Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Ph(ake) Doctor

Today, Adam e-mailed me this letter to the editor.

I did not read the March 28th editorial that Ms. Roberta Genini of Fresno is responding to, so I cannot address Ms. Genini's primary concern: a 2.6 million dollar grant from the state of California towards what I assume to be biomedical research. However, there is one strikingly idiotic aspect of the letter which I cannot help but comment on.

Ms. Genini writes:
[G]rant $2.6 million to Jang-Won Lee, Ph.D. in molecular developmental biology (no M.D. after his name)...
I assume the subtext of the parenthetical in this case is that Dr. Lee is not a "real" doctor. And I propose that unless Ms. Genini has completed a five year doctoral program in any field, much less molecular developmental biology, perhaps she should S.T.F.U. about the letter(s) that prefix the "D" on Dr. Lee's degree.

Now don't get me wrong, most people who hold a Ph.D. (especially in the biological sciences) are quite informal about their title. Most of my professors and all of my research supervisors have made it quite clear that they prefer I call them by their first name. But you can be damn sure that it's Dr. X and Professor Y until they make their preference known.

Here's why:

Your average Ph.D. program in the biological sciences takes between 4 and 6 years. When you are first accepted into the program, you are not even considered a doctoral candidate until you pass your qualifying exams, which generally consist of both an oral and written exam. During the oral exams, faculty members are technically allowed to ask you just about anything they damn well please.

Once you do become an honest-to-god candidate, you are expected to come up with a novel research question, do the research necessary to address the question, and then write a book about it. Meanwhile, you will T.A. at least one semester and of course, complete your own required coursework and attend departmental seminars.

Upon completing your program, you will be a highly skilled professional, qualified for any number of positions in academia, government, and private sector. The world, as they say, is your oyster.

You are now Doctor Ex-Graduate Student, Ph.D. Enjoy it, because you earned it with the coffee-flavored sweat off your brow.

So to sum up, here's a simple test to determin if you're a cretin:

What is the proper way to address "John Doe, Ph.D." assuming you've never met them before in your life?

(A) John Doe
(B) Mr. Doe
(C) Dr. Doe
(D) John Doe, Ph.D. (no M.D. after his name)

If you picked (C), congratulation! Your momma raised you right.

If you picked (D), what the hell is wrong with you?


edluv said...

well, i think if you're going to alk about the no m.d. thing, it's also fair to throw in this quote, "The Foundation for Taxpayers and Consumer Rights pointed out that Kwang-Yul Cha, Jang-Won Lee's ultimate boss, is violating California law by using M.D. after his name though not licensed to practice medicine in California."

i didn't read the original editorial, so i'm wondering exactly what the whole deal is about. but, i don't think it's unfair to question why someone is using M.D. illegally. no one is saying that anyone w/a doctoral degree can't be called Dr. such and such. but, to use M.D. does mean something else.

hell, i object to dr. phil and dr. laura using dr. in their "names" because it implies that they have a doctorate in their field (neither do). sure, obtaining a doctorate is very tough work, and i respect that. but, you probably should use M.D. if you're not.

Ann Thrope said...

Ed - Dr. Lee is not using the title M.D., illegally or otherwise. So it's completely irrelevant to the discussion to mention that Dr. Lee does not have an M.D., since he doesn't make the claim to one.

Also notable, Dr. Cha is named as Dr. Lee's ultimate boss. Which means Dr. Lee probably doesn't even work directly for Dr. Cha, making Dr. Cha's claim to an M.D. even more irrelevant to Dr. Lee.

And Dr. Cha may very well have an M.D., even if s/he is not licensed to practice in the state of California.

Additionally, this appears to concern a research project, not a situation where medicine is actually being practiced, making any concern over Dr. Lee (or Dr. Cha) illegally acting as medical doctors pretty irrelevant.

This editorial is clearly a case of someone playing up the "not a 'real' doctor" aspects of a Ph.D. because she feels it someone invalidates Dr. Lee's credentials as a biomedical researcher.

Which, aside from being patently false, is a damaging sentiment. Unfortunately there is still this lingering sentiment that if it has anything to do with human health, an M.D. has to do it. Ph.D.s are perfectly capable of (and do) contribute enormous amounts of knowledge in the interest of human health.

edluv said...

well, you're reading it as "they're not a real doctor." when i read your linked story, also not having read the original editorial, i read it and thought, "it seems that this person is making a connection to the illegal use of m.d. even though that is in reference to another person." now, i may be wrong. perhaps they are saying that someone w/a phd isn't a "real" doctor.

but, i agree that the overall situation is regarding an area of research, and it makes perfect sense for the person to have a phd and not an md.

finally, i find that in our culture, we generally use, perhaps even reserve, the term doctor to md's, even though it rightfully applies to anyone with a doctorate. right or wrong, this is often how it is. which is why i, and others, chafe at people like dr. phil or dr. laura representing the level. sure, they both have doctorates, but in what? neither have their phd's in psychology or psychiatry. but, you know what, if they want to use dr., that's fine, they have phd's in something.

and, when i eventually earn my phd, i'll have that right, too. but, i doubt i'll go by dr. stewart.

Ann Thrope said...

Regarding the use of the honorific "doctor": as I mentioned, many Ph.D.s do not encourage the use of the title, however I definitely consider it within their rights.

If a doctor (holding any degree) wishes to go by their first name that's their choice, however it's just plain rude to refer to a Ph.D. by Mr. or Ms. in a situation where you would address an M.D. by "Dr."

I consider this to be especially true in the biological sciences, where an M.D. and a Ph.D. may have quite similar educational backgrounds and even function in similar capacities.

I think that the problem with Dr. Laura and Dr. Phil is not that they mis-represent their degree but that they mis-represent their expertise. I would no sooner visit a urologist for a psychiatric consult than I would Dr. Laura, even though the urologist may hold the "proper" degree.

edluv said...

right. i think we're saying a lot of the same things, and agree on sentiment. i think we differ on understandings of what the author intended w/her(?) ambiguous phrasing. both readings are there. and, i totally agree that if the author intended the "you're not a real doctor" slight than she/he is out of line, or at least foolish.

this reminds me of those sit-com dilemmas where some guy has been yammering on about being a doctor, and then is confronted w/a situation where a md is desired. oops, he's got a phd in philosophy. wah wah, cue laugh track.

Anonymous said...

Please keep in mind that it is the PhD who is the 'real doctor,' and not the MD, whose degree is academically inferior to the PhD.

Anonymous said...

I've always been told, and read it somewhere that it was the medical types who historically were jealous because they didn't get the respect that real doctors, namely the PhDs, were getting. So, MDs started calling themselves 'doctor' even though their degree is more that of a master's degree, which under-ranks the PhD. IMHO, most MDs seem to be trying to do things right, but clearly lack the real intellectual horsepower of PhD.

tanvir said...

Well, when I get stabbed in the stomach in the middle of the street or have a horrible accident happen to me, I'm gonna be screaming doctor.

If a person with a PhD comes to my aid... I will merely shun it and simply die. I think it's ridiculous to connote such power to a person just by putting "Doctor" in front of it.