Michael Ego Who is a ‘Doctor?’

October 6, 2018

At a social gathering, one of my friends said, “Well, what do you know? Dr. Ego has decided to join us tonight,” with sarcasm and delight.

A bystander at the party approached me, and asked me what type of medical practice was my specialty? I informed him that I was an academic professor. He then stated, “You have no right to be called a doctor. Only those of us who are real doctors with a Doctor of Medicine degree have earned the right and privilege to be addressed appropriately by society.”

I was not surprised to hear the comment. It was the first time, however, that someone personally condemned me for having a Ph.D. Yet, I have read about other situations where my Ph.D. “low lifers” faced similar encounters by the medical community.

Thus, during the Supreme Court nomination hearing, I was awaiting how the Senate Judiciary Committee would address Christine Ford Blasey, Ph.D. (University of Southern California). Would she be called “Dr. Ford” or “Professor Ford” or “Mrs. Ford-Blasey” or “Ms. Ford-Blasey,” or “Christine?” She was addressed as Dr. Ford at the hearing

If you ask someone how people with Ph.D differ from those with MDs, you may get an answer like “MDs can prescribe medication, whereas PhDs cannot.” MDs are considered by many to be the “real doctors” because they can help with real medical problems. All that sounds onerous for the Ph.D.

However, here is the most essential difference between the two degrees, per the field of psychology, and most academic disciplines. Ph.Ds advance knowledge, whereas MDs merely apply existing knowledge. Unlike the MD who does not need to produce any original research, the person earning a Ph.D must produce original research and write it up in a thesis or dissertation. Then a committee of experts must deem that thesis as offering an acceptable advancement of knowledge before the Ph.D is conferred.

It takes several years longer than the four years of medical school to earn the Ph.D. Part of the reason it takes so long is that the person earning the Ph.D is being trained on how to think critically about existing knowledge, and it can take a while to find one’s niche and fill a gap in the knowledge base.

One other perspective is the examination of the title from both linguistic and historical standpoints. The word doctor is derived from the Latin verb “docere,” meaning to teach, or a scholar. Historically, the title “Doctor” was invented in the middle ages to describe eminent scholars. These doctorates date back to the 1300s. Such people were accorded a lot of respect and prestige. The Ph.D, or Doctor of Philosophy, is the highest graduate degree awarded by research universities.

Related to this matter, my preference would be that in social interactions with strangers the language be confined to, “Hi. Michael Ego, Pleased to meet you.” In the academic setting, I do not mind being called Dr. Ego or Professor Ego. Although not every person with an MD behaves with arrogance, I wish they would respect all professionals who have earned any type of degree and would lighten up.

Michael M. Ego is a professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Connecticut, Stamford.

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