If I use the word "Doctor" amongst laypeople, they will think I actually work as a doctor, treating people or advancing medicinal research on a daily basis.

If I use the word "Mathematician", they will think I work at a university where I spend some of my time lecturing students and some of my time doing research into complicated math problems.

If I use the word "Scientist", they will think I work in some laboratory where I am pivotal in the advancement of some cutting-edge research that will make the world a better place.

However, one can denote oneself using above terms by merely graduating and/or acquiring a PhD, even if one then left the field entirely, either out of choice or due to a failure to succeed.

My question is thus, is it wrong to call oneself a Doctor/Mathematician/Scientist if one is actually not working as one such, but merely acquired the appropiate degrees? Since clearly one is knowingly deceiving others*? If this question is too opinionated, I shall then ask: how many academics do actually use their degrees and doctorates to label themselves even if they actually are not working in those fields?

*To provide an example of such deceit, I had thought for a long time that Sam Harris, who writes many pieces on political, religious and scientific affairs, actually was a neuroscientist, as he claims. That sounded massively impressive to me the first time I heard it, and added much merit to anything he had to say about science. I recently however found out that all he has done as a "neuroscientist" is get a PhD in it, and his thesis has been heavily criticized.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Oct 15 '17 at 16:16

It's not the individual word that matters. Calling oneself a scientist is not unethical, no more than it is unethical to call oneself a musician without being in the Top100 charts. What is unethical is deliberately representing yourself in a way that causes people to assign you an authority that you do not have.

This is an incredibly gray area because it is entirely dependent on context. As an example, answering "I'm a doctor" to the question "so, what do you do?" would be misrepresenting yourself if you are in fact a mathematics PhD who now works in insurance. However, answering "I'm a doctor" to the question "how well-educated are you?" is perfectly reasonable.

The difference in understanding of a topic between someone who left a field a few years ago and someone who is currently still researching in it is probably not too huge, when it comes to science popularisation efforts. I'd also take issue with your characterization of "just" a PhD - PhDs are the frontline researchers of science, the further along you get in your career the less time you have to actually put your hands on the science. Professor is mostly a management job.

That said, you shouldn't be so impressed with someone that you defer uncritically to their opinion based on just a title. Every field has its marginal cranks, even actively currently practicing ones.

  • 20
    +1. though answering "how well educated are you" type questions with a doctors would be unnatural phrasing (not unethical just unnatural), something like "I have a doctorate" or "I have a PhD" would be more natural I think. – Lyndon White Oct 13 '17 at 7:51
  • 3
    I have a hard time coming up with a question to which a natural answer would be "I am a doctor" actually. – Tobias Kildetoft Oct 13 '17 at 8:31
  • 1
    Maybe one of the other examples in the post? "I'm a mathematician" could be the answer to... "how do you know that 2+2=4?", I guess? – nengel Oct 13 '17 at 8:34
  • 6
    I'd argue that "I'm a doctor" is a misleading thing to say unless you're either (a) a medical doctor or (b) discussing the title that should be used to refer to you. In all other situations that I can think of, "I have a PhD/doctorate" is the thing to say, and that works even in case (b). – David Richerby Oct 13 '17 at 17:18
  • 5
    "Professor is mostly a management job." - perhaps where you're from, but not at all universities. – OrangeDog Oct 14 '17 at 8:39

A doctorate or PhD is a degree you have obtained. If you have obtained this degree, it is never incorrect to refer to yourself as dr. X, or X, PhD. However, in normal conversation, one would usually say "I have a doctorate", rather than "I am a doctor". This is because "doctor" is also used to indicate a profession.

Mathematician and scientist are, on the other hand, professions. If you work in retail, you are neither, even if you happen to have a PhD in mathematics. You could, however, say that you are trained as a mathematician. Compare this to how having a teaching licence does not make you a teacher.

As for the ethical considerations, it will mostly depend on the context and the intent with which the words are used. Similarly to nengel I would consider it unethical if you use these terms to deliberately misrepresent yourself.

  • 12
    I would add to that neither "mathematician" nor "scientist" implies you work at a university or have a PhD (see OP's second line). – Kimball Oct 13 '17 at 13:43
  • 25
    If you work in retail, you are neither, even if you happen to have a PhD in mathematics — I strongly disagree! Someone who works in retail Monday through Friday but does mathematics for fun on the weekends is a mathematician, just as someone who gardens on the weekend for fun is a gardener. Even if they don't have a PhD in gardening. – JeffE Oct 13 '17 at 15:19
  • 13
    @JeffE, at best you would be an amateur mathematician, or a hobbyist. I've never heard someone who enjoys working in their garden refer to themselves as a gardener, only as someone who enjoys gardening. – Jordi Vermeulen Oct 13 '17 at 16:06
  • 7
    @JordiVermeulen People are described as being "a keen gardener" all the time: it means their hobby is gardening and they're enthusiastic about it, and isn't taken as an implication that they're a professional gardener. – David Richerby Oct 13 '17 at 17:19
  • 11
    @JordiVermeulen, Fermat was a lawyer by profession, and worked on mathematics in his free time, would you say he was not a mathematician? – Akavall Oct 13 '17 at 23:16

First point, check the Laws

They obviously vary in each country, i.e. in mine you cannot legally use the title of Engineer if you have not passed the related Bar exam. You can call yourself a Master Laureate in engineering or Laureate in engineering (the latter if you have "only" a bachelor degree) but, except obviously for the conversational situation, it is an offense to claim you are an engineer if you haven`t passed the Bar exams. The same goes for the title of Lawyer.

De facto this distinction applies only when using title in formal settings, but it is worth to know it.

Only real danger is confusion with Medical Doctors

This is probably the only real-life situation where a real problem may arise: if you are in a confined situation (i.e. small cruise ship) and by misunderstanding on the title of "doctor" officials are led to believe you are a medical doctor (and thus a very useful person in an emergency) when you are not other people may end up in danger because of this.

"Hey, passenger in 36C fall unconscious!" "No worries, I`ll get the doctor in 42B" "Me? CPR? Wait a sec, I have a phd in math.." :)


Did you bring interesting and notable contribution to your field thru systematic research? If yes, no matter if BA of PHD, then you are a scientist!

  • 6
    The concern that a PhD would be confused with an MD tends to be greatly exaggerated. – anonymous Oct 13 '17 at 13:44
  • 2
    Really depends on languages - In Italy "Dottore", at least in spoken language, is historically associated with a MD in common speech, if someone tells you he is a "Dottore" 99% of the people will assume he is a MD. – Caterpillaraoz Oct 13 '17 at 13:47
  • 2
    True, but I'm also talking in the context of the situation itself coming up. Passenger manifests usually don't include titles and nothing says that an MD is going to use the title (or be licensed to practice for that matter...) so they aren't a reliable way of finding someone with a medical background. Plus, generally you want to stabilize the patient so you can transport then to a facility for greater care so anyone with up to date medical experience (e.g., EMT, RN, MD, etc.) may be helpful in the situation. – anonymous Oct 13 '17 at 13:55
  • 5
    I always choose "Ms" or "Her Royal Highness" on booking forms that insist on titles. – JeffE Oct 13 '17 at 15:20
  • 1
    @Caterpillaraoz What's even worse, in Italy Dottore is the standard title for someone with a bachelor's degree (laurea)... – Denis Nardin Oct 15 '17 at 8:34

From a talk by Crystal Bailey, who is the "Career Programs Manager" for one of America's major scientific societies:

Who is a Physicist?

Anyone with a Physics degree: BS, BA, MS, PhD, etc.


  • Definition is consistent with other disciplines (e.g. Chemistry)
  • Defines a common set of experiences (and texts)
  • Inclusive view is better for survival of discipline

What makes them Physicists?

Share experiences create familiarity—not only with the same Physics concepts, but also with the culture of the discipline.

However, most importantly, even a basic Physics training imparts essential problem solving skills—“how to think”—which is the hallmark of a physicist.

Where do Physicists Work?

Not where you think! ... [Only about] 14% of Physics Degree holders will actually become Physics PhDs—and by extension "traditional physicists."

  • 4
    I've never agreed with this, even though it does seem to be the official position of e.g. the APS. I'd imagine they have an interest in promoting as inclusive a definition of "physicist" as possible. – David Z Oct 15 '17 at 2:22

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.