Last year, I finished and defended my doctoral thesis in a STEM field, and have continued working as a researcher in academia since. I am proud of my doctoral work, yet I feel somewhat uneasy about flaunting my newly earned title and refrain from doing so in general.

All senior people in my field have doctoral degrees, so it doesn't really signify anything. Besides, often when people use their title it seems like they do it to show they are an authority of sorts (Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz, for instance). In my field of work that doesn't get you very far; if you're full of baloney people will realize in minutes.

I'm also hesitant about signing off e-mails as a Dr.; there's usually some back and forth with suppliers we work with, for instance. We really depend on their technical experience and I wouldn't want to come across as pretentious or elitist.

My basic question is this: in your experience, what are good circumstances to use ones doctoral title?

  • 1
    Which country? Which STEM field? – Uwe May 3 '19 at 16:19

This may vary by country. I'm in the US, and use mine rather rarely. As you say, senior researchers all have PhDs (or MS + many years' experience), so it's hardly something significant in such contexts. I also don't use it in personal correspondence (e.g., bank paperwork) since that might lead to confusion about being an MD ("real doctor"). So what's left?

  • CV and other biographical documents
  • e-mail signature
  • formal presentations and documents (e.g., grant proposals)
  • anything related to undergraduate teaching

Note, professors might use "Prof." rather than "Dr." for all of these, particularly in contexts where it is obvious that professors are a subset of doctors.

  • In places where doctors are a subset of professors (e.g. many community colleges in the US where a lot of instructors have only MS/MA degrees), it's common to use "Doctor" rather than "Professor" for those who do have doctoral degrees (and many of those doctoral degrees are not Ph.D. degrees but Ed.D., DBA, etc.) – Brian Borchers May 3 '19 at 2:36
  • I'm also in the U.S., and I use "Dr." or "Prof." with my name even more rarely. In particular, my CV has (on the first page) sections about my education and employment, so it's clear that I have a doctorate and that I'm a professor without my also putting that next to my name. For undergraduate teaching, I introduce myself on the first day of class as "Professor Blass" but that's usually the only place that students see or hear my title. – Andreas Blass May 3 '19 at 3:53

Use "doctor" only in academia, only in formal circumstance, and then prefer the degree, e.g. Ph.D. In real life, "doctor" is a person with medical credentials.

I answer my phone, "Doctor Brown" in case it's a student on the other end. My email sig says, "Best regards, Bob" and then has "Bob Brown, Ph.D." on another line.

Business cards, professional stationery, etc. should always use the degree, not the honorific. If you can afford engraved personal calling cards, then you can use something like "Dr. Bob Brown"

And by the way, congrats!

  • Business cards, professional stationery, etc. should always use the degree, not the honorific. If you can afford engraved personal calling cards, then you can use something like "Dr. Bob Brown" Shouldn't that be "Bob Brown, PhD" on your calling card, then? – Azor Ahai May 3 '19 at 15:58
  • @AzorAhai Nope. It's a personal card. If it were a business card then, yes, it should show degree, not honorific. – Bob Brown May 3 '19 at 21:17
  • Huh, I've never heard of anyone having a personal "business card." – Azor Ahai May 3 '19 at 21:26
  • @AzorAhai A "calling card" is smaller than a business card, usually engraved, not printed, and has nothing but title, name, and post nominal honors if any. When you go visiting, you hand the card to the person who answers the door so that you can be announced properly. Really. In the 21st century, about the only use for a calling card is to enclose it in a wedding present. So, my business card says, "Bob Brown, Ph.D." and has a bunch of other blather on it, like the University logo, email, etc. My calling card, if any, says "Dr. Bob Brown." – Bob Brown May 4 '19 at 7:43
  • See also this – Bob Brown May 4 '19 at 7:43

Your question appears to indicate a general uneasiness with the use of degree titles, even in contexts where expert knowledge in that field is relevant. There may certainly be some contexts where use of the academic title of "Dr" constitutes "flaunting" your degree, and is pretentious. (If you're on a plane and someone has a heart-attack, and the flight attendants yell, "Is anyone here a doctor?" then I wouldn't recommend putting your hand up.) However, in academic and professional contexts where your skills and training are directly relevant to your authority in that field, it is not unreasonable to use the title that signifies your training. Few would regard this as "flaunting" your degree, and for those that do, it is likely to be based on a more general objection to titles in general.

It is worth noting that in an academic context, the title of "Dr" is not really that high an attainment, relative to other staff. (Titles of "Prof", etc., are generally more impressive.) As you point out, most academics have a doctoral degree, and that is gradually becoming the minimum expected training for an academic. Thus, you are totally correct when you say that this doesn't get you very far --- it is a baseline level for the vast majority of entry-level academics. If you use your title then that is fine, and if you don't use it, people will probably play the odds and assume that you probably have your doctorate.

Personally, I think it is legitimate to use your title in any academic or professional context (i.e., papers, grant applications, correspondence, email signatures, etc.). In such contexts, your education in your field is potentially relevant, and it is unlikely that anyone would hold your use of your academic title against you. Moreover, people do not expect you to have to change your email signature to remove titles in contexts that are less formal. When you have back-and-forth email conversations with people, your signature block will only appear in the first email, and after this you can use informal sign-offs, so it is unlikely you are going to look pretentious.

All senior people in my field have doctoral degrees, so it doesn't really signify anything.

Kinda. But then, by implication, the absence of a doctoral degree would be unusual, and would signify something potentially significant. Use of your title of "Dr" indicates that you have the academic training that is standard for that field. Possession of a doctoral degree might also be required for some tasks in your field (e.g., supervision of doctoral candidates) and so it is legitimate to signify that you have this degree.

...often when people use their title it seems like they do it to show they are an authority of sorts...

And that is illegitimate how? Possession of a doctoral degree in a field (or a medical degree for MDs) is a legitimate indicator of expert training in that field, and therefore valid information suggesting that one is indeed an authority in that field. Having a doctoral degree in your subject puts you at a level of knowledge that is far higher than the average person and so you are indeed an "authority of sorts". You needn't shy away from the fact that you are highly trained in your field, and neither does Dr Phil.

  • "your signature block will only appear in the first email" is very dependent on the email client you use and how you configure it. – Peter Taylor May 4 '19 at 5:50

UK perspective

You should always use the doctoral title, both in professional and social contexts, unless the degree is an honorary doctorate.

Even if you do not feel strongly about the importance of the doctoral title, your failure to use it encourages society at large to be less respectful of academics, which is very unhelpful, especially for female and/or ethnic-minority academics (there is published research on the fact that, even at academic conferences, women are less likely to be addressed by their proper title than men), and especially when it comes to getting society at large to take the findings of academic research seriously.

See also https://www.debretts.com/expertise/forms-of-address/professions/ (scroll to the bottom for a table showing that you address a person holding the doctorate as "Dr ___" in both formal and social contexts)

  • I suspect you're getting downvoted because that link and what you've written seems more relevant to how one uses others' doctoral titles, not how to use one's own. – Anyon May 3 '19 at 20:56

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