter has sparked a bit of a revolution with the #Immodestwoman hashtag, which was started by the historian Fern Riddell, who was outraged that some newspapers would use the title “Dr” only for medical professionals. Some Twitter trolls seemed threatened by a woman displaying her authority in a public arena. One Twitter user asked Dr Riddell whether she was a serious academic, with another dismissing the use of her title, saying that by her publicly stating her authority as an academic and expert in her field she was a “turn off”. I wonder whether men with MDs are accused of displaying their credentials too boldly? Do men with PhDs have to defend their doctorates? Are women with MDs held to different standards from women with PhDs?

Implying that MDs have some sort of special status or are the only ones who should call themselves “Dr” completely undermines the hard work, strength and dedication that it takes to be awarded with academia’s highest title. The recent conversations on social media highlight the general rhetoric that anything other than a doctor of medicine is not considered worthy to warrant the title. Historically, the term “doctorate” means licence to teach. I am a lecturer holding a PhD, working in academia, teaching undergraduates and postgraduates; therefore, I am most definitely a proper doctor!

Marrisa Joseph is a lecturer in entrepreneurship at Henley Business School, University of Reading.

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