By now, you probably saw the opinion piece about Dr. Jill Biden. Yes, I am aware of the AP Style guidelines about the use of “Dr.” for qualified medical professionals in journalism. I will revisit that later. For some reason, a writer felt compelled to attack Jill Biden, who earned a doctorate in education from the University of Delaware, for using the term “Dr.” The piece called the usage “fraudulent” and “comic.” There were many things that bothered me about the piece – the misogyny, tone, lack of apparent understanding of doctoral programs, and a blatant level of disrespect for Dr. Biden. He literally called the next First Lady “kiddo.” Given my own personal experiences with this, I wondered, “What’s up with insecurities that some people have about doctorates?”
First, let’s start off with the blatant irony of it all. The writer chides Dr. Biden, who to my knowledge has not asked anyone to refer to her with the title, as if to diminish the value of her doctoral work. Her dissertation study was in the area of educational leadership and addressed issues of student retention. Her particular focus on the community college environment was refreshing and timely given the trends in higher education. The opinion writer seems to argues that only people with a degree in medicine should be called “Dr.” Here comes the irony.
According to Merriam-Webster online dictionary, “Doctor comes from the Latin word for “teacher” and originally referred to a small group of theologians who had approval from the Church to speak on religious matters.” Over time, the term was broadened to include medical and other professionals. Etymonline.com notes that the description, “holder of the highest degree in a university, one who has passed all the degrees of a faculty and is thereby empowered to teach the subjects included in it,” is from the late 14th Century. The use of the term “doctor” in medicine was not as common until the latter 16th Century.
These days there are numerous types of degrees with “doctor” in the United States:
- Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
- Doctor of Business Administration
- Doctor of Education (EdD)
- Doctor of Theology
- Doctor of Science (DSc)
- Doctor of Juridicial Science and Doctor of the Science of Law
- Doctor of Jurisprudence (J.D.)
I happen to have a PhD in Physical Meteorology from The Florida State University. It was attained after a rigorous 5-year program of coursework, research, dissertation writing, and publications. The Jill Biden case reminded me of a few times people have said things like, “oh you aren’t a real doctor, you have a PhD.” Most people that say this probably mean no harm and are simplifying understanding of what a doctor is to their most common experience. After all, the average person does not encounter folks with doctoral degrees as often as they do their family doctor, dentist, or medical specialist. However, that lack of familiarity does not lessen the rigor of other doctoral programs.
I think the editorial has roots in this “not a real doctor narrative,” but there was something more sinister. I read it just after watching Sarah Fuller become the first woman to kick a field goal in a Power 5 college football game. It was such an uplifting moment that my 17 year old daughter gleefully shared with me. Unfortunately, this article oozed with misogyny, disrespect for a woman’s professional credentials (a huge problem in workplace gender equity issues) and micro aggressions.
While perhaps not the motive of the opinion piece, it also caused me to reflect on the toxic perspective some people have towards “experts” or expertise. It is mind-blowing how much mis-information I see posted about climate change, weather, or coronavirus. The current era of “information access” and “Dunning Kruger Effect (a psychological concept whereby people overestimate what they know or underestimate what they don’t know) has, in the minds of some people, rendered experts as obsolete or even adversaries. This political cycle, for example, President-Elect Biden was ridiculed for “listening to the scientists.” Because of this era, I feel that experts should be referred to in media outlets with their “Dr.” Plumbers, attorneys, and other professions have ways of establishing their credentials. At a time when bad science is spread like a virus itself, scientific experts need that also.
One other thing that came to mind about this “Dr.” flap is insecurity. Psychology studies have shown that people’s accomplishments can make others uncomfortable. Ashley Laderer wrote in Talkspace.com, “It’s human nature for us to compare ourselves to others, and it’s no surprise that sometimes, that results in jealousy and feeling lousy.” She says these feelings of insufficiency and jealousy can be more acute for people with low self esteem. I guess that it is possible that “Dr.” may trigger self-esteem issues or feelings of inadequacies in some people if studies are accurate.
There is another road that I could have traversed. There have been many encounters in my career in which I was in the room with other PhDs. They were being addressed as “Dr.,” while I was being referred to as “Marshall.” I will address this racial micro aggression at another time. By the way, I really don’t want to be called “Dr. Shepherd” outside of my professional settings. If you meet me, “Marshall” is just fine. I bet Jill Biden feels the same way about her name too. From my perspective, titles don’t define anyone. How you treat people does.