I know a businessman who has received a LOT of mileage off of using "Dr." and "Ph.D." with his name - in fact he puts it front and center. However, it turns out that he never had more than two years of undergraduate work. Is there any teeth behind either of these titles, or is it just a matter of how many you can deceive for how long?

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    Could you specify which countries you are interested in? In some countries, using a doctoral title without actually having it is a severe offense, while in others, that may be handled differently. Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 19:54
  • In his case, there were obviously "no teeth" behind the titles, and it was just a matter of deception. But this is not the case for most people with the title of Dr. So-and-so.
    – pjs36
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 20:17
  • Please provide more context to narrow down the question a bit and enable a single, objectively evaluable answer. What country? What field/discipline? Are you asking about legal aspects, social aspects, or something else? What research have you done?
    – D.W.
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 22:53
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    I am somewhat confused why this question has been closed. Is this really broader than many other questions we have here?
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jun 3, 2015 at 13:40
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5 Answers 5


I know a businessman who has received a LOT of mileage off of using "Dr" and "PhD" with his name

I don't know which country we are talking about, but at least in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland "Dr." is a protected title, and pretending you have one when you don't is a criminal offence. In Austria, for instance, this is part of federal law (see also the Bundesgesetzbuch). I would assume that PhD is also a protected title in the US and Great Britain.

However, note that this law explicitly only covers "pretending to have a doctoral degree", which leaves some wiggle room. For instance, there is an notorious Austrian bus company called "Dr. Richard", where the "Dr." are officially just the initials of the name of the owner (Dragan Richard).

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    It's not protected at all in the US to use Dr. or PhD. It would be a crime to practice medicine w/o a license which requires an MD, DO, DC, DDS, etc., and it would probably be fraud to represent yourself has having a PhD for a position that required it. But just going around calling yourself Dr. Big Shot is not a crime here as far as I know.
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 20:50
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    @BillBarth If he's using it to further his business, it might fall under false advertising. Though I have no idea what kind of enforcement or penalties there are or what it would take to fall under that.
    – Roger Fan
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 21:08
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    @RogerFan So far Dr Pepper hasn't been sued do to "false advertising", nor has Dr Seuss so I think you might be stretching it a bit. Commented Jun 3, 2015 at 5:04
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    @motiur Professor yes, postdoc no. "Professor" is a formal title, postdoc is just a job label.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jun 3, 2015 at 6:00
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    As an American, I don't even think the idea of a "protected title" exists in the US, at least not like it does in Germany. (Or if so, PhD is not protected.) Like Bill said, you can get in trouble for practicing medicine (or law) without proper qualifications, but it's the practice, not use of the title, that causes the problem. It's also illegal to impersonate a law enforcement officer, but there's nothing wrong with calling yourself "Officer X" or "Agent X" as long as you're clearly not passing yourself off as a representative of the FBI or local police or such. (disclaimer: IANAL)
    – David Z
    Commented Jun 3, 2015 at 6:23

In the United States, the appropriate response to such a fabrication is to call the person out and shame them publicly. Once this happens, it is often quite effective, as attested to by infamous cases such as Marilee Jones being forced out of MIT. The same goes for people claiming to have proper credentials based on a "diploma mill" degree.

This will not, of course, stop a person who has no shame, but it will at least make their life harder and make it difficult for them to maintain their lies with people who actually care about qualifications.

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    I've tried in vain to shame Doctor Feelgood, Doctor Love, Doctor Who, Doctor Detroit, Doctor J, Doc Severinsen, and Doctor Dre, but it didn't really work out very well. Doctor Science at least admits he's "not a real doctor", but I don't think the others have taken a real position here. Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 21:53
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    From reading that wiki link, it's not clear that that person has no shame. It very well could be that she just has a different grasp on reality than other people.
    – Kimball
    Commented Jun 3, 2015 at 0:14
  • @SteveSether How do you know the Doctor did not receive a doctorate on Gallifrey?
    – JAB
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 20:26

In Portugal, due to historical reasons, almost anyone that has some education can (high school degree suffices), and sometimes demands, be referred to as 'Doctor' (Dr.), although in Portugal as well, the title is legally protected today. So ultimately it depends on the cultural context and whether the person you refer to goes beyond putting the letters 'Dr.' in business cards, or actively lying about his/her qualifications.

In Portugal, up to recent times after the completion of an undergraduate degree – except in architecture and engineering – a person was referred to as doutor (Dr.) – male or doutora (Dra.) – female. […] Nowadays Portugal is a signatory to the Bologna process and according to the current legislation the title of Doctor (doutor, doutora) is reserved for graduate holders of an academic doctorate.

Source: Wikipedia

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    @jakebeal, Henning provided a reference. It turns out that my comment is a bit outdated as I was not aware of the new legislation. Sadly I could not find a better reference than this or this one (in Portuguese) to support the common (ab)use of the title in Portugal. It is a cultural thing and that was the main point I was trying to make in my answer. Commented Jun 8, 2015 at 15:00
  • @fridaymeetssunday Actually, it is in fact common in some places to use "Prof. Dr." instead of "Prof." Notably in Oporto, much less in Lisbon.
    – John B
    Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 17:28

In the US, I know that when you apply for a job and post your credentials, most basic background checks will at least ensure you graduated from said school with what degree you put on it. Lying about it, depending on what job, will probably result in you getting fired or potentially arrested depending on who you lied to.


It is also not uncommon to find mistranslations from spanish regarding the term 'Professor' (usually holding a PhD title), since the word for 'teacher' is the same in Spanish for both, altought the second does not generally require to be a doctor. The same happens with "Associate Professor" and "Full (time) Professor". Further, some medical practicioners are always regarded as doctor whether or not they have a Phd or even some sort of postgraduate or advanced studies. As long as the misinterpretations are not due to malign intentions, this does not suppose a matter to worry much about, but it is always a good idea to find out more about the context where the term is forged. Also be on the look for slight transliterations such as 'Doctorand' or 'PhDc' (PhD candidate) that people generally use when they are in the final stages of attaining the title, but not officially there yet, such as when right before submitting the dissertation or after doing so, while the academic authorities issue the title with the seals and all. But no, the title Ph.D. is not meaningless at all (neither all of the others) and it is generally respected worldwide. There is always of course some trouble with homologation across regions, universities, countries or supranational areas, which is one the the issues that the Bologna process is struggling to deal with across European member states. Some other treaties to be on the look for is the Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement of Legalisation for Foreign Public Documents, a.k.a. "the Apostille Convention", or the "Apostille Treaty".

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