Is There a Doctor in the House?

By Mariana Grohowski | Published

Journalistic writing uses “doctor (Dr.)” for medical doctors only, which frustrates some doctoral degree earners. We have an Unscripted solution.

In an era where the validity of science is questioned and the gap between research and public science literacy widens, a lack of respect—or at least acknowledgement—of people's hard-earned titles can be grating.

That’s why debate persists over whether journalists should use the title doctor for folks with PhDs. As the copyeditor for University Marketing and Communications, I'm weighing in on the editorial styles our department is held accountable for.

PhD means more than piled higher and deeper

Michigan Tech news writers know that our faculty and researchers work hard to earn their PhDs and the coveted title of doctor. But we also know that “the bible of newswriting," the Associated Press (AP) Style Guide, does not (typically) use the title doctor for people with PhDs. The Michigan Tech editorial guide follows AP style and asks writers not to use Dr. when referring to Michigan Tech professors. Because of this rule, we’ve received emails asking us why. The answer is more complicated than one might think.

C-SPAN, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and physicians, insist that a doctor is exclusively one who practices medicine, dentistry, optometry, osteopathy and veterinary science. 

The authorities say because of the general understanding that doctor means a medical professional, using doctor in reference to those who do not practice medicine would be confusing or misleading. Essentially, this rule assumes that people aren’t smart enough to differentiate medical professionals from subject matter experts and that a title alone means you can trust one opinion over another.

On the other hand, the AP procedure about using doctor when the individual holds a PhD is not as straightforward as the aforementioned policies. But before we jump into that murky water, here are some reasons to both use and not use Dr. to refer to those with PhDs. 

Reasons to use Dr. for PhD holders: 

  • To garner respect from colleagues and students
  • To signify the individual has authority (or ethos) over a certain subject
  • To acknowledge (and respect) title holders’ hard work and expertise
  • To illustrate the diversity of PhD holders, which is especially important for women and minorities 

Reasons not to use Dr. for PhD holders: 

  • So as not to mislead or confuse vulnerable individuals seeking advice
  • To avoid
    • appearing snobby
    • aloofness
    • exerting authority
  • This doesn’t matter much outside academia

Writing style rule change!

Have you ever played a game where the rules suddenly change during gameplay? This is kind of what the rule on using the title Dr. is like when it comes to the style guides of The Chicago Manual of Style (COMS), AP and The New York Times (the latter of which relies on AP style). You’d think they’d have it all figured out, with a strict, no-nonsense policy for title use. In reality, these style guides' rules depend on context, require a writer's careful judgment and do not safeguard against potential audience backlash.

According to these style guides, it would be correct to publish the sentence "Dr. Sarah Yang pursues research in civil engineering at SUNY Polytechnic Institute." But just because it is stylistically okay, doesn't mean it is culturally fit to print. In fact, printing the sentence could stir a debate mediated by a judge, which has happened in Arizona, Delaware, Florida and New York. 

Physicians in Arizona, Delaware, Florida and New York tried making it illegal for individuals with doctorates to use the title doctor. Their actions were a direct response to individuals with doctorates in nursing introducing themselves as doctor to patients. Gardiner Harris reports that physicians' legal actions were sought to protect potentially vulnerable individuals from malpractice. 

Everyone’s a critic—is it just semantics?  

Being called doctor is also troubling in the university setting. Just ask Chronicle writer Stacy Patton who covers the debate: "Little seems to inspire as much passion among academics as the question of titles," she writes.

As she explains, while some doctorate holders see the title as a failsafe for garnering respect from students and colleagues, others consider it a graceless method of asserting an otherwise ignored or devalued status. Going further she writes, "The debate over whether or not to use the title is an insular one that matters most only to people within higher education. To outsiders it can look petty or snobby, at worst, and irrelevant and silly, at best." For proof of people’s impassioned feelings on the topic just look to the digital publication of her article, which spawned over 200 comments­ in favor and dismissal of academics’ use of the title.

While the writers at Michigan Tech news do not consider the use of the title doctor to be a gauche practice, we do acknowledge that not all doctorate holders want to be called doctor. Some find the title off-putting or feel it unnecessarily reinforces an inherent hierarchy between individuals. This prompts many professors to insist that their students not call them Dr.; this is more common between professors and graduate students, whose relationships can evolve from teacher-student to collegial over time. 

In short, using the doctor title is complicated. Perhaps overly convoluted, but a byzantine maze that writers have to navigate nonetheless.

We news writers at Michigan Tech have refrained from using it in our news stories because of our desire to play by The AP Style Guide’s guidelines. In news stories and marketing pieces, we advise using the title with caution—we certainly will, given the ongoing impassioned debate.

But in the future, in our Unscripted stories, you may see authors using the title. You see, the rules for Unscripted are more flexible. Unscripted is our sandbox where we consider change to be a good thing and are willing to bend the rules if it helps us communicate research better.

Tell us what you think—follow us on @mturesearch on Twitter and let us know your thoughts on the editorial style debates over PhDs in AP, COMS and the pages of news media and grammar blogs.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.