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Is the informal Dr. ‹first name› something a starting academic should avoid?

As my father was Dr. ‹my last name›, I have, since receiving my PhD, cultivated Dr. ‹my first name›. A senior colleague recently advised me to stop: she called this unprofessional, and suggested that over time it would be a significant drain on my academic career. She went so far as to label this kind of informality a "professional cancer".

Context: I am an engineer and social scientist based in the USA, but I work with colleagues in Europe and Asia regularly.

While I feel that is hyperbole, I have discussed this with several trusted advisers. The responses have been polarized. Concerns raised include sacrificing respect, confusing personal branding (I have a memorable last name), and making more formal colleagues uncomfortable. Is this a real mistake I'm in the process of making? Is this a simple age division issue? Might the informal name actually be a benefit?

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    Which country? Which context? To me personally it seems extremely strange. – quid Aug 3 '18 at 15:12
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    A country tag might be helpful as in many countries using the Dr prefix is very formal and most people just go by first names. – astronat Aug 3 '18 at 15:13
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    I tried to write up an answer, but I can not continue unless you explain to us why you want to be addressed as "Dr." at all (instead of just using your regular first or last name). – koalo Aug 3 '18 at 15:29
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    Let me echo and amplify the earlier comments: this is a purely cultural question. As such it cannot be answered adequately without knowing more about in which part of academic culture you reside: please include information about your geographic area, subject area and kind of institution (e.g. liberal arts colleges in the US will be less formal than many research universities). – Pete L. Clark Aug 3 '18 at 16:44
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    I've just got my PhD and I never heard "Dr. <last name>" in person. This is totally culture dependent. – lvella Aug 3 '18 at 18:20

15 Answers 15

2

Personally I quite like Dr. Firstname. It isn't just informal, but the jarring unexpectedness of it actually serves to actively make fun of pompousness and formality. In a settling like within your research group, it does this while subtly reminding people of your standing: you get to have it both ways. As people have said, in this way it works similarly to being Dr. LastInitial.

Couple of things to add though:

  • Nicknames are best when they are chosen by the others rather than somthing you christen yourself.

  • To follow on from that their is subtly in when a nick name should be used and when it shouldn't. People who work in my lab and use a nickname. People who are my colleagues within my department can use them, when talking to others of the same or similar rank. I wouldn't expect people to introduce me in a formal setting (e.g. introducing a seminar) to use it, unless they were very close friends and were making an intentional, but friendly, dig at me.

  • I feel comfortable dispensing with formality, because my gender, class , ethnicity and elite education mean that I've never found it difficult to get people to show me respect, whatever name is used. By asking others to be informal with you, you are making it hard for those that need the formal strictures to get people to acknowledge their achievements and respect their position. I am reminded of Susan Harlan's poem "My First Name". Where Dr. Firstname sits in the Firstname vs. Dr. Lastname discussion, I don't know.

  • Extra points for citing a good poem I had not previously read. – Industrademic Aug 6 '18 at 21:46
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Going by "Dr. FirstName" is just confusing. If people aren't familiar with you, they will think it is your last name. If they do know you, it doesn't seem more casual, just odd.

It depends on the context and culture, but in the US it is standard to go by either "Dr. LastName" or just "FirstName." Like Solar Mike mentioned, a shortened form like "Dr. Initial" is sometimes used for students to refer to you.

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    My wife is a vet in the US, and the norm in that culture seems to be "Dr. <First Name>". I've never heard any of her colleagues call her "Dr. <Last Name>" (though some of the owners do). – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Aug 3 '18 at 18:47
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    Culure is everything here: I once headed a team of bilingual German-English speakers. When the spoke to me in English I was invariably called "First Name" but if they were speaking to me in German they could not bring themselves to be so informal, it had to be "title surname". – JeremyC Aug 3 '18 at 21:38
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    As an engineer working in Japan in both Japanese and English I second @JeremyC's comment. This is entirely culture. The safe default may be what the OP is really looking for here -- that would be "Dr. [Last Name]", cross culturally, at least as pertains to professional address. Unless the OP's father was profoundly influential it doesn't matter; and if he was maybe the mixup is a useful lever anyway. Meh. – zxq9 Aug 5 '18 at 14:20
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One of my friends chose to have students call him "Dr. R" (R was the initial of his first name) - he had a huge amount of respect from the students and his colleagues : personally, it's not the name that garners respect, but the attitude, character and spirit of the person.

Do what feels right for you - respect is earned and not necessarily based on a title alone - IMHO...

I have some colleagues whose family name is almost never pronounced correctly by many nationalities (with students from over 90 different countries this is normal for us...), then some easy form of Dr and first name or initial is very common with no detriment to respect.

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    I have such an unpronounceable last name. I choose to let them call me first name instead of Dr. first name. The reason is that there are clear rules here (Germany) on the correct use of the Dr. title, and Dr. first name is unequivocally incorrect. It would cause more confusion then it is worth. Once you use the title you enter a formal mode of communication, and then those formal rules are important. Unless absolutely necessary I just avoid the formal by using just my first name. – Maarten Buis Aug 3 '18 at 17:17
  • @MaartenBuis “Buis” is unpronounceable in Germany? Yikes. – aeismail Aug 5 '18 at 11:59
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    @aeismail ui is one sound in Dutch is pronounced as /œy̯/ That sound does not exist in German. My wife tried quite hard, but when we married she chose not to take my name, with the argument that she would like to be able to pronounce her own name. I thought that that was a valid argument. – Maarten Buis Aug 5 '18 at 14:48
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In the middle east and some other parts of Asia, it is standard to address someone this way (title + first (given) name), including in academia.

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    Would that be in places where the first name is the family name? – Clearer Aug 6 '18 at 9:35
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    @Clearer No, I really mean the given name. I haven't lived in places where the first name is the family name, so I can't speak to that. – David Ketcheson Aug 7 '18 at 10:15
  • In the Middle East, many people don't properly have last names as understood by East Asians or Westerners. Their treatment of laqab is totally different and can't even be generalized over to their treatment of their own names in English. – lly Aug 7 '18 at 16:37
  • Also, this only applies for some values of 'Middle East': Israelis, Turks, and Persians have last names and use them with the title 'Dr' in English. – lly Aug 7 '18 at 16:39
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I have a doctorate. Well into our marriage right after my wife got hers our daughter happened to answer the telephone when a caller asked to speak to "Dr. Bolker". Without missing a beat she asked "which one?" Now she and her brother are Drs. Bolker too and no one mixes us up.

Don't worry about sharing both the title and the name with your father.

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    My cousin and his wife live with my (now elderly) aunt. Letters addressed to Dr J Bonner have obviously reached the correct house - but who should open it? – Martin Bonner Aug 6 '18 at 10:15
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There are multiple contexts in academia and what is suitable for one context doesn’t necessarily work for others.

  1. For students, there’s great variation in what faculty prefer to be called - from first name only, to title only, to title and first name, to title and last name, etc. And this will differ between students in a large lecture class, in a seminar, grad students, lab students etc.

  2. What faculty call each other in departmental faculty meetings may differ what faculty call each other in faculty senate meetings, etc

  3. What faculty call each at academic meetings also varies greatly

If I were you, I’d feel free to ask students to call me Dr. Firstname as is your preference but to also keep this compartmentalized and go with the cultural norm in other settings.

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I assume your Senior colleague is a member of your department. If so, you should follow this senior colleague’s advice. The norms of the department should supersede personal preferences, unless your personal preferences are strongly held. In this case, it seems like if you are ambivalent. Following the department norms will avoid confusion for students and others.

4

In my experience in the UK it feels odd to use the "Dr" in an academic setting at all. Nearly everybody has a doctorate, so rather than brag about it we just use names.

3

It works fine for Dr. Phil [McGraw]

and Dr. Laura [Schlesslinger]

Granted, these are media personalities, which fits a different generalized culture than traditional professional academic respect. Still, this shows that such names can potentially work.

It seems that some people will reject the movement to support common usage of first names. However, that will primarily be people of the currently older generation, so as they age out, the long term impact on your career will be lessened. The proper polite thing to do in society is to call people by the name which they prefer. You are welcome to determine your own preference. But, you should then be prepared to stick with whatever you choose, especially for as long as you keep your current employer. Even down the road, if you change the name you go by, worlds can collide and my experience (as I have gone by multiple names) indicates that this can cause a bit of occasional confusion.

Where I currently work, my department has multiple instructors, exactly half of them being older gentlemen, who just go by their first name, and a younger instructor who goes by a title and a last name. The students just go by whatever they are told to go by, and are fine with it.

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This of course depends on cultural context (field, country, department), but you could simply go by your first name. To me, this would be much less odd. In my area (mathematics), I know several well respected people who are widely known and referred to by their first name. In one case, actually, she uses a shortened version of her first name!

2

There is no reason why you need to be referred to in the same way in every context. Some are naturally more formal than others and your relationship with some people is more formal than with others. One of the highly respected people I know is "Uncle Bob". I was often Dr. B. But my department chair would naturally be more formal and I wouldn't write any papers with that moniker as author.

Informality can often be good with students. But even then, not in all cases. If you need to admonish students and are normally referred to informally, using your complete name and list of titles can put the student on notice that they need to pay attention.

Of course, if you are in a very formal academic culture, you need to be more formal. Israel, for example tends to be quite informal, but I assume not in all contexts. Their prime minister is known by a nickname, for example. Germany, historically, was the opposite.

I would suggest, however, that for a young academic, building a career, being a bit more formal in public is probably the better way.

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I would find it very weird to call myself "Dr. $FIRSTNAME". As the reason for your choice seems to be to avoid confusion with your father's name, how about using "Dr. I. $LASTNAME", where I. is the initial of your firstname. Over time, this would be your trademark of sorts; people who know the difference between you and your father will immediately know who is who; and people who don't know you or your father will at least guess with a high likelihood that you have done that due to a name clash, and not due to some (in)formal/casual issue.

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    I think we can agree that Dr. $FIRSTNAME is a nicer way to express the variable... ;) – Industrademic Aug 4 '18 at 16:12
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As all answers here suggest, you're going against the generally accepted and more importantly, generally expected way of doing this kind of thing. I and many other would expect Dr. Bla to indicate that Bla is your last name. There is also a somewhat universal, culturally independent link to expected and shown respect between last and first name usage.

If you don't want to be confused with your father, well, append a "Jr.", although you will forever live in the shadow of "Sr."

As an alternative, add a middle initial and always use that. Of course this only realistically will be possible in written communication. When speaking in person it'll all just be Dr. Bla. You being confused with your father will only increase your networking potential (unless he's an idiot who you do not want to be confused with, which you do not seem to imply at all).

2

To me, personally, this sounds very weird, and probably unprofessional.

As many note, this may be very culturally affected. I am Belgian (although, I work now in Germany, which seems much more formal, when speaking German, but much less so when speaking English, which I mostly do at work).

For me, using the doctor title seems very formal. I would almost never introduce myself as Dr. [Whatever], unless perhaps in a professional setting when speaking with people I haven't met before, and even then rarely. The doctor title seems much more formal than just the last name. I would rather introduce me as Mr. [Lastname] than Dr. [Lastname].

So the combination of Dr. and the first name, seems like a very odd combination of very formal and informal. Which is why it is weird.
Edit: It seems weird because why would you want to use the doctor title if you want to be informal?

It seems also unprofessional (and possibly bad branding), because Dr. [Firstname] makes me think of the likes of Dr. Phil or others. Those who use their first name to seem casual and friendly to the public, but still want to assert their authority by using the doctor title. Typically using it to overstate their expertise for the benefit of making money by selling products or promoting unscientific claims they believe in.

1

Title FirstName is certainly more informal than Title LastName. I don't know if it would be "professional cancer" for a doctor, though. I would say stick with Title LastName.

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    Depends where. In Brazil, Dr. FirstName is completely normal (the norm, matter of fact...) – Fábio Dias Aug 4 '18 at 16:31
  • @Fábio Dias, oh yes, it was very confusing for me as a German :) – Iris Aug 6 '18 at 12:28

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