When is a Dr not a Dr?

Professor Dorothy Bishop considers academic titles, and sexism.

Anyone who has a PhD will remember that first moment when someone addresses you as Dr. Although you have spent years of your life earning that doctorate, it comes as an initial shock. After a while, though, it becomes not only familiar but expected. Indeed, you may feel demoted if somebody refers to you as Ms or Mr. For many academics, the next moment of joyous transition is when you make it to the pinnacle of being called Professor.

Last year, Dr Tom Hartley of the University of York carried out a fascinating little survey of modes of academic address in e-mail. This was initially stimulated by a discussion on Twitter about whether it was appropriate for a potential PhD applicant to start an email to a UK Professor with "Hey Rebecca!" The general view was that it was not. Though I have to say it is better than "Esteemed Madam Mrs Professor Dorothy", which was how one recent email started. It is easy to laugh at these things, but the sad part is that the sender clearly has nobody to tell them about appropriate modes of address.

However, Tom's survey turned up another intriguing fact of which I had been unaware, concerning UK vs US differences. It turns out that in the UK, once you are a Professor you expect that title to be used in formal communications. In the US, though, "Professor" has the connotation that you are a student addressing a teacher, and the title "Dr" is deemed more appropriate for a senior member of a university, recognising their academic qualification.

It is fascinating how much is bound up with this terminology. Until I read Tom's post, I had been puzzled when I got e-mails from the US, starting "Dear Dr Bishop". I tended to assume they just did not know my proper title. No doubt my e-mails in the other direction to "Dr Professor X", had elicited similar bafflement at my crassness.

Gender can make these issues all the more complicated. One of Tom's respondents commented "I am happy with being called Ms, though it suggests a lack of research into my real title, but I get very annoyed at being called Miss or Mrs because it seems to me to be a form of disrespect for my hard won qualifications. In some cases, when done by men of a certain age, I suspect it is deliberate denigration, as if they cannot cope with the idea of a female full professor."

This issue came to a head recently when people on Twitter noticed a piece in the Wall Street Journal by Raymond Tallis reviewing books by Susan Greenfield and Norman Doidge. Susan Greenfield (who is Dr, Professor and Baroness) was referred to as 'Ms' Greenfield whereas Doidge (who is Dr and Professor) was referred to as Dr Doidge. People leapt upon Tallis, assuming he was being sexist. They should have noticed, though, that he himself (both a Dr and a Professor) was referred to in the piece as 'Mr Tallis'. Unfortunately, as he explained, it is a weird stylistic convention of the Wall Street Journal to restrict the title 'Dr' to MDs, so even a UK medic doesn't qualify.

I was irritated enough to write to the editor concerned to ask that they reconsider this convention. For anyone with a PhD to be referred to as Mr or Ms in an article seems to reflect at best ignorance in the writer, and at worst deliberate insult. This problem is compounded if titles are recognised for some individuals but not others. The response I got did not give me any optimism that the venerable Wall Street Journal will reconsider its policy; they seem to regard tradition as more important than clarity and avoidance of offence.

- Dorothy Bishop is Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology and a Wellcome Principal Research Fellow at the Department of Experimental Psychology in Oxford.

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“Indeed, you may feel demoted if somebody refers to you as Ms or Mr. “ or “For anyone with a PhD to be referred to as Mr or Ms in an article seems to reflect at best ignorance in the writer, and at worst deliberate insult.”. How will this sound to the ears of an ordinary Mr or Ms? I am pretty sure that the mentioned Susan Greenfield does not care that much about her titles as a baroness, a professor, and a doctor. Why? Her work is brilliant and just therefore she does not need to.