I’ve frequently heard people claim that individuals who hold PhDs are not “real” doctors. These people assert that only physicians can rightfully claim this title, and that it’s inappropriate for PhD-holders to use this term.
For some reason, many also think that the MD is much more difficult to attain than a PhD for example in computer science.

So - should Ph.D.s Be Referred To As ‘Doctor?

Ps: currently i am a PhD student and don't know why the question is being devoted!

  • 25
    The answer is "Yes".
    – Michael
    Commented Mar 27, 2017 at 15:07
  • 1
    Yes they can legitimately claim that, just not that they are medical doctors (or doctors in any other field they are no doctor in).
    – skymningen
    Commented Mar 27, 2017 at 15:07
  • 2
    The people I know who say this (of themselves) are usually being somewhat sarcastic and say this as a form of irony. Commented Mar 27, 2017 at 16:30
  • 2
    This is possibly country dependent, but for Germany this is utterly wrong: "many also think that the MD is much more difficult to attain than a PhD" - Medical doctors get the equivalent of a "paper doctorate" thrown after them so they can be called "doctor" as part of their degree, while "real doctors" have to start a doctorate and carry out rigorous research to obtain the degree/academic title. Now other countries may handle this very differently and there this statement may or may not be true.
    – DetlevCM
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 6:45
  • 3
    One of my former colleagues long ago told me: "The only time I call myself Dr Friedman is when I make a reservation at a restaurant."
    – GEdgar
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 14:28

7 Answers 7


In the modern USA the title of doctor is valid for both medical doctors and holders of PhDs in the US, but particular customs may vary by institution. The general rule of thumb for etiquette is to refer to someone however they wish to be referred to. If you have a PhD that insists they be referred to as doctor it would be very impolite to not do so. Likewise if you have an MD who insists that you do not use their title it would be similarly impolite.

In situations where it is important to avoid confusion it is common to spell it out explicitly. Rather than using the honorific use the explicit degree, for example it is very common for email signatures to look like:

John Doe, Ph.D. in Computer Science

instead of

Dr. John Doe

Similarly, an MD would tend to say:

Jane Doe, MD, Cardiologist

or even

Jane Doe, MD, Ph.D., Cardiology

I suspect that your question has another component, which is essentially whether or not it is "fair" for a Ph.D. holder to refer to themselves as doctor. This requires an assumption that the MD is more challenging to attain than a Ph.D., and that calling oneself a doctor is somehow illegitimately taking the status of a medical doctor. Let me just say that the people who have earned these degrees are generally less concerned about this than those who have not, and that the title someone puts after their name doesn't tell you very much about their individual ability, dedication, or experience.


One of the original meanings for the word "doctor" is teacher or scholar. It literally is derived from the Latin verb docēre which means to teach. As such, a medical doctor is literally a teacher or scholar of medicine. A Computer Science doctor is a teacher or scholar of computer science. The title "Dr" is just a recognition of level of knowledge that a person has obtained in a giving field through recognized academic challenges.


In France the situation is somewhat complex. The overall answer is "yes". But hear me out.

Let me first spell out the theory. It is important to make the distinction between the diploma, the degree, and the title.

  • At the end of a "doctorat" (PhD), you are awarded a PhD diploma, which confers you the university degree of doctor. For this you must write a research thesis. This is the fourth and highest university degree. (The other three degrees are, in order, baccalauréat = high school degree, licence = bachelor, and master, none of which grant a title).
  • At the end of studies of medicine, you are awarded a State diploma of "doctor of medicine" (MD). However, this diploma does not confer the university degree of doctor. To obtain the diploma, you must write a "practice thesis" (thèse d'exercice), which is not at all like a PhD thesis (no requirement of originality, lasts a much smaller time – writing a bibliographical survey is sufficient to obtain it for example). This means that someone who "only" has a diploma of doctor must do an actual PhD in medicine before teaching in university, or doing medical research, and write an actual research thesis. (Hence some people are "double doctors", a title I just made up.)

On a PhD diploma it is explicitly written "The national diploma of doctor is awarded to XXX and confers the degree of doctor, to enjoy the associated rights and prerogatives". The part in italics is not written on diplomas for medical doctors.

Both diplomas give you the title of "doctor". By law, only these diplomas give you the right of using this title. So yes, certainly, a PhD holder has the right to be called "docteur". MD too. But no one else.

In fact, there is a famous story here. Someone got a "chargé de recherche" ("scientist") position at CNRS. This is somewhat prestigious in French academia, and very competitive. It is essentially a rank of "research-only associate professor". Then he wrote an article in a magazine, signing his name "Docteur XXX". A regional journal called him out on him, saying he was not a real doctor, but only a "mere scientist" (an inane statement once you know that a PhD is required to get this "scientist" position*). This eventually went to the approximate equivalent of the Supreme Court (Cour de cassation), and the regional journal was condemned for defamation of character in 2009. You can read more about it here (in French). In 2013, the law was changed to explicitly state that PhD holders have the right to call themselves and be called "doctor" in professional settings.

So unless you want to get sued and lose (and we don't do plea deals here), you better call PhD holders "doctor" if they ask for it in France.

Now there is the practice. As you know, in theory, practice and theory are the same, but in practice, they differ :)

In ordinary situations, only medical doctors are called "docteur". It is extremely rare for PhD holders to actually use the title, and then, only in writing (usually in very formal documents). I cannot recall ever hearing someone call a PhD holder "docteur", while I have heard it numerous times for medical doctors. I have a PhD since a few months ago, and only foreigners have called me "doctor". On doors, on faculty directories, on websites... nobody ever write "Dr X". It just doesn't happen.

So it is extremely unlikely that someone would insist that you call them "docteur" if they are not a medical doctor. (In fact even for a medical doctor it would be in bad taste for them to ask... anyway.) But if they do ask, you should oblige.

* Honesty makes me want to amend this a little. The French name for the position, "chargé de recherches", literally means "someone who has been tasked with research". It sounds a bit bad, because it makes it sound like the person in question is a mere subordinate who does as they are told and nothing else. As I said, it's actually a permanent, research-only position, and a very competitive one at that. It's the same kind of deal as "assistant professor", who are not the assistant of anyone nowadays but still have this somewhat bad-sounding title. (In the private sector, someone with the level of responsibility of an assistant professor would certainly have a grandiose title like "Team manager"... but I digress.)

  • Very informative and quite different from the US. And congratulations on your new degree. Here you would likely be called "Doc" by your students.
    – Buffy
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 12:11
  • @Buffy Thanks! (To be fair I've had it since November but I'm still happy about it :) ). The students just call me "Sir". On the other hand, the use of "professor" is much more relaxed, and I was sometimes called the "exercise session professor" when I was basically a TA, and should have been called "chargé de TD" = "someone tasked with exercise sessions"... Even though the actual title of "professor" is theoretically reserved for full professors.
    – user9646
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 12:13

For Germany the situation should be as follows, IANAL.

If you have your PhD degree from any university as listed in the Carnegie list (find the list here: https://carnegieclassifications.iu.edu/), then generally you can use the Dr. prefix instead of the PhD abbreviation.

(See FAQ item #18 here: https://www.berlin.de/sen/wissenschaft/studium/abschluesse-und-titelfuehrung/haeufige-fragen/)

This should generalize in my opinion to the whole country.


I would like to refer to a dictionary to answer https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/doctor

The word doctor (in English) can refer to

  1. A physician; a member of the medical profession; one who is trained and licensed to heal the sick or injured. The final examination and qualification may award a doctor degree in which case the post-nominal letters are D.O., DPM, M.D., DMD, DDS, DPT, DC, Pharm.D., in the US or MBBS in the UK. quotations ▼ If you still feel unwell tomorrow, see your doctor.
  2. A person who has attained a doctorate, such as a Ph.D. or Th.D. or one of many other terminal degrees conferred by a college or university.

Outside of academic circles, the former is the commonly used definition, so without context, "doctor" will be understood as "physician". And thus a PhD who isn't a physician appears to be a "doctor (PhD) who isn't a doctor (physician)" and this contradiction is commonly refered to as "not a real doctor" or "not that kind of doctor".

So I would say referring to a PhD as doctor is technically correct (and might be unambiguous with some context as in "doctor in computer science") but without context you do risk being misunderstood.

For languages other than English I don't have a good overview, but the same overload of meanings occurs e.g. in German ("Herr Doktor" is probably a male physician) while in Italian it is common to refer to your self as "dottore" after the master already (and then afaik the upper case / lower case spelling disambiguates the master from the PhD).


I've encountered this argument before. Remember, It's not as if the term 'doctor' is protected. Two cases in point:

  1. A two year law degree is called a 'juris doctor'. Newly minted JDs will be quick to remind you that they, too, are doctors.
  2. In parts of the U.K., calling a surgeon a 'doctor' is an insult, as historically the surgeons were barbers (who'd 'doctor you up'), because barbers had the sharp tools necessary for surgery. Many U.K. Surgeons go by 'Mr.'

My advice - relying on titles is pointless. Use your intellectual prowess to impress.

If all else fails, insist you go by 'Professor'....or if in or from Germany, 'Professor Doktor'.

  • 7
    All PhDs are Doctors (specifically, of Philosophy). Not all PhDs are Professors.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Mar 28, 2017 at 22:26
  • 4
    Actually in some parts of the world the term doctor is protected. Germany is famous for it -- even people with PhDs from outside Germanu can't just call themselves Dr. Related to that a juris doctor is normally a post-graduate degree, but they don't call themselves doctors based on historical laws that once forbid lawyers from advertising (and so claiming to be a doctor was consider to promotional). Surgeons as I understand it normally complete medical school and become Dr, then when they complete there further training at a surgical college, they become Mister Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 7:11
  • @LyndonWhite Yes, but only in the UK. Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 17:47
  • @LyndonWhite if the university is on the Carnegie list, you can call yourself Dr. in Germany with a Ph. D. from a US university.
    – stephanmg
    Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 14:31

Only Ph.D holders must be referred to as doctors. Physicians have only bachelors degrees, although the medical degree was divided into two stages in the U.S universities, still, Physicians only have bachelors degree. Doctors are researchers who have finished their dissertations and became scholars in their fields. Physicians don’t write a dissertation and all what they do is to “treat” people from illness, not to “teach” students in universities. Note: The word “Doctor” is a latin word that means “I teach”, and it has nothing to do with treatment or medicine.

  • 2
    That is country specific - in the European programs I'm familiar with, the physicians' degree is at least Master equivalent (not bachelor) and it is hard to find physicians who don't stay a little longer to write a dissertation and earn the "Dr. med".
    – pseyfert
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 6:32

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