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Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Is there a doctor on board?

This spring I was on a flight and a fellow passenger passed out in the aisle next to me after exiting the restroom. The passengers waiting in line for the restroom immediately caught him and began offering care. The flight attendant quickly issued the call "is there a doctor on board?" The passenger was in luck as there was apparently three MDs and five EMTs on board (apparently they were returning from an EMT conference). It all appeared to work out fine. However, there was a small moment when I suffered a self-absorbed crises reminescent of the "Seinfeld" character George Costanza. When the call went out I immediately thought to myself "please don't ask if I'm a doctor, please don't ask if I'm a doctor... ." Such a question would invariable lead to the awkward conversation whereby I say, "well, yes, I am, but not a real doctor" -- followed by disapproving stares of other passengers -- at least that's how it worked out in my jet-lagged mind at the time.

This brings us to what has become one of the most visited posts on my blog (Voir Dire): Who gets to call themself doctor? Given the apparent popularity of this concern, I revisit it here - is it appropriate to refer to yourself as "doctor" if you have a Juris Doctorate? A Ph.D.? This seems to bring up a number of concerns  - Who "earned" it? Is it misleading? Why do people need such titles anyway? Here is a sample from my prior post (which was actually really short):

I generally don’t refer to myself (or ask others to refer to me) as “Dr. ” unless there is a clear professional reason to make the distinction. This isn’t out of modesty – I’ve just had situations in which the “Dr.” tag has been put out there and then people start talking to me about medical stuff – and then there’s an awkward pause and I tell them that “I’m not an M.D.” – and then there’s another awkward silence – and then you hear “so, you’re not really a doctor then…”

Hopefully, this will be a polite discussion :-)

Only partially related - famous doctors who don't practice medicine

Jeff Yates

Posted by Dingo_Pug on May 9, 2012 at 09:45 AM | Permalink


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I always joke that if someone on a plane needed a Doctor and then went to me about all I could do would be to calculate the probability of them dying within the hour

Posted by: Bob Howard | May 16, 2012 9:27:45 AM

I too am cross-posting from Opinio Juris:

I’ve got nothing of significance to contribute to this debate and have no strong feelings one way or the other…however, when Shaquille O’Neal recently earned his Ed.D. in Human Resource Development, his mother exclaimed, “And now I get to call him Dr. O’Neal.” So too might we all, and I’d be more than happy to oblige should that be his wish.

I barely received an MA degree, having prematurely left graduate school, and only then because one of my professors phoned me some years later and suggested I take care of the paperwork to receive the degree. It turned out to be fortuitous, as I later was given an opportunity to teach and could not have accepted had I not had the degree in hand. I’ve been told by not a few folks that I should return to school for a PhD, especially because I have a few manuscripts lying around that, with a little polish, could serve as my dissertation. However, at my age, my heart’s not in it, and I can’t justify going into debt once more, having paid off previous student loans in middle age. A PhD simply has no meaning for me. Yet what meaning it might have for others I’m again happy to acknowledge.

One last thing: my students at the community college often (not knowing better) refer to me as “Professor O’Donnell.” It makes me rather uncomfortable, knowing what a true professor is, so I always inform them that I’m not a “professor.” and that they should simply call me “Mr. O’Donnell” (rather than, say, ‘dude,’ ‘Patrick,’ etc.).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 10, 2012 8:33:46 AM

I am cross-posting my comment from the Opinio Juris blog. I should perhaps firstly disclose that I am in fact a JSD candidate.

Perhaps it is an error that JD (Juris doctorate) and PHD is being conflated into the same "type" when referring above to the right to call someone a Dr: "[I]s it appropriate to refer to yourself as “doctor” if you have a Juris Doctorate? A Ph.D.?": A JSD is a Doctorate of Jurisprudence, unlike a Juris Doctorate (JD) - the latter basically being a BA/LLB in law.

I can speculate a few reasons as to why there is this skepticism about Phds in Law in the U.S.: 1) foreigners usually do the PhD/JSD in law and go back to their own countries - they just don't see a big selection of strong, fluent in English JSD's appearing on their hiring market - perceptions might change if more good candidates aim for the U.S. market 2) a PhD in other disciplines take 5-6 years whereas Phds in law (wherever it is) often takes approximately 3 years 3) there is no fixed standard of conferring the degree - there are people who can write outstanding full-length publishable dissertations and still be granted the JSD and I have also seen examples of people writing, well let's say, masters thesis and getting through 4) in appears that in the entry level hiring market, there is a preference for people who can produce a number of bite sized articles rather than one largue publishable piece. 5) there is much less focus on doctrinal issues in the U.S. - which often happens to be the crux of most PHds/JSDs in law.

Also as someone who studied law in England before coming to the U.S. I think there's much more emphasis on tiltes in the latter. In the UK, a senior academic (reader, for example) may be referred to by students in the U.K. by first name but in the U.S. most academics (even recent JD graduates (!) who were "post-docs") prefer to be referred to by professor - I did not see this in other disciplines such as political science or economics though. Perhaps there is a desire in the U.S. to maintain some "exclusivity" for law schools/professors. Whether the reference to "professor" or not is a good thing, who knows...its nice to have the title when you've put in a lot of hard work but at the same time its apposite to note what Judge Posner said about his law clerks addressing him as "Judge" ""I'm one of the very few judges to have my law clerks call me by my first name, because I don't want them to think of me as anything special,"

Posted by: Dawood I Ahmed | May 10, 2012 8:23:39 AM

I generally try to avoid using salutations entirely, as I think they create unuseful social distance. For times when they are required as a role function (e.g., teaching) I accept whatever is the standard of the department/school in which I'm teaching (usually "Dr." or "Professor") and let my students sort it out. (I insist professional staff address me by my first name, as I also do with Ph.D. students.) In professional testimony, I use "Dr.", as is the convention for scientists (my Ph.D. is in science). When practicing law, I use the salutation "Mr.", as is the custom. The only other time I use "Dr." is when I have a "customer service concern" -- for those known organizations where the salutation makes a difference, I'll admit that I use it. It's a pathetic state of affairs when that distinction makes a difference, but I don't write the rules.

And if asked, I simply respond "I'm a scientist, not a physician." I've never had anyone question that, most people just say "oh, really? what do you study/research/etc?"

This is all a long-winded way of saying that it's context-specific, and I generally try to avoid using the salutation "Dr." unless 1) required by the context; or 2) I will receive substantially differential treatment (read: with "Dr." I'll receive the ordinary courtesy due a human being; with "Mr." I'll receive less).

P.S. - I received my J.D. before my Ph.D., and did not adopt the salutation "Dr." - for what limited degree I use it - until after the award of my Ph.D.

Posted by: anon | May 10, 2012 7:06:46 AM


I've added my two cents at Opinio Juris here:


Your thoughts would be most appreciated.

Posted by: Kevin Jon Heller | May 10, 2012 1:13:40 AM

Eric - I was wondering if someone was going to make this argument - I had a vague recollection of it, but couldn't remember the exact points - just a notion that there was a 'we were there first' sentiment.

For what it's worth (a cup of coffee?) and to clarify, I am a JD/PhD and am thus a glutton for punishment. However, the only people I have ever required to call me Doctor/Doctor were Robert Palmer and the Thompson Twins back in the 1990s. --I recognize that I should probably have both degrees revoked for that last one, but I strive to bring levity to this discussion :-)

Posted by: Jeff Yates | May 9, 2012 5:14:45 PM

You *are* a "real doctor" if you have a PhD. Both the first definition of "doctor" in the OED, and also the earliest (Def. 3b, from 1303) refer to teaching, not practicing medicine. The word's Latin roots mean "teacher", and the PhD proclaims competence to teach in a discipline (2nd OED definition). According to the OED, it appears that the *degree* came about in 1377, when it was also first applied to physicians (as well as lawyers). People learned in the law are no longer traditionally called "doctor," but people who earn doctoral degrees are. Anyone who has earned the PhD (or equivalent) is entitled to consider themselves a "real doctor," whether their discipline is political science, law, art history, or engineering.

In my world view, most medical doctors do not deserve the title since the M.D. is really a technical, not a research/teaching degree. But at a certain point you have to make room for popular meanings of terms, and it's obvious that statute of limitations ran out somewhere in the 635 years since the first use of "doctor" for "physician."

Posted by: Eric | May 9, 2012 4:19:53 PM

Charles, that's not quite right. When my wife's grandfather graduated from Wayne University in Detroit in the late 1920s, it was truly a bachelor's degree in law - and he applied for membership in the bar at age 22 having never gotten any profession education beyond the four years of his undergraduate degree in law. LL.B.s got converted to JDs because schools recognized that a legal education was a graduate degree, not another version of the undergraduate baccalaureate. So while it's correct to say that the JD is a rebranded LLB, it's a rebranded LLB that had become a misnomer as a graduate degree.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | May 9, 2012 3:54:38 PM

I'm with Anon—the JD is just a rebranded LLB, not a real doctorate, so it's inappropriate for someone with just a JD to use the honorific "Doctor". If you had a PhD, JSD, or equivalent, then "Doctor" could be appropriate, but still sounds wrong in the North American context.

That said, I had an adjunct while at the University of Illinois who practiced European law in London and he noted that everyone he worked with insisted that he use the title "Doctor", since it was seen as much more important in Europe and his degree technically had "doctor" in its title. So it seems to be largely a cultural thing. (I'm reminded here of the huge push in Canada to have LLBs renamed JDs because Canadian students are afraid of being discriminated against on the international job market—e.g., that they will be seen as having the equivalent of an English LLB (obtained without a prior BA) rather than the American JD.)

Posted by: Charles Paul Hoffman | May 9, 2012 2:29:37 PM

My understanding is that the LL.B stood for "bachelor of laws," the LL.M stood for "Master of Laws," and the SJD is the terminal doctorate degree. Moreover, it's my understanding that when the ABA created the JD as a means by which to equate lawyers with doctors, the term was "juris doctor," not "juris doctorate." Therefore, because the JD is not a terminal degree and has other "higher degrees" above it, I don't think it should even be considered on the doctoral level ... especially since it requires neither a dissertation, a defense (like Ph.Ds), nor clinical training (like MDs).

PS: I'm a JD prof without any LL.M, SJD, or Ph.D.

Posted by: Anon | May 9, 2012 12:52:14 PM

I propose we go back to the Latin. "Doctor" is an actual teacher, and the "doctoral" degree qualifies one to teach but does not automatically bear the honorific.

This would add law (and humanities, etc.) professors and keep a large number of medical professionals, but would exclude lawyers and most medical practitioners.

Posted by: AndyK | May 9, 2012 12:07:05 PM

I hold a MS in Physics and a JD. When asked for highest level of education on some job applications, I don't know whether to check Masters or Doctorate, since no checkoff boxes for MD or JD are given.

Posted by: Jimbino | May 9, 2012 10:57:18 AM

This is all very culture specific, because if you were talking about German lawyers, it would be very common to address a lawyer formally as "Dr." if the lawyer had a doctorate in law (not all German lawyers do). That is, assuming you weren't on a first name basis (and I don't know how much the business culture has changed in Germany so small disclaimer) and you would call somebody Herr, then for a lawyer with a doctorate you'd say "Doktor." (It was not uncommon for business associates in the same firm for twenty or thirty years still to refer to each other as Herr So and So.)

See, e.g., this listing of partners in Baker & McKenzie's German offices.


In the U.S., the use of Dr. for physicians is probably and combination of honorific and utility. I was in the chemical industry, and we had a number of senior business executives with Ph.D.s in subjects like chemistry or chemical engineering. From time to time, they'd sign letters or be addressed in meetings as "Doctor," and I found it to be stilted in the far less formal U.S. culture. If we were overseas, it seemed less stilted. Sometimes it was useful, say, in litigation where you wanted to enhance the opinion of your executive on a matter of technical judgment.

But for a U.S. lawyer to be address as "Doctor"? Pomposity and stiltedness to the nth degree! Even as much I would like now to be addressed as Herr Professor Doktor (see Baker & McKenzie site for examples).

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | May 9, 2012 10:29:30 AM

Before my LLB ('54) was converted to a JD, I had earned an LLM ('70, Taxation), such that I suggested that I be referred to as "Master Dr." if that was not too taxing.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | May 9, 2012 9:58:31 AM

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