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  Category: Articles » Education & Reference » Higher Education » Article

Should Ph.D.s be referred to as 'doctor'?

By V. Berba Velasco Jr.

In recent years, I've frequently heard people claim that individuals who hold PhDs are not "real" doctors. These people assert that only physicians can rightfully claim this title, and that it's inappropriate for PhD-holders to use this term.

Frankly, I'm surprised. I thought it was common knowledge that there are both medical and non-medical doctors, and that this is a legitimate term to use in both situations. Apparently though, common knowledge isn't always as common as one would hope. For this reason, I'd like to take a moment to dispel some of the myths behind this title. (For the sake of brevity, I shall henceforth focus on the PhD degree; however, the same arguments hold for comparable degrees such as the ScD and the ThD).

Can PhDs legitimately claim to be doctors? Absolutely! The term "doctor" is derived from the Latin verb docere, which means "to teach." Historically, it refers to a teacher or, by extension, a scholar. It did not specifically refer to a physician. This title was later co-opted by the medical community though, due to the respect and prestige that it imputes. In one of life's great ironies, many uninformed laypeople now percieve the medical degree to be more prestigious than the lowly PhD, declaring that people who have earned the latter are "not real doctors."

Some people say, "Well, most people only think of physicians as doctors. According to the rules of common usage then, PhD-holders shouldn't use this title." I understand the appeal of this argument, but frankly, I think it's fallacious. There are many individuals that are known to the public as "Doctor"--Dr. Martin Luther King, Dr. Joyce Brothers and Dr. Laura Schlessinger. None of these individuals has a medical degree, and yet they are commonly accorded this title.

Moreover, I think that this argument panders to ignorance, rather than fighting it. If a large portion of the population thinks that (or acts as though) only MD-holders truly merit the title of "doctor," should we bend over backwards and let their misperceptions rule? Would it not be better to educate people on the historical, established usage of this term--usage that persists to this day?

Some say, "If you refer to a PhD-holder as 'Doctor Smith,' then people will assume that he's a physician. So what happens if there's a medical emergency? Do you want people running to Smith for medical help?" Frankly, I think that this argument betrays a low opinion of the public's intelligence; it assumes that people are too dim-witted to learn, and that we may as well accept the inevitable. Personally,I would rather fight ignorance gently than assume such a lowly opinion of the common man's intellience. Would some people continue to think that only physicians merit this title? Probably so--but I suspect that the vast majority of individuals are intelligent enough to learn otherwise.

For some reason, many also think that the MD is much more difficult to attain than a PhD. I can understand why; after all, we've all heard horror stories about medical students working long hours and stayin up all through the night. However, people simply don't realize how laborious a PhD program can be. PhD students often have to engage in long hours of grueling studies and research if they wish to complete their studies in a timely fashion. Mind you,I would never deny that med students are bright, and that medical school is a long and arduous process; in my experience though, PhD students typically work just as hard, if not moreso.

I'd say that when it comes to years of study, PhD programs are more demanding as well. When starting from a bachelor's degree, a PhD typically takes from six to eight years to complete, as opposed to four years for the medical degree. I've seen

When someone declares that physicians are the only real doctors, he is simply mistaken. I'd say that PhDs have every right to this title--and I say that based on the title's etymology, the demands of their programs and the accepted, contemporary usage of this term, even outside of academic circles.
About the Author
V. B. Velasco Jr works for a small biotech firm that provides ELISPOT software, ELISPOT plate readers, frozen human PBMCs and serum-free media.

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