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A Title By Any Other Name...

It seems the Wall Street Journal stirred up a bit of controversy today in publishing an op-ed by Joseph Epstein, calling on Dr. Jill Biden to stop using the title "Dr." in her name. Mr. Epstein, who taught at Northwestern for 40 years, offers arguments I summarize thus: (1) only medical doctors, or perhaps also scientists, should use the term. (2) Standards for the PhD aren't what they used to be, so it's really not a significant distinction. (3) Biden's PhD in particular should be held in low regard because it is in the social sciences, specifically education.

Noting that #2 and #3 are fallacies of relevance, denigrating social science degrees in general (Poisoning the Well) and Biden's in particular (Ad Hominem) instead of the usage of academic titles, I will address only the first. I am very disappointed in the tenor of the piece. Certainly we should be able to find cause for celebration in a First Lady whose most noted work is found in peer-reviewed journals, not Maxim and the like.

I am frankly outraged that the Wall Street Journal would print such a piece. I understand it is opinion piece; I also understand it is unbecoming a major news outlet to print slander of an entire field of learning. While I very strongly contest Mr. Epstein's views, he is entitled to his opinions: my argument is with the WSJ editor who chose to publish it.

As for usage of the term "Doctor", while I am immensely proud of mine, I do not use it outside of a classroom setting. I will use PhD after my name on scientific material when first meeting people who may be unaware of my credentials. My email signature doesn't include it but it can be added once if needed. I make a point of avoiding its use in general and ask others to do the same in two areas: anything outside of academics, and at work. I lead a data science team in industry; some of my team members have the PhD, some are candidates, and others have not pursued the degree. I would never make distinctions between members of my team: all of us work together and the work is justly credited to all of us. My manager first introduced me to the team as Dr. Corliss and I immediately told them not to call me Doctor: in a professional setting, both are exactly it should be. We remain on a first-name basis, as colleagues and friends. I may fairly say that there has been no higher honor in my scientific career than to work with so many immensely talented people, both through and outside of work, who are as kind and generous in our collaborations as they are brilliant in their contributions to our shared labors. Working with them is the true honor, eclipsing all others.

So: where did I learn this? While it doesn't appear in any curriculum, practices at universities can be informative. However, these may offer little guidance for research outside of universities. I have been very fortunate to have had Dr. Bruce Lund as a manager and mentor, whose practices I emulate and recommend to others; if there is anything of value in this essay, it is because Bruce Lund modeled these behaviors early in my private-sector career.

However, the most important practice of all was learned, not in academic practice, but as a child from my father, a scholarly but not academic man of great goodness and decency. He taught me that honorifics are to be shown to all others who have earned them, no matter the specifics, but never to one's self if at all possible. Simply put: "Doctor" is something you call someone else. As far as I have seen, Dr. Biden maintains this practice (for example, Professional standards of conduct should demand no other.


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