Is There a Doctor in the House?

Chris Lawrence and Steven Taylor both have some interesting comments on the proper use of academic titles. Both have been accused of being arrogant for making it known on their blogs that they have PhDs in political science, for example.

The honorific “doctor” for those with PhDs is problematic since it is the same used for those with MDs and other medical and pseudo-medical degrees. Outside an academic environment, if I went around calling myself “Dr. Joyner,” people would expect me to render medical advice. (Which I’ll gladly do, by the way.) Indeed, in my teaching days, I got strange reactions when the staff of physicians’ and dentists’ offices would call me at work to confirm an appointment and I answered the phone “Dr. Joyner.” They invariably were flustered by it and asked whether “Mr. Joyner” was available. (I had students do that, too, but I think there was likely a different dynamic involved there.)

The transition to my present line of work was somewhat awkward in that most of my prospective authors were academics and therefore my degree and previous teaching experience were assets in establishing a connection. Since I made most of my initial approaches via e-mail, I used “James H. Joyner, Jr., Ph.D.” in the name block that would display in Outlook so that they wouldn’t automatically delete it as unsolicited mail. It seemed to work. The downside was that the same header went out in inter-office communications, including those with my BA-in-English boss, and I felt like a twit. After a while, I quit doing it for that reason and because, as Steven and Chris note, the practice of emphasizing titles is less common outside the South. I still use the long form in the signature block, though.

In terms of the blog, I’ve had reference to the degree* in the site description since day one, along with mention of my previous life as an Army officer. Why? To give context to what I write. That was more important when the site was brand new than it is now, certainly. But it does help answer the “why should I take this yahoo’s word for it” question. If I’m writing on military affairs or matters of political science, it’s worth noting that I have some experience backing up my analysis. As Steven notes,

While there is no guarantee that someone with a Ph.D. knows what he or she is talking about (I could give specific examples), but it is the case that it is a rather good indicator of the likelihood of such knowledge. Let’s face facts: if ones wants to know something about molecular biology, it is much more likely that a guy with Ph.D. in said subject will be able to help me out far more so than just some guy who may have read some books. Since one has to do quite a bit to earn those letters, it is generally the case that having those letters after one’s name means something.

And thus, despite whatever griping someone did in Chris’ direction about his mentioning the Ph.D., it does, in my opinion, lend credibility to Chris’ blog, which is about politics, that he has a Ph.D. in political science. A Ph.D. in political science knows more about politics than just some guy who likes politics (not that one has to have a Ph.D. to have a valuable opinion).

To be precise, we should differentiate political opinion from political analysis. There are several bloggers out there who are neither veterans nor possessed of graduate degrees in national security studies who write quite knowledgeably on matters of military strategy; Stephen Green and Steven Den Beste immediately come to mind. Still, they’re exceptions who had to prove themselves over time. Phil Carter, L.T. Smash, and Donald Sensing had instant credibility just because of their biographies.

People–including many PhDs themselves–sometimes have the mistaken impression that having a PhD conveys a much wider expertise than it does. For example, Taylor and I have both taken graduate coursework in and/or taught a wide variety of political science courses, which make us reasonably knowledgeable about those subjects. But not experts. For example, I took a lot of coursework in constitutional law and even taught a couple university courses on that subject. I’ve therefore thought about how the courts fit into the legal system more than the average reader–but not nearly as much as, say, Brett Marston or Stephen Bainbridge. [Is it just me, or are there too many people named Steven in this post?! -ed.]

On the other hand, Taylor is a bona fide expert in Colombian politics and electoral systems, having written his dissertation and otherwise devoted quite a bit of time studying those fields. When he analyzes the primary process, as he does in the weekly Toast-o-Meter, he has some legitimate insights about how the system works that go beyond almost any journalist who would be writing about the subject. His views as to whether Howard Dean would make an effective president–while entirely correct, in my judgment–are simply his considered opinion. In my own case, I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying U.S. foreign policy, especially matters of military organization. When I weigh in on Rumsfeld’s transformation plans, I feel reasonably confident that I know what I’m talking about given that I’ve written a dissertation and a couple dozen papers on the subject.

When I write about, for example, whether George W. Bush attended Guard meetings in Alabama, I’m not writing as a political scientist. My limited military background is helpful because there are some things I know intuitively about how the service works that would require an inordinate amount of research for a non-veteran. But that knowledge is bounded by time–what I know about the Guard of 1973 is based on what I know about the Guard of 1986-present tempered with what I’ve managed to garner from reading. And I’m as dependent on information in the press as anyone else.


*Actually, I was using “former political science professor” or some such for a while but that was rather awkward, especially in combination with “former Army officer,” in both cadence and emphasis on who I used to be. That, coupled with a difficulty in explaining what I do now concisely made “poli-sci PhD” a useful shorthand.

FILED UNDER: Best of OTB, Education
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dodd says:

    I recall Isaac Asimov, in an introduction to one of his hard science pieces, relating a story of a woman who asked him if he was a “PhD doctor” or a “doctor doctor.” He told her something to the effect that, insofar as a Medical Doctor had one of the applied sub-types of Doctorates, as opposed to PhD’s who had the broader, original vintage kind, an MD was, by comparison, a “mere technician.”

    I know of not one lawyer who, though possessed of a Juris Doctor, refers to him/herself as “Doctor,” though technically we all could. Custom, more than anything else, leads to the notion that an MD is somehow more entitled to the honorific than a PhD. I’d say you all are entitled to be refered to by your well-earned honorifics. Of course, I’m also from the South, where the pretence of informality that has infested (debased?) the broader culture hasn’t taken root in quite the same way as elsewhere, so….

  2. Jalal Abu Jarhead says:

    My father is a Doctor of Divinity (honorary degree, Southern Baptist minister for over 50 years) and my brother has a PhD in Religious Studies.

    Care to ask who I believe better deserves the honorific of “Doctor?”

    Titles are always interesting, and are very dependent on context. My title is CTIC(SS/NAC) USN(Ret.). Very few people truly understand what that means outside of the people I worked with while in the Navy.

    Context is everything.

  3. jen says:

    Some people worry about the stupidest things. Who cares if you use a title or not? If you earned the letters, use them or don’t use them. If you earned a rank in the military, use it or don’t use it. If you earned a position by election, use the title or don’t use the title. I couldn’t care less about this stuff. Good grief.

  4. My problem with the explanatory material at the beginning of your blog is that there is no indefinite article at the beginning. It should be “A sardonic book editor . . .” Also, there should be no hard return after “officer,” because that messes up the way this blurb appears on my screen–I end up with the word “officer” all by itself on one line.

    –Little Miss “Never Got My Bachelor’s, But I’ll Whip Your Copy-Editing Test’s Ass” Attila

  5. James Joyner says:

    I originally had the blurb in a side column and was trying to squeeze it as much as possible.

    Our publishing house farms most of the copyediting out to freelancers. Given how little we pay them, my guess is none of them have college degrees.

  6. You fail to grasp the mentality of the dyed-in-the-wool English major, that species of which Lillian Hellman (I know, I know–but she was right about this) wrote: “they got poorer as they got more educated.”

    Most of my peers–my real peers, who ply their trade for the leading newspapers, magazine purveyors like Conde Nast, academic book publishers like the UC Press, institutions like The Getty Center–do, in fact, have degrees.

    Of course, a few of ’em have trust funds, which helps them to work for peanuts and still survive.