Should Ph.D.s Be Referred To As ‘Doctor?’

by V Berba Velasco Jr.

Doctor in a HospitalIn recent years, I’ve frequently heard people claim that individuals who hold PhDs are not “real” doctors. These people assert that only physicians can rightfully claim this title, and that it’s inappropriate for PhD-holders to use this term.

Frankly, I’m surprised. I thought it was common knowledge that there are both medical and non-medical doctors, and that this is a legitimate term to use in both situations. Apparently though, common knowledge isn’t always as common as one would hope. For this reason, I’d like to take a moment to dispel some of the myths behind this title. (For the sake of brevity, I shall henceforth focus on the PhD degree; however, the same arguments hold for comparable degrees such as the ScD and the ThD).

Can PhDs legitimately claim to be doctors? Absolutely! The term “doctor” is derived from the Latin verb docere, which means “to teach.” Historically, it refers to a teacher or, by extension, a scholar. It did not specifically refer to a physician. This title was later co-opted by the medical community though, due to the respect and prestige that it imputes. In one of life’s great ironies, many uninformed laypeople now perceive the medical degree to be more prestigious than the lowly PhD, declaring that people who have earned the latter are “not real doctors.”

Some people say, “Well, most people only think of physicians as doctors. According to the rules of common usage then, PhD-holders shouldn’t use this title.” I understand the appeal of this argument, but frankly, I think it’s fallacious. There are many individuals that are known to the public as “Doctor”–Dr. Martin Luther King, Dr. Joyce Brothers and Dr. Laura Schlessinger. None of these individuals has a medical degree, and yet they are commonly accorded this title.

Moreover, I think that this argument panders to ignorance, rather than fighting it. If a large portion of the population thinks that (or acts as though) only MD-holders truly merit the title of “doctor,” should we bend over backwards and let their misperceptions rule? Would it not be better to educate people on the historical, established usage of this term–usage that persists to this day?

Some say, “If you refer to a PhD-holder as ‘Doctor Smith,’ then people will assume that he’s a physician. So what happens if there’s a medical emergency? Do you want people running to Smith for medical help?” Frankly, I think that this argument betrays a low opinion of the public’s intelligence; it assumes that people are too dim-witted to learn, and that we may as well accept the inevitable. Personally, I would rather fight ignorance gently than assume such a lowly opinion of the common man’s intelligence. Would some people continue to think that only physicians merit this title? Probably so–but I suspect that the vast majority of individuals are intelligent enough to learn otherwise.

For some reason, many also think that the MD is much more difficult to attain than a PhD. I can understand why; after all, we’ve all heard horror stories about medical students working long hours and staying up all through the night. However, people simply don’t realize how laborious a PhD program can be. PhD students often have to engage in long hours of grueling studies and research if they wish to complete their studies in a timely fashion. I’d say that when it comes to years of study, PhD programs are more demanding as well; when starting from a bachelor’s degree, a PhD typically takes from six to eight years to complete, as opposed to four years for the medical degree.

When someone declares that physicians are the only real doctors, he is simply mistaken. I’d say that PhDs have every right to this title–and I say that based on the title’s etymology, the demands of their programs and the accepted, contemporary usage of this term, even outside of academic circles.

About The Author

V. B. Velasco Jr. is a senior electrical and software engineer at a small immunology biotech company (,,, that provides ELISPOT plate readers and serum-free media.


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  • Comments

    2 Responses to “Should Ph.D.s Be Referred To As ‘Doctor?’”

    1. QVC on August 6th, 2008 6:12 pm

      Ph.D. is an abbreviation for Philosophical Doctor, and a Ph.D. is considered to be an expert in their field. Obtaining a Ph.D. means grueling study under an academic adviser. Once academic mastery has been demonstrated, the Ph.D candidates defend their dissertation before several other people who hold the title of Ph.D. This is known as the dreaded dissertation defense.

      People holding the title of Ph.D. often differ in opinion, even though they may share the same academic field of expertise, e.g., psychologists. These debates often take place in literature that the average person does not read — in peer reviewed journal articles. Acceptance into most Ph.D. programs means that education continues beyond the Bachelor’s Degree (B.A., or B.S. — often a 4 year degree) and beyond the Master’s Degree (M.A., or M.S. — often a 2 year degree). In fact, the typical Ph.D. program continues 5 full years beyond the Master’s degree, and requires a written Doctoral Thesis — a manuscript that is filled with independent research that contributes to their field.

      A Medical Doctor, on the other hand, goes to medical school and more often not specializes in the “hard” sciences during the undergraduate years (B.S., Bachelor of Science), such as Biology, Bio-Chemistry, Chemistry, or other “Pre-Med” sciences. Then, a medical doctor goes to medical school for an additional 4 years in order to be a general practitioner, e.g., the family doctor. After receiving their M.D., doctors can achieve further specialization with certain parts of the body, e.g., in the brain as psychiatrists or neuro-surgeons or in the heart as cardiologists.

      With either case, Ph.D. or M.D., close guidance in thought and practice occurs from a superior who already has the Ph.D. or M.D. title. Each must demonstrate mastery in their field because others are depending on their level of expertise for health care and the proper transmission of ideas from one generation to the next.

    2. Edward on February 28th, 2009 5:18 pm

      I think this confusion starts from the fact that the medical profession took it upon themselves to use the title “doctor” inappropriately. First of all, the title “doctor” has a Latin origin that loosely translates into “teacher”. This is generally a function of the Ph.D. holder. There are other legitimate doctorate degrees that are equal to the Ph.D such as D.Sci, Th.D, and the D.D. The holders of these degrees are the REAL DOCTORS!

      Another interesting fact is that the MD isn’t even a graduate degree. This is a “professional” degree, not an ACADEMIC one. Consider that lawyers with a JD (Juris Doctor) degree, go back to school to get a Masters of Law. What!? They have a “doctorate” degree, and if they pursue graduate studies, they go “back” to the Master’s level? How can that be? Simple, the Juris Doctor degree is NOT an academic, graduate degree. Same as the Doctor of Medicine degree.

      In fact, other countries like India, and England have the right idea, and their medical schools grant the Bachelor of Medicine degree for the same amount of course work.

      I remember speaking to medical school graduates from India in the past, and neither refer to themselves as “doctor”. They call themselves a “physician” which is far more appropriate. In Germany, you can’t even call yourself a “doctor” unless you have a Ph.D.

      Understandably, our western society has linked the phrase, “he/she is a doctor” with those who possess an MD or a DO. Even chiropractors, podiatrists, and dentists are not considered “doctors”, even though they have a “doctorate” in their respective fields. This is unfortunate, and it will take a lot of effort to re-educate our society to change it’s perception on this honored title.

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