A North American’s Guide to the Use and Abuse of the Modern PhD

by Colin Eatock

Slide1You applied to the program, and you got in. Then you spent the next four, six, eight or more years stroking the capricious egos of professors, jockeying for position within your peer group and marking bad undergraduate essays for the minimum wage. You completed the research, the grant applications, the writing, the comprehensive exams, and finally the defence.

You got through it all, somehow – and now it's yours. You walked across the stage at a graduation ceremony, and an Important Person in a robe gave you the paper scroll that made it official. You are no longer a Mr. or a Ms. Now, you are a Doctor. You have a PhD.

A PhD isn't just something you've acquired, it's something you've become. It's part of who you are – and you're proud that you've transformed yourself in a way that's meaningful to you. Now that you can hold it in your hands, you feel you are someone special, and you want to tell the whole world.

But can you – or should you? And if so, how?

This is where it gets tricky. Indeed, knowing when it is professionally and socially acceptable to “use” your PhD – to call yourself Doctor, and to hope to be addressed as such in return – is a minefield where values, conventions and contexts intersect in fluid and intricate ways. And nowhere has the question ever been more perplexing than in North America today.

Ironically, this issue is often less troublesome in parts of Europe, Asia and Latin America. In many societies, scholarship and professional rank are highly respected things – and terms of address are an art form, requiring subtlety and precision. It would be tantamount to an insult to fail to address any kind of a doctor as Doctor.

But in North America – where traditions are discarded, hierarchies are flouted, and everything is supposed to be so much easier as a result – the rules surrounding the PhD designation are as clear as mud. Today's freshly minted scholars stand on shifting sands, and often have no idea when or where – or even if – it is acceptable to casually slip the initials Dr. in front of their name.

Google “PhD etiquette” and you'll find a clutch of anxious academics who have turned to the internet for advice. Timidly yet earnestly they raise the issue in chat rooms and on bulletin boards, begging an opinion about the use of Doctor from anyone who cares to offer one. However, the responses are an unhelpful mishmash – ranging from you're fully entitled to it at all times to what kind of jerk would even ask such a question?

Moreover, there's no consensus among the professional advice-givers. The late Letitia Baldridge (whose credentials as Jacqueline Kennedy's press secretary made her a prominent expert on social propriety in America) thought it was fine for PhDs to publicly lay claim to the salutation of Doctor. On the other hand, the newspaper columnist “Miss Manners” (a.k.a. Judith Martin) has expressed the view that in social situations only medical practitioners should use the title.

The main thrust of Manners' argument is that there's a risk that a PhD who goes by Doctor might be confused with a medical doctor – which could lead to an embarrassing mistake at a cocktail party. (Presumably, MDs needn't concern themselves about the inverse likelihood.)

As well, she suggests that there's something “uncertain” in the demeanour of a PhD who expresses a preference for Doctor. She draws a fanciful analogy between a scholar who has attained the highest academic degree and a woman who likes to wear silk underwear. “She must derive her satisfaction from knowing she has it on, and perhaps the knowledge of an intimate or two. To let everyone know cheapens the effect.” To Manners, a PhD is a naughty personal indulgence.

However, these concerns and caveats are just the tip of a large and multifaceted iceberg floating in the cultural sea. For many people in North America, there's something downright deceitful about a person who goes by Doctor – and who turns out not to be a “real” doctor, equipped with tongue depressors and a stethoscope.

This attitude seems to lie behind some of the hostility that's been directed at Laura Schlessinger, who dispenses advice and opinions on her Dr. Laura Show radio program. She is not a MD, nor does she hold a PhD in psychology. (Her graduate studies were in physiology, and her dissertation was on the effects of insulin on laboratory rats.) Her critics have argued that for her to call herself Doctor, when her doctorate is so tangential to her on-air work, is pretentious at best and fraudulent at worst.

Those who invoke their PhDs in the wrong time or place may find themselves quietly yet firmly labeled with every damning adjective in Roget's Thesaurus: vain, superior, pompous, egotistical, arrogant, conceited, condescending, and so on. It's no wonder that nowadays some North American PhDs give the issue a wide berth, by never calling themselves Doctor. In a world where the slightest hint of one-upmanship is regarded with suspicion, it's better to be safe than sorry.

But are these people happy? And is there really no alternative to deeply burying the shameful secret that one has excelled in scholarship, demonstrating exceptional commitment, perseverance, analytical skills and capacity for critical thought?

These questions can and will be answered here. But, in true scholarly form, let's digress with a little history lesson.

The doctorate owes its origins to the world of Islamic scholarship, in the ninth century, as a kind of licence to teach law and theology. The idea was imported into Europe, and the continent's first doctorate was awarded in Paris in the year 1150. Medieval European scholars studied the trivium (grammar, rhetoric and logic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy), and a doctorate was awarded after gruelling examinations in these subjects.

However, it wasn't until the 19th century that the process of granting a doctorate began to bear a resemblance to today's PhD programs. Berlin's Humbolt University is often cited as the source of the modern PhD, as this institution required its candidates to present specialized and original research in the form of a dissertation. In the USA, the first PhD was awarded by Yale University in 1861. Canada belatedly followed suit in 1900.

Until World War II, the PhD was a rare designation – and anyone who had one could count on being addressed as Doctor. But in the post-war years, this changed with the rapid expansion of universities and colleges. Between 1945 and 1975, as the number of American undergraduates grew 500 percent, the number of graduate students rose by a staggering 900 percent. Furthermore, new kinds of doctorates entered the field: the Juris Doctor (JD) for lawyers, the Doctor of Education (EdD) for pedagogues, and the Doctor of Public Administration (DPA) for bureaucrats, among many other – to say nothing of honorary doctorates, awarded with ever-increasing generosity.

This brings us to the current state of affairs. Doctorates are much more common than they used to be, and the coinage has been debased. As well, many PhDs who hold the degree today do not work in universities or other institutions that have traditionally honoured the salutation of Doctor. The PhD has been forced out into the real world, where the degree is not always understood, valued or even welcome.

So what's a scholar to do? Let's dig around for some research, and also talk to a few culture-savvy pundits – who make it their business to keep their fingers on the pulse of the current trends in professional and social environments. (Again, the discussion here is focused on North America. More specifically, the following information and advice was sourced in Toronto, Canada, where this writer lives and works. Perhaps things are a little different elsewhere on the continent – but probably not much different.)

To begin, here's some statistical analysis. The University of Toronto's Career Centre has conducted a poll of employers, asking if they would hire a PhD for a job that someone with a Bachelor's degree could do. Seventy-one percent said yes they would, and twenty-nine percent said no they wouldn't.

This is both good and bad news. The fact that most employers claim to be open-minded where PhDs are concerned suggests that the situation for those seeking work outside academia is by no means hopeless. On the other hand, it appears that some employers regard a PhD as the equivalent of a criminal record: solid grounds for immediate rejection. “Overqualified” is the handy word that's invoked – and to justify this practice, employers responded to the U of Toronto's survey with the concern that an overqualified worker will leave as soon as a better job comes along. (Speaking personally, this rationalization calls to mind a clever Yiddish saying: “If you want to beat a dog, you can always find a stick.”)

Now let's talk to a couple of experts.

Paul Copcutt is a “personal branding architect.” He runs a consulting business called Square Peg Solutions, and coaches people on the best way to position themselves in the marketplace. For him, the question of the PhD designation all about finding the right context.

“Like any professional designation,” he begins, “it relates to your brand and your positioning. Does it have relevance to your target audience – the people you're trying to reach and influence? If it does, then there's value in promoting the fact that you're a PhD. But in some cases, it could be a turn-off for people.”

So who's likely to be turned off? Copcutt checked his own LinkedIn account to see which people among his extensive network had added some kind of doctoral designation with their name. He found that most were in academia. (No surprise there!) And those who weren't academics were, in his words, “positioning themselves as experts in business functions or areas that do not directly relate to top or bottom line revenue.” In other words, in the business world, the people who get down to brass tacks with serious money either aren't likely to have a PhD or aren't trumpeting the fact.

But even if the context is right – if you're in a professional field where it's deemed beneficial to have a PhD, such as research or administration – what's the best way to make sure people know you have a doctorate? Copcutt proposes that PhD as a suffix on a business card may go down more smoothly nowadays than Dr. as an affix. This also has the beneficial effect of eliminating confusion with MDs and other kinds of doctors. (Miss Manners would be pleased.)

Anne Sowden, an image consultant whose business Here's Looking At You helps clients with both personal and professional self-presentation, agrees that the PhD can be advantageous – provided that its owner considers the message it communicates.

“Any time you have any letters before or after your name, it sends a message,” she states. “So you need to think about the message, and where that message is going. You have to know your audience.”

She continues: “A PhD who goes out looking for a job in the ‘real world' should have the PhD on the résumé. But I would not use the term Doctor. That can be intimidating.”

Interestingly, Sowden has noticed that the anxieties of people who fear they have too much education can be strikingly similar to the worries of those who fear they have too little. “There are some really smart and accomplished people who don't have PhDs,” she points out, “They may just have a high school diploma, and they're uncomfortable about what people will think of them if they know it.”

At this point, it's tempting to re-purpose Marshall McLuhan's dictum that “Art is what you can get away with.” So what might a PhD hope to “get away with” when trying to invoke the degree as a self-promotional tool? If used with sufficient tact and discretion, the letters PhD can be strong indicators of intelligence, thoroughness, self-motivation and several other virtues. It doesn't have to be kiss of death.

However, the Doctor salutation has become problematic in North America – outside from a few special situations such as academic conferences. It is sliding into the realm of obsolete etiquette, like a gentleman tipping his hat to a lady. If that's not the way things should be, it's the way things are.

But if you really must, consider this. In social situations it's better to have someone else introduce you as Doctor than for you to use the title yourself. The world is much more likely to indulge a proud parent, spouse or friend than it is to forgive someone it sees as a self-aggrandizing snob – especially when the doctor-in-question turns out to be “just” a PhD.

Furthermore, avoid the double whammy: “Dr. John Smith, PhD.” This kind of overkill only encourages Miss Manners and others like her, who have keen noses for any whiff of insecurity or awkwardness.

Finally, while it may be fun to circle Dr. on tax returns, census documents and credit-card applications, don't do it on your passport application. If you do, you may be called upon to revive a heart-attack victim in a jumbo jet halfway across the Atlantic. That really would be embarrassing.

Colin Eatock is a freelance writer. He may or may not hold a PhD in musicology from the University of Toronto.