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Why is it customary to call people with doctoral degrees doctors but not people with masters degrees masters? They are both graduate degrees that supersede the undergraduate degree.

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    Speculation: "Master" is sometimes used as a formal title of address for boys or young men, akin to "Mistress/Miss" for women or girls in that age range.. There are also bad associations with slavery. Either of those would make many of us uncomfortable with being addressed as Master in anything but a teaching or guild-like context. – keshlam May 7 '15 at 4:06
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    And why aren't people with bachelor's degrees called bachelors? ;) – Jim Conant May 7 '15 at 4:31
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    @keshlam "There are also bad associations with slavery." I think that's very location-dependent. I wouldn't say that the word evokes any strong connotations in England, for example (where slavery has been effectively illegal since the 1770s). – David Richerby May 7 '15 at 9:10
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    I don't know about you guys, but when I got my master's degree I asked everybody to call me master. – CaptainCodeman May 7 '15 at 13:02
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    Once you get your PhD every appointment you make is a doctor's appointment. – Adam Davis May 7 '15 at 13:59
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If you're talking about the use of doctor as a title, as in "Dr. Smith", I doubt there's any compelling explanation. Most degrees don't come with titles: nobody say Master Smith or Bachelor Smith or Associate Smith. Historically, magister (corresponding to the master's degree) was just as appropriate a Latin title as doctor was, but it simply isn't used in modern English. These titles are nearly gone, with just one remaining. It's probably no coincidence that the last remaining title is also the fanciest, but that's just speculation.

Even for the doctorate, the use of the term "doctor" has degenerated to the point where in English it can only be used as a title, and not as a general noun. If you say "my friend John Smith is a doctor", practically everyone will assume he's a medical doctor. You could only get away with the more general usage in the narrowest academic context, and even there it would be considered pretentious and archaic.

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    And at least amongst Americans pretty much the only people who I ever hear call me Dr. are headhunters and nervous students... – jakebeal May 7 '15 at 4:47
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    And to add to the confusion, the chaps we tend to call "Dons" at Oxford were once called "Students". – PatrickT May 8 '15 at 11:53
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    The academics of Christ Church Oxford are still known as "Official Students". Historically Oxford undergraduates would take umbrage at being referred to as "students"...they were "undergraduate members". – J. LS May 8 '15 at 17:11
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    Somehow the practice of almost exclusively calling physicians "doctor" and attributing significantly more respect to the learning involved than that required for a PhD strikes me as funny; in Germany, people get their MD in passing for a thesis that is sometimes restricted in exam regulations to about the effort you have to put in for a bachelor's degree in any other subject, and where they don't, it is only rarely significantly more involved than that. – G. Bach May 8 '15 at 17:48
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    See academia.stackexchange.com/a/9822/612 for discussion of how the term "doctor" came to mean "medical doctor". – Anonymous Mathematician May 8 '15 at 17:54
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In some countries the custom is different.

In the Czech Republic, Europe, where I come from, it still is generally customary to call masters masters. The title is different (magister, ingenieur*, or doctor**) but is more or less equivalent to the American master. And yes, it makes it easier to study for the sole purpose of being called names titles.

In neigbouring Germany, however, only doctors with degree equivalent to PhD. are titled by degree.


*) Not to be confused with engineer, the ingenieur degree means roughly master of engineering.

**) To add to the confusion, doctor degree can mean various degrees of a degree, not all of them being equal to PhD.

Update for clarification

Magister, ingenieur, and doctor are called magistr, inženýr and doktor, respectively, in Czech. The names come from Latin which is still used widely in Czech academia (where applicable). The respective abbreviations are Mgr, Ing and Dr. Thank you, Emil Jeřábek, for bringing this up.

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    ... and to make it even more complicated, the Austrians, although they speak German as well, actually sometimes still do call people "Herr Magister", which would indeed - as you say - be a ridiculous form of addressing someone in Germany. – damian May 7 '15 at 9:52
  • Umm, why are the purportedly Czech titles translated to half-German, half-Latin in the answer? – Emil Jeřábek May 7 '15 at 13:14
  • @EmilJeřábek: Good point! They are Latin and French (ingenieur), because that are languages these degreees originally come from. Latin is still used widely in Czech academia, where applicable. The respective abbreviations are Mgr, Ing and Dr. I'll update the answer to be clear in this aspect. – Pavel May 7 '15 at 13:19
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    In Germany, there is the title of "Meister" (literal translation of "Master"). However, this is a title awarded to craftspeople, not academics. For example, someone might be awarded the title "Tischlermeister" (Master of Carpentry). There used to be a time where people with a craft-related Meister title were called "Meister Surname", but nowadays this is quite archaic. – Philipp May 7 '15 at 20:27
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    and in Germany you can be called Doctor Doctor, if you are twice a doctor naturally. – PatrickT May 8 '15 at 11:54
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The situation in Austria is similar to what Pavel Petrman describes. We do like our titles a lot.

Although nowadays almost all studies follow the Bachelor/Master system, as an engineering/science graduate one is still allowed to use the traditional title "Diplomingineur", usually abbreviated as "Dipl-Ing", instead of a title indicating the Master's degree. This is done mostly because it has a very high reputation in Austria and other German speaking countries. So once I graduate, I will be allowed to either call myself "mort, MSc" or "Dipl-Ing mort". However, calling myself "Dipl-Ing mort, MSc", which is sort of a wet dream for every title lover, is not allowed (but you do see it sometimes).

The equivalent for non-engineering/science studies was the title "Magister". However, graduates of those studies are only allowed to use their Master's degree (typically a Master of Arts degree), as was the original intention when switching to the Bachelor/Master system.

In regard to titles, Austria has a lot more anachronisms. For example, the title "Hofrat" is still in use, it usually comes with a high-ranking government job (it's not an academic degree). The title comes from the good old times when Austria was an Empire: "Rat"¹ means advisor, "Hof" designates the imperial court, so Hofrat literally means "advisor of the imperial court". Although Austria is a Republic for 70 years now, the title is still in use.

So think that's a bit crazy? Well. You can also combine academic and other titles. So a high-ranking government official might feel that he should only be addressed as "Herr Hofrat Dr. Huber". His wife, although not having earned any titles herself, might call herself "Frau Hofrat Huber".

Like I said, we do like our titles.

¹ Pronounced on the "a", not like the English "rat".

8

Historically, in the US, titles are not emphasized. Part of this has to do with the history of the US rejecting royal authority (ie, knighthood and family/land titles). Another aspect, though, is that academia is already considered pretentious to some degree, and requesting others address you according to your educational title in all social situations won't endear you to others, instead it sets up an unequal relationship.

Today, however, so many people have bachelors (30% of the US) and even masters degrees that it makes little sense to call out your achievement, when so many others around you have attained the same degree. PhDs are still relatively rare.

Lastly, note that it's largely within academia that the title is used on a regular basis - where even more people have bachelors and masters degrees. Usually one addresses their teacher with a title in many cultures (先生 in Japan, for instance). In the US, it's "professor" or "doctor", and usually professor is preferred.

The reality, though, is that other than medical doctors and outside academia, few PhDs that I'm aware of want or expect others to use their title. Demanding someone use a title when they address you is often seen as arrogance.

  • +1 for the rejecting royal authority. In medieval Europe, universities were often run by church and one had to be christened, for example, to be accepted for university in such case. I find the connection between the two rejections (church and nobility) interesting - in many cases can the pronounced titles in some European countries be as empty as the In God We Trust on every single Dollar bill... – Pavel May 7 '15 at 14:53
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    teachers in Japan are addressed with sensei 先生, not senpai. – user454322 May 8 '15 at 8:03
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This question sounds like you can go around calling people doctor [name] outside an academic environment. I don't think that's true in English-speaking countries. When I got engaged to my wife (US born and raised), her mother was so excited that she was going to marry someone with a PhD that she started introducing me to the extended family as my future son-in law, Dr. Koldito. Literally everybody who heard her introducing me like that thought she meant I was a medical doctor.

So, I don't think there is anything weird in not being able to call people master [name]. You just can't use academic titles outside academia.

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    Hmm, I've worked with many people in a business setting who were addressed or referred to as Doctor so-and-so because they had a PhD. Maybe it just depends on the environment. – Jay May 7 '15 at 18:42
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Technically the proper term of respect for an individual with a master's degree is "Mister". I think this usage is similar to that in the Royal Navy, where a ship's master would normally be referred to as mister, as in "Mr. Brown". Common usage has long ago eroded any significance that the title may once have had.

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