Should a PhD Be Called 'Doctor'?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


March 16, 2021

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Dr Art Caplan. I'm at the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine in New York City.

Rarely do you hear me introduce myself in these video op-eds as a doctor. I'm not a doctor. I actually am not a physician. I'm not an MD. I'm a doctor of philosophy. Occasionally, people who watch these point that out and say I'm not a real doctor because I'm not an MD.

It's true. I'm not an MD, but I sometimes will use the title "doctor" depending on the context. If I'm in a situation where someone is going to give me an honorary degree, they're going to call me "Dr Caplan," even if it's not a medical degree.

In some instances, people want to be respectful when they're approaching me in the classroom and they may say, "Dr Caplan, what do you think about this?" In other settings, when I'm talking on television or the radio, I try to be introduced as "Professor Caplan" so that there's no confusion about me not being an MD.

The whole issue blew up recently when The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece written by a contributor who said that Jill Biden shouldn't use the title "doctor." She likes being referred to as Dr Jill Biden. The opinion piece said she's not an MD and, challenged the idea that having a PhD is worth the honorific of "doctor."

I thought that piece was wrong. It seems to me that everything depends on the context. In some situations, if you're going to be on a panel and the subject is in your area of expertise, that you wrote your PhD thesis on, you can be called "doctor" if you wish. In my own instance, I prefer "professor" so as to avoid confusions about the status of my degree.

In general, if someone wants to be called "doctor" and they have a PhD, for most settings, I think I'm fine with it. They earned that title. It's part of what goes along with having a PhD and an MD. Unless you're trying to pretend that you're a physician by doing a diagnosis, recommending a treatment, or claiming to understand some medical detail that you didn't train in, where that would be inappropriate, I'm fine with it.

I also thought The Wall Street Journal attack on Jill Biden was a little bit of a cheap shot. There are plenty of people running around publicly calling themselves doctor who have PhDs. Dr Phil, Dr Ruth, Dr Laura, and many of the people who talk about mental health or other issues on TV or radio are using the title "doctor." The Wall Street Journal didn't see fit to go after them.

I think they went after the president's wife as a political attack, so I'm not buying that. I do buy the idea that it's important to be clear to different audiences when you're a physician and when you're not a physician. I also think that after writing a PhD and having completed your degree in a specialty area, there are many contexts in which it is appropriate to use that title.

I'll say that this has been Professor Art Caplan from the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine, who's been yakking on about titles today. Thank you for watching.

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center and School of Medicine. He is the author or editor of 35 books and 750 peer-reviewed articles as well as a frequent commentator in the media on bioethical issues.


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