In 2013, the summer after my first year at U of T, I had the pleasure of taking a surprisingly exciting course in the English department: ENG215 — The Canadian Short Story. Coincidentally, this was also the year Alice Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
It was a big year for feminism too: Malala Yousafzai, precocious and poignant with only 16 years behind her at the time, gave a speech at the United Nations; Wendy Davis performed a 13-hour-long filibuster for abortion rights; and Laverne Cox became the first openly racialized transgender woman to have a leading role on a major television show.
Less notably — though by no means unimportant — is Dr. Sarah Caskey, the instructor I had for the course. Caskey, I noticed, signed her emails with “Dr.” and made a point of emphasizing in the classroom that we were to refer to her as such. I found it curious to call an English academic a ‘doctor,’ thinking in all of my first-year naïveté that the term was mostly — if not always — reserved for physicians, with the rare physics graduate being an exception. I had wondered then: why did PhD holders insist on being called “doctor” when that could very well be misleading?
And now, I seek to answer whether people who hold PhDs should be called doctors. It’s 2021, and I’ve reckoned with these questions plenty. In short, yes, they should. And, more importantly, this is arguably a feminist issue. But first, some context.
In early December, American writer Joseph Epstein came out with an opinion piece that could comfortably be labelled as facetious, belched out for the world to read in The Wall Street Journal. The title of his article was “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.” Epstein’s point was simple, if not tiresome: Dr. Jill Biden should consider dropping the honorific since anyone but a medical doctor is a fraudulent one. Back in his day, earning a doctorate was a hard-won feat.
And now? He claims they’re handed out too easily — so easily that even he has one, and it wasn’t even earned the traditional way via the classroom and library. It’s easy to interpret Epstein’s exasperation at today’s lax standards — a crisis in prestige, if you will.
If doctorates are easy to come by, and honorary ones are handed out all willy-nilly, exactly how prestigious are they? Never mind, of course, the fact that, on average, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, only roughly one per cent of adults aged 25–64 in its 37 member countries have a PhD, with this number rising to two per cent in the United States, making it an exceptionally rare accomplishment.
I interpret Epstein to mean that the only individuals worthy of being called doctors are those whose grit and stamina for the profession can be measured in 12-hour work days with no bathroom or food breaks, and hundreds, if not thousands, of hours spent laboriously training for an intellectual marathon. For him, this cohort only includes medical professionals. Philosophy students, on the contrary, may heartily disagree.
Of course, whether the standards have become slipshod is secondary to whether someone like Biden, who earned her Doctorate in Education in 2007 at the age of 55, ought to be called and take pride in being a doctor. I certainly think so.
The term ‘doctor’ comes from the Latin term ‘docere,’ meaning to teach and instruct. With medieval origins from the Renaissance period, a doctor referred to a learned person concerned with matters of spirituality and the soul. While theologians who preached doctrines from the Roman Catholic Church were the first to adopt the term, it was more broadly used by the end of the fourteenth century to refer to academics and medical professionals. The first doctorate in philosophy with a dissertation was awarded in Germany during the seventeenth century.
With such etymological evidence in hand, calling Biden — or, indeed, anyone who participates in academia in a teaching and instructional manner — a ‘doctor’ is an entirely perfect descriptor.
I suspect that accuracy isn’t what’s at stake, but rather whose expertise and knowledge is worthy of acknowledgement. According to Epstein, Biden’s accomplishments are a comical matter. He refers to her as “kiddo,” suggesting that she drop her vocation, title, and life’s work as an educator, and instead, “Forget the small thrill of being Dr. Jill, and settle for the larger thrill of living for the next four years in the best public housing in the world as First Lady.”
Whether tongue-in-cheek or not, the patronization isn’t a novelty. Perhaps Epstein is unaware of the fact that women are no strangers to gender bias in academia. Despite making substantial contributions to research across all fields, women’s research is often overlooked in comparison to men’s; they are less likely to gain tenured positions, remain underrepresented in senior positions, and do not win prestigious awards at the same rate as men, as most award panels are chaired by men who may be more likely to select other men as winners — a possible example of implicit bias.
Academics who are also racialized women often have their authority and teaching competency challenged and remain vastly underrepresented in full-time teaching positions. Each of these examples warrants a separate discussion, to be sure, and while I remain wary of singling out sexism and racism as the only threats to women’s experiences in higher education, they are important markers to consider.
Asking whether PhD holders should be called doctors is answered by acknowledging that scores of women have struggled to climb the ladder and be recognized for their original contributions. Denying women the title of doctor only creates an additional barrier to recognition and inclusion.
Sure, let us come together and admonish the sheer stupidity of honorary degrees and their symbolism; here, Epstein and I agree. Yet for those who’ve struggled for years to flesh out their chapters and add new insight to their field? The least we can do is call them ‘doctor’; denying PhD holders and the thousands of women who are granted such a degree each year their title doesn’t make their accomplishment any less real or earned.
Padideh Hassanpour graduated as a women and gender studies and equity studies student from University College in 2016. She is currently taking courses in psychology and buddhism.