Of doctors and doctorates

Should someone who has a Ph.D. in history, engineering or political science be addressed as a doctor? Or should that title be reserved for those with medical degrees?

Popular culture seems to have no problem with “doctors” with non-medical doctorates. Consider Dr. Indiana Jones, Dr. Bruce Banner, Dr. Octopus and Dr. Strangelove. (OK, the educational background of the latter character is a bit mysterious, but he doesn’t appear to be a physician.)

The title, medical or otherwise, also works well for real people in music and the arts: Dr. John, Dr. Demento, Dr. Dre and Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, just to name a few.

The label of doctor gets more serious — and contentious — in the news world. Journalism demands precision and accuracy, and not everyone agrees on the best way to reach those goals. So it goes with doctors, as reflected in these two recent examples:

  • John McIntyre, writing at You Don’t Say, addressed a reader’s complaint about an obituary that gave the deceased the title of “Dr.”
  • Media Matters, a watchdog organization, criticized a Los Angeles Times story that pointed out that Jill Biden, who holds a doctorate in education, prefers to be called “Dr. Biden.”

Here is another view from someone who is a doctor and an academic. Tom Linden teaches in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has an extensive background in journalism, especially in broadcast news. He also has a medical degree.

In an exchange of e-mail, I asked Linden what he thought of the doctor debate. Here’s his response, published in full:

I think anyone should be free to use whatever title they want, and that includes “Dr. J.”

For media purposes, I’ve always followed the AP Stylebook, which restricts the use of “Dr.” in first reference to those individuals who hold degrees as doctor of medicine, doctor of dental surgery, doctor of osteopathy or doctor of podiatric medicine. On second reference I drop the “Dr.” but explain what type of doctor the individual is.

Personally, I would prefer to use the suffixes “M.D.” and “Ph.D.” and “D.O.” and “D.D.S.” and dispense with the doctor title entirely.

For television supers, I’ve always used the suffix but not the prefix. I then identify the type of doctor in the second line. For example, Joe Smith, M.D./UNC Cancer Specialist or Jane Doe, D.D.S./Duke Oral Surgeon. In the television story itself, I would refer to the medical and dental doctors as “Dr. Joe Smith” on first reference and just “Smith” on second and following references.

For academics in television stories, I would use the “Ph.D.” as the suffix in supers (e.g., George Jones, Ph.D./UNC Geology Professor or Barbara Smith, M.A./Duke Psychology Professor). In the television story itself I would refer to the academics as Professor Jones or Professor Smith on first reference and then just “Jones” or “Smith” on following references.

Personally, you can just call me “Tom” no matter who you are.

Thanks for your insight, Tom. Perhaps now we can move on to the discussion of nurses as doctors.

5 thoughts on “Of doctors and doctorates”

  1. Well the AP Stylebook, along with the New York Times stylebook, permits “Dr.” for people who hold earned doctorates.

    Moreover, does anybody remember being on a college campus? Where faculty members are regularly known as Dr. So-and-so? A style rule so thoroughly at variance with established common usage stikes me as being a style rule worth questioning.

  2. In Germany it’s illegal for non-medical doctors to use the title – although they’ve made an exception for EU PhDs now.

    In the UK very few academics are called ‘Professor’ – it’s a separate professional title, higher than Dr.

  3. Is relevance ever an issue? In an article featuring bridge players, bird watchers, or town council members, would you mention academic/honorific titles?

  4. What’s the point of using courtesy titles at all? Meseems we need to answer that before we get around to whether physicians ought to be privileged over the people they appropriated the title “doctor” from. (And let’s not get started on the clergy.)

    I think there’s also some confusion about the difference between titles and job descriptions. I can’t think of anyone I know in the PhD ranks who claims to be “a doctor,” but then again I don’t know any who claim to be “a mister” (or “a mrs.”) either.

Comments are closed.