Three photos from Tess's PhD graduation
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My title, my choice

I earned my Ph.D. in 2008. Since graduating, though, the only place I’ve really bothered to use my “Dr.” title is in the “title” section on forms.

That is, until now.

When my colleague shared Joseph Epstein’s Wall Street Journal op-ed piece in our #politics Slack channel last weekend, my immediate response was “Ah, misogyny is alive and well in 2020.”

I’m not linking to the article directly here, because I don’t need to give it any more oxygen, but here’s the summary: A reprehensible, patronising, misogynistic, and bewildering attack on Dr. Jill Biden’s use of her title “Doctor.”

Eyeroll.

I was initially happy to write the piece off as the incoherent rantings of an idiotic man, not worthy of any more of my time. But then, I started noticing a ripple of reactions across the internet.

Luckily, most of these were positive, like Dr. Biden’s own response, or those from Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton.

A wave of women with doctorates started adding “Dr.” to their public profiles, and I was reminded of journalist Dr. Julia Baird’s 2018 op-ed in the New York Times. The piece explores “doctorate shaming,” and urges women to own their authority.

You don’t need a title to speak. But if you do have one, use it.

Dr. Julia Baird

(Dr. Baird also responded to the Epstein article on Twitter.)

However, there have also been the inevitable (mostly male) responses that called for doctoral graduates to stop using their earned title. Personally, I unfriended an acquaintance who agreed with the sentiment that Dr. Biden shouldn’t use her title because “most academics don’t” (that’s their choice) and declared the article “satire” (it’s not).

These are the same men that tell women to shut up and go back to the kitchen, or who seek to deny us reproductive choices. They are petty, bitter, and jealous silencers.

If the main purpose of the article was to spark controversy, then it sure was successful. I would normally run far away from such obviously baiting articles, determined not to get caught in the trap of argument.

But as a female Ph.D. graduate, this feels different.

This feels personal.

Graduating from my Ph.D. was a proud moment: the culmination of four full-time years of hard work, preceded by an equal number of years of undergraduate and graduate study. It was earned.

My mother also has a doctoral degree – an Ed.D. – and though I was a teenager at the time she did it, I clearly remember all of her nights and evenings spent in the study at home, slogging away. She worked full-time as a high school teacher during the day, and every spare moment was poured into her doctoral work.

I remember asking her why she would choose to put herself through it. Her answer?

“Why do people climb Everest?”

Because they can. The ultimate freedom: choice.

Like anyone who has earned a doctoral degree, Dr. Biden has the right to choose whether she uses the “doctor” title. It shouldn’t concern anyone else.

Oh yes, this is a feminist issue.

This isn’t just about women, but it certainly seems to be more directed at us than at male academics. Stories shared by women on social media reveal a vast array of circumstances in which they were told not to use their titles or show their academic credentials.

My mother told me that she’d had the experience of applying for several high school principal jobs with “Dr.” on her resume, but was only successful after she removed it. After getting the job, she was told not to use it as “the students wouldn’t be able to handle it.” She refused.

I remember visiting her at work and hearing the girls say “Hi Dr. Needham!” as we walked past. I’m so proud that those impressionable teenage girls had exposure to a woman in leadership owning her expertise, and what a role model my mum was for them.

So go, be a role model.

If you have earned a doctorate, in any field, you have earned the right to use the title “Doctor” if you choose to. It’s just that simple. If you have a problem with someone else making that choice, then it’s really that: your problem.

As an experiment, I updated my Slack profile name to “Dr. Tess Needham.” The next three people I interacted with all commented on it, and asked to know more. Through this simple act, I was able to draw attention to the issue, and engage in conversation about the benefits and downsides to academic titles.

I never really bothered using my title before. But in solidarity with Dr. Biden, to demonstrate my freedom of choice, own my authority, and to be a role model to other women who may want to pursue higher education, I will damn well start using it now.

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One thought on “My title, my choice

  1. The use (or absence) of doctor varies quite a bit from country to country as well. It is much more common in Germany. I think you have hit the nail on the head with your title. It is ultimately a personal choice. I use mine sometimes, but not all the time. But when I see someone else use it, it definitely signals to me that this is a person who is smart and persistent. I think every person who gets a doctorate goes through a phase where they consider quitting. It is hard. And it is something to be proud of.

    Sincerely,

    Dr. Robert Felty

    Like

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