From PhD to Doctor
It’s inescapable. The question every PhD faces after she tells someone what she does.
“So what do you want to do with that?” Pause. “Teach?” or Pause. “And you’ll be in that program forever won’t you?”
But the other day I had a new question—someone asked me not only what I wanted to do with my degree, but what that degree actually was. It was with a doorwoman in my building. I had decided to chat with her before heading into the elevator. She asked what I was studying, and after I responded asked me to further explain. I said it was an academic degree that took at least five years, would qualify me to teach at a university, and earn me the title of “Doctor.” She then asked if I would be teaching medicine. When I told her I was focusing on history she asked if it was the history of medicine. And when I responded that no, it was the history of American cities in the 20th century, she asked why it was I had decided to study that? I then started on my shpeil about wanting to be a journalist when I was in college but how I felt stymied by the deadlines and never having the time to explore a subject in the depth I wanted (I’ll spare you the full extent of it here.)
The conversation got me thinking about titles, and whether academics shouldn’t have one that’s different from the one assigned those who go through medical school, internships and residencies. Of course, the degrees are different—M.D. vs. PhD. But somehow the salutation ends up being the same. Does it have something to do with the length of time that academic graduate students are in school before they earn their degree? It’s longer than for other degrees such as MBAs or JDs, but still far shorter than the length of time doctors had to spend learning how to diagnose disease. And no matter how much bombastic prose I might drum up to explain what I do (or aspire to do)—“shaping young minds” just doesn’t sound as crucial as “saving lives.”
I’m not trying to downplay the work of the PhD candidate. In fact I think it might be psychologically debilitating for me to do so since I’m spending at least five years of my life on it. But maybe the PhD should confer a title other than “Dr.” There’s Professor—but somehow after getting used to students calling professors doctors, it doesn’t seem like enough!