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It's OK to Think a PhD Calling Themselves Doctor in Corporate America is Weird...

Last Friday, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion article regarding incoming First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, and her use the pre-nominal “Dr.” when she has a doctorate in education, Ed.D, versus a medical doctorate, Ph.D.  The article shared the belief that medical doctors are the real doctors, and broad use of the title "Dr." if you're not looking at my broken toe or an ear problem is inappropriate.

First up, there is no doubt that Jill Biden did the work and received the degree, from a real, actual university. The-Doctor-is-In-

But the reaction was swift! Warriors were mobilized! Part of the world lost their mind that someone would challenge Jill Biden's desire to be addressed as "Dr. Biden".

I'm here to tell you that regardless of that article's tone and spin in the WSJ,  you can think someone with a PhD who wants to be called "Dr." is absurd. It doesn't make you a misogynist, as long as you're consistent across gender and Jill Biden isn't the first time you've laughed at the use of the title, "Dr."

I think most PhDs (and Ed.Ds) who want to be called "Dr." outside of the academic world are being short-sighted as best, and narcissistic at worst.

Let's dig in:

1--If you have a PhD and you're in the academic world and the norm in that world is for people to call you doctor, go to town. I'm not in that world and don't understand it. My son is a research assistant for some PhD candidates this year and he thinks they deserve to call themselves "Dr." in academia if they achieve the PhD. Cool.

2--Once you leave academia, my opinion is that you should demand to be called "Dr." in corporate America at your own peril and it's only occasionally situationally appropriate. PhD in cellular biology and you work at Pfizer? Dr. sounds right. PhD in Labor Relations and you're an HR pro supporting Sales and Marketing and you want to be called Dr.?  Cue the snickering. PhD in English and you're in a corporate comms job?  Less snickering than the HR person, but snickering around you nonetheless.

3--If you know someone from the questionable category that wants to be called Doctor, you know the level of narcissism by whether the following things happen:

--They share a bio that includes "Dr. <insert name> in 48 font letters at the top of the page and continues to refer to them as "Dr. Dunn" throughout the rest of the bio. LinkedIn as well for this measurement.

--They have an email signature that shows their name as "Dr. Kris Dunn" at the top of said signature.  Woof.  That's a lot.

--When you're in a meeting with them, the need for them to be called Doctor has been mobilized in your company to the point where people below them in the org structure called them, "Dr. Dunn" out of respect and in an effort not to make some imaginary shit list.

4--This really comes down to formality vs approachability in corporate America. If you're set on being called doctor and send a bunch of smoke signals out related to what you expect inside a company, you just need to know that you're missing how normal people think. Will 10% of the high rules people love the fact that you're all schooled up? Yes. Will another 10% openly mock you behind your back?  Yes. The 80% in the middle probably view you as less than approachable until they have a reason to believe otherwise. Is that the type of culture you're tying to build? That's the real issue.

The power move here is obvious. Make sure that people know how credentialed you are and the fact that you could go by "Dr.", but don't.  

Jill Biden can request to be called "Dr." and it's fine. But like the male HR person sending an email signature with Dr. before his name, she'll be judged on whether it feels absurd or not based on the circumstances, which is a personal decision by the receiver of that communication/request that cancel culture can't touch.

By the way, lawyers don't call themselves "Dr." (juris doctor, yo) but should stop with the "Esquire" shenanigans in email signatures.

And yes, get off my lawn.  KD out.


Kim Stiens

I generally agree, with the caveat that email signatures are a very normal place to include qualifications. I don't know many PHRs that don't have the credential in their email signature. I think its weird to demand to be called Dr in day to day, but that seems like a totally reasonable place to note the credential.

Kris Dunn

Hi Kim -

I've gotten a lot of emails about this one. One thing I've learned is that people who hold advanced degrees tend to you the letters behind the name much more than thinking they should be called doctor. Like you, I feel this is more than reasonable. Post is only for those who want to be called "Dr." in front of the name. Thanks for the comment..


spider solitaire

Thank you for sharing such informative post.

Greg Chartier

I have a Doctorate in Human Resources, have an HR consulting practice and work in Academia. My students call me Doctor C (my last name starts with a C). However, it is clear to me that prospects and clients feel that my doctorate makes me more qualified and acceptable as a consultant. There is a certain caveat to the title, beyond the effort and time (8 years for me) to obtain the PhD and most people recognize your efforts. You don't have to call me doctor but that doesn't change the fact that I have one and it give me credibility.

Dr. Greg Chartier

Matthew Caudill

I get where you’re coming from, and personally I hate calling anyone Doctor because it seems ostentatious, but the controversy surrounding Dr. Jill Biden’s title of doctor—the impetus for this article—is more far-reaching and insidious than a simple title of address. It was a clear political attack meant to discredit her abilities both as the first lady of a contested democratic nominee and, more importantly, as a woman. Don’t think gender had an impact? A 2018 study published in the Journal of Women’s Health found that men only addressed female colleagues by their title 46% of the time, as opposed to over 70% of the time with men. Our society has a problem with women in positions of power, always has.

Moreover, there’s nothing about a medical doctor that makes their achievements any less valuable to society than a Doctor of Education, Engineering, or Philosophy. The distinction is arbitrary and shown here to be weaponized against women and minorities. Let’s not forget that the Latin word for doctor literally means teacher, so Dr. Jill Biden is a doctor in the truest sense, medical doctors be damned.

While it’s true that “the male HR person sending an email signature with Dr. before his name [will be] judged on whether it feels absurd or not”, he probably won’t be called out on it publicly because he’s male. Women don’t have the luxury of making the “power move” you mentioned of concealing their doctorate, because they’re already assumed to be inferior. If she doesn’t use her title, people will just assume she doesn’t have it. That’s the sad truth of our chauvinistic culture.

As of the inauguration, she will be teaching courses at a college where it is conventional to address the professors by their title even under your qualifications, so it’s a moot point either way. Bottom line, this article was in poor taste and timing. In a vacuum it might make sense, but in our current cultural context it comes off insensitive and reeks of privilege.

David Philip Austen

If people really want to know why medical practitioners are called "Doctor," and why Dr. Jill Biden is properly so addressed, they should follow this link.


This article has a lot of unprovoked disdain from the author who is is most likely some mid-level SHRM certificate holder with a chip-on-the shoulder mentality because their proceedure update they just submitted to their PHD supervisor just came back with more revisions than expected. Not to mention this author probably has aspirations of pursuing their owndoctorate but is disgruntled with the bourgeoisie ownership that doesn't provide full tuition reimbursement.

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