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Late in the evening on Friday, with various PhD students and one faculty member gathered around at a pub, we discussed titles. The U.S. and Canada aren't big on titles. They aspire to be societies of social equality, where titles are largely reserved for an elected few. If someone with a PhD calls themselves Doctor, they run the risk of being called upon when there's a heart attack. Putting the initials PhD after one's name looked pretentious.

It's different in Germany and Italy, and elsewhere as well, I presume. In Germany right now, I'd be a Doctoranda, a perfectly good title to denote my current progress towards earning this degree. Once the degree is achieved, I would legally be referred to as Doktor. The language would not confuse me with a medical doctor. The title legally required is clear under the circumstances. In Germany, a university level teaching position comes with the title "Herr Professor Doktor" (for men).

In England, it's different. The word "professor" is reserved for university instructors who hold endowed chairs. The title denotes a much higher status within the hierarchy of academia than it does in Canada and the U.S., where any university instructor can be called a professor without too many people making a fuss over it. (To be fair, many will still argue that one should at least hold a PhD in order to deserve the title). University-level instructors are Lecturers or Readers in a specific area, and addressed as Ms. or Mr. In the U.S., Mr. or Ms. as a title usually means that the person in question does not hold a PhD, and, odds are good, that they are specifically teaching at a primary or secondary school.

In Germany, I would be Doctoranda Worthen right now. My students have called me Professor Worthen all semester, which is appropriate only in the sense that I was the course instructor - I don't hold the degree yet, and if I were working in England, it is quite likely that I would never hold a position which would make me eligible to be referred to as Professor. I don't know where I will end up working - possibly some other country entirely that the ones where I know anything about titles, the ones I have mentioned here. (Although if any of you know more about titling in these or any other countries, I would love to know more.)

It's strange to think that this semester, before I even have a PhD, could be the last time I will ever be referred to as a professor.


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 8th, 2003 07:11 am (UTC)
That was really interesting, owlfish! I didn't know all that about titles; I just assumed that when we say "Doctor" in North America, Britons would say "Professor". I guess I was wrong. I don't agree, though, that it's pretentious or confusing for Ph.D.s to be called, or to want to be called, Doctor. We will certainly deserve something for all our hard work!
Dec. 8th, 2003 07:55 am (UTC)
Do Canada and the US differ at all in academic degrees and relative status of different PhDs? I'm don't think they do, but I don't actually know.

It's still appropriate to call PhDs "doctor" in the context of an academic conference. There, it's an honorific with no danger of having medical confusions. I don't see anything wrong with using it for mailing lists and magazine subscriptions either. But in everyday life, asking random people to address you as "doctor" can be misleading, I think. I wish I could think of an example of an academic who does ask that everyone refer to them as doctor outside of academic circles in the US or Canada. Offhand, I can't.
Dec. 8th, 2003 07:39 am (UTC)
There's another anomaly in the US system, in the form of the JD (Juris Doctor) which was introduced in recent years at the behest of (as far as I can tell) lawyers who got jealous of their medical colleagues getting a doctorate for their professional qualification. While this is a doctorate in name, it's apparently considered extraordinarily bad form to actually adopt the title `Dr' - far more so than a PhD doing the same.

In the UK, the standard medical degree (which qualifies one to legally practice medicine) is a peculiar double degree of MB BS (or occasionally MB ChB) - `Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery'. For historical reasons this carries the courtesy title of `Dr'.

Amusingly, consultant surgeons are addressed as Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms. This dates back to the time when surgeons were essentially just nutters with hacksaws. The physicians, largely through academic snobbery, refused to accord them the title `Dr', and so the surgeons said ``Well if that's the way you want to play it...''

Now, of course, surgeons are highly skilled experts and wear their non-doctoral titles (even though they're all qualified physicians anyway) with pride. A friend's father is a consultant surgeon, and was reportedly very pleased to revert to `Mr'.

In the US, the MD seems to be the equivalent of the MB BS - the basic medical degree which qualifies one to practice. In the UK, the MD varies in meaning - at some universities (Oxford, Cambridge, etc) it's a higher doctorate, while at some others it's essentially a PhD in medicine, with a bit of extra practical training thrown in.

The UK has two levels of doctoral degrees, in fact. The PhD (and, recently, things like the EngD, EdD, DClinPsych, which have a more vocational emphasis to the research) is awarded (typically after three or four years' full-time study) for `a substantial original contribution to knowledge'. The PhD only dates back to about 1920 in the UK, and was brought in due to pressure from UK academics who wanted to be able to get a doctorate before they were fifty, like their US and German colleagues. Cambridge initially regarded it as a bit of a cheap foreign import - which is why their PhDs only get a black gown edged with scarlet, rather than the full scarlet of the higher doctorates.

The `higher doctorates' (DD, LLD/DCL, DSc, DLitt, DMus, and at some places the MD) are awarded basically for an extensive and successful research career. A lot of people think they're honorary awards, because that's how they're usually awarded (often to people who wouldn't ordinarily merit them, like politicians or celebrities) but they can be earned (and, indeed, I know several who have).

Typically, the candidate will bundle together the best and most influential papers they've written over the last fifteen or twenty years, and submit them for consideration. The university appoints two or three similarly eminent academics to act as examiners, who then write a report for the university, recommending whether the doctorate be awarded or not.

Not many people tend to go in for them, generally because it's usually well-known who the top people in a particular field are anyway, whether or not they've got loads of extra letters after their names. Sometimes, a senior academic who's angling for a chair will go in for it to strengthen their case (``Look, you've already formally agreed that I've got an internationally eminent research record, so promote me, dammit!'')

I've only ever used the letters after my name once - when writing a stroppy letter to the Inland Revenue enquiring why they seemed to be attempting to get me to pay the same tax bill again (given that they'd already cashed the cheque I sent them some months earlier). The style `Nicholas Jackson, PhD' makes me sound like one of those loons who write books like `The Alien Communion - Was Jesus an Alien?' or `Dogs are from Saturn, Cats are from bloody Neptune - relationship advice for pets'. If (as is devoutly hoped) the examiners OK my soon-to-be-submitted thesis corrections, I must say I'm rather looking forward to having the bank manager address me as `Dr Jackson' when explaining how badly he's screwed up this time :)

I've waffled again. Sorry. Ask me about the Oxford/Cambridge MA sometime...

Dec. 8th, 2003 07:52 am (UTC)
I hardly knew any of that, and feel better informed for your waffling. (I think your reply was longer than my post, but I'm glad you wrote it.) I especially hadn't realized that PhDs were considered of different degrees of status within the UK. I'm somewhat relieved to know they are, actually, given how abbreviated the degree is compared to most other countries.

In German, the PhD is shorter than US/Canada ones, but the Habilitation which often follows it (and involved all of the original research), is more in-depth and competitive than what the US/Canada offers, including a completely public defense, with anyone at all able to come in and ask questions as part of the process. This means that the basic UK PhD is more like a German one, but with the higher-status PhDs being awarded at a far higher and more prestigious level than anything Germany or the US/Canada offers. The US and Canada award honorary PhDs for general accomplishment, but if there's an application process for them, I am quite unaware of it.

The UK also has the Royal Societies as a measure of academic accomplishment. Based on the faculty members I knew who were members, it seems as if the honor is usually awarded around 15-20 years into an academic career, to people who have been reasonably prolific in their field.

If it's arguably poor form to put PhD after one's name, and especially pretentious on the front cover of a book, it's usually even worse if the book's author mentioned their MA on the front cover of a book.

I know very little about non-humanities doctoral degrees, and I was particularly unaward of the Juris Doctor.

So... what was it you were thinking of saying about Oxford/Cambridge MAs?
Dec. 8th, 2003 08:46 am (UTC)
I especially hadn't realized that PhDs were considered of different degrees of status within the UK.
Oh, no, a PhD is regarded as a substantial academic achievement in the UK - just as it is in the USA and elsewhere. These days (things were different as recently as twenty years ago) it's a pre-requisite for an academic career. I guess it's a sort of apprenticeship that any budding academic must go through before they can take their place with the other journeymen and masters.

It's also true that the PhD can be done in three years over here, but I believe our undergraduate degrees tend to be more specialised than the US ones - at least in the sense that you concentrate on one subject (or, in some cases, two related ones like Maths/Economics or English/History) for the entire time. Also, a lot of UK departments won't let you start a PhD unless you've already done either a postgraduate master's degree (MA/MSc/etc) or at least one of the new advanced undergrad degrees (MMath, MPhys, etc). In my department this is a pre-requisite for starting the PhD proper - I did the MSc separately but a number of my colleagues did it as the first year of their PhD. I know of two very bright people who did both the MSc and PhD in a little over three years - one walked into a postdoc place at Oxford (and then got a permanent lectureship at Lancaster) and the other was almost pressganged into a postdoc place (and then a lectureship, which they basically created in order to keep him there) at Manchester.

So, yes, I guess the UK PhD is shorter than the US version, but I think the final standard is comparable - it's just that we chop a couple of years off the beginning of our undergraduate degrees and PhDs. My limited understanding of the US undergraduate degree is that you spend the first year or so deciding on your specialist subject - we decide on this right from the beginning, although many universities allow students to take a small number of courses in other departments for credit. My similarly limited understanding of the US PhD is that you spend the first couple of years doing masters-level taught courses and preparing for the qualifying exams - generally over here we've either done the MA/MSc bit before we start, or we learn what we need to know as we go along. Competition for PhD funding is so fierce here that generally they don't let you start unless you can demonstrate that you've attained a high enough standard already - our `qualification' happens right at the start.

(Apologies if I've misunderstood how the US system works - I hope I don't sound like I'm belittling it in any way. I'd be interested if someone could explain US academia in greater detail.)

The UK also has the Royal Societies as a measure of academic accomplishment.
Fellowship of the Royal Society is the highest mark of (scientific) academic achievement which the UK possesses. Up to 42 Fellows (who get the postnominal letters FRS) and six Foreign Members are appointed every year. The mathematics department here at Warwick is pretty highly regarded, and only three (out of 44) of our full-time staff are FRS. Looking at this year's Fellows, only four (of 42) don't have the title `Professor', and one of them's a Dame (and, it turns out, also a Professor). One of this year's Foreign Members was Donald Knuth, regarded as a living god in some branches of computer science.

Dec. 8th, 2003 09:32 am (UTC)
So... what was it you were thinking of saying about Oxford/Cambridge MAs?
OK, well basically what happens is that the standard (three-year) undergraduate degree course at Oxford and Cambridge leads to the title of BA (Bachelor of Arts, or Baccalaureus in Artibus). Four years later, this upgrades (with no further study or examination required) to an MA (Master of Arts, or Magister in Artibus). This irks a lot of people at other universities because (nearly) everywhere else you have to work an extra year or so for an MA - indeed, the myth that ``Oxbridge graduates get a free degree'' or ``You can buy an MA for ten quid at Oxbridge'' has propagated throughout the UK.

So, a year or two ago, I asked around to find out exactly what's going on. It turns out that something much more subtle and historically interesting is going on, than simply ``Oxbridge reckon they're better than everywhere else''.

It all dates back to mediæval times, when the standard undergraduate course (in the `Arts') consisted of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, dialectic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music). This took seven years to complete, although students typically matriculated a few years earlier - so the average student would still graduate in their early twenties.

(It occurs to me at this point that you're a historian, and hence probably know this all far better than I do - please feel free to correct me if I get anything wrong.)

After completing the trivium (which usually took three years) and passing the relevant exams, the student would be granted the interim status (or `degree') of baccalaureus in artibus, shifted one rung up the academic pecking-order from `mere student' to `mere BA', and allowed to wear a plain black gown and a hood lined with lambswool.

Then, they'd start on the quadrivium, which usually took another four years. After passing the final exams, they'd `incept' to the status of magister in artibus (`Master of Arts'), accorded full membership of the (`Convocation' of the) university, the respect of their peers, and allowed to wear a longer black gown and a hood lined with ermine or miniver. Furthermore, they had to teach within the university for a specified period (two or three years, I think) - these were the `regent masters' (and one of the main decision-making bodies of the University of Cambridge is still called the `House of Regents').

Upon completion of these duties they'd become `non-regent masters' and would be free to leave the university (and become a clerk, enter the priesthood, or whatever), or stay on and study in one of the `higher faculties' (Divinity, Canon Law, Civil Law, Medicine), first for a baccalaureate, and later for a doctorate.

(Aside: It was possible to study for the BMus and DMus degrees without first studying the Arts - usually as external candidates. No degrees in Canon Law have been awarded since the reign of Mary I.)
Dec. 8th, 2003 09:32 am (UTC)
So, anyway, the standard undergraduate degree at Oxford and Cambridge was the MA, took seven years, and conferred full graduate membership of the university when it was completed.

Over the centuries, the content of the Arts course became either less relevant, or subsumed into the secondary school curriculum (this is why the French school-leaving certificate is called the Baccalaureat, while the UK retained the name for the undergraduate degree course). Then specialisation came in, so instead of studying a fixed syllabus, you'd study different things depending on your requirements.

So, centuries later, the standard undergraduate degree at Oxford and Cambridge is still the MA (regardless of what subject you study), and still takes seven years to do. It's just that the latter four years have no study, residence, or examination requirements. Until the full course has been completed, the student is accorded the temporary status of BA. The ancient Scottish universities (Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, St Andrews) also award the MA as an undergraduate degree, but their graduates get it right away.

Meanwhile, the newer universities (London, etc) started doing what Oxbridge was effectively doing - awarding the BA for completion of a three-year specialist undergraduate course - but they also reused the MA as a postgraduate qualification. Everyone else followed their lead with the result that Oxbridge is now the anomaly. Every so often, someone stands up in Parliament and rants about how this Isn't On, and how Something Must Be Done.

Oxbridge do have equivalents of what other places call the MA, by the way - the corresponding degree at Oxford is an MLitt (Master of Letters) and at Cambridge it's an MPhil (Master of Philosophy). An MLitt/MSc at Cambridge is called an MPhil everywhere else.
Dec. 9th, 2003 06:55 am (UTC)
That's an interesting piece of trivia. (Since I do not presume you to be a latin scholar, I'll spell out the pun: trivia is the plural of trivium.)

I wonder at what point Oxbridge students did the full quadrivium. From what I remember reading about university degrees from the high Middle Ages, at least, the quadrivium was recommended, but based on what texts have survived, not very many people actually got around to formally studying them. I don't know what places these generalities from memory cover. My initial reaction is that yes, that was the ideal at Oxford and Cambridge, but at least that early on, it was not necessarily fulfilled - and not everyone finished their studies and did the full MA.

It's more likely, however, that this tradition dates from sometime later - at least the Renaissance or thereabouts, when things like formal outlines of courses of studied were a little bit more obsessed over.

It does make modern degrees more confusing, however, tracking what degree is an undergraduate MA versus a graduate MA. Then again, the UK has four year MAs as well. Additionally, other institutions offer a one year MA, and a two year MPhil, which implies the story behind Cambridge offering an MPhil in lieu of an MA isn't as straightforward as it sounds from your telling of it.
Dec. 9th, 2003 06:33 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't describe myself as a `Latin scholar', but I studied it at school for five years (I got a B grade in GCSE). I'm a bit rusty now, although I got the pun :)

I don't think everyone stayed on to study the quadrivium, no, although I believe it was mostly expected. The MA was required for full membership of the University in question, certainly. But presumably if you just wanted a general basic education - enough to give you better career prospects - then the BA would have probably been fine.

Four-year undergraduate MA courses occur in the four ancient Scottish universities. I'm a little hazy as to the exact practice, but I think you can finish after three years and graduate with a BA, or stay on for another year to get the (more highly-regarded) MA.

In the past ten or fifteen years, a number of other four-year undergraduate courses have become widespread in UK academia - in particular the MMath, MPhys, MChem, and others (some places combine these into the confusingly-named MSci, which is distinct from the MSc). These are typically a three-year BSc course with an extra year of more advanced courses tacked on the end. In my department, the MMath seems to be regarded as somewhere between a BSc and a BSc+MSc - certainly MMath students wishing to stay on and do a PhD are advised to take at least one or two MSc-level courses as part of their fourth year.

Oxford and Cambridge are a law unto themselves when it comes to degree titles (and, indeed, in many other contexts). Pretty much everywhere else in the UK, an MA/MSc is a one-year postgraduate course, and an MPhil a two-year research degree somewhere short of a full PhD. (Aside: A possible outcome of an unsuccessful PhD viva is that an MPhil be awarded instead.)

Oxford calls the one-year postgraduate course MLitt/MSc (used to be BLitt/BSc until about thirty years ago), and the two-year research degree MPhil (unless it's in Philosophy, which department retains the older title BPhil).

Cambridge, for some reason, swaps them round - the one-year postgraduate course is an MPhil (no matter what subject you do it in), and the two-year research degree is an MLitt/MSc. It's almost as if they'd gone out of their way to confuse the uninitiated.

There are other peculiarities, too - both award the degree BD (Bachelor of Divinity) which sounds like an undergrad degree but is actually an advanced research degree in theology, ranking just above PhD. Cambridge has an optional fourth year to the Mathematical Tripos (called `Part III') which leads to the `Certificate of Advanced Study in Mathematics' - anywhere else it'd be an MSc, and indeed it's generally treated as such by anyone who knows what it is. The degree of MusB/BMus is a one-year postgraduate course only open to those who already have a BA in music from the university in question. I'm told that Cambridge has a degree of MusM (Master of Music) but that it's only ever been awarded once. Oxford awards the one-year postgrad degree BCL (Bachelor of Civil Law) which is what everywhere else calls an LLM. Cambridge calls the corresponding degree LLM too, but until about twenty years ago it was called LLB.

All rather odd, really.
Dec. 8th, 2003 09:13 am (UTC)
the answer?
The British "Professor" thing always messed me up, since I was used to calling everyone "Professor". Now I don't know what to call people, so I just tug on their jacket sleeves and whine.
Dec. 8th, 2003 09:36 am (UTC)
Re: the answer?
A few months ago, inspired by a question asked in this very journal, I asked my supervisor (US: `advisor') something I should have asked him six years (I'm part-time) ago: ``So what exactly do I call you, then?'' and received the reply ``Oh, call me Colin - we're not a particularly formal lot in this department...''
Dec. 8th, 2003 09:40 am (UTC)
Re: the answer?
I can't remember if I told you that I too eventually asked my supervisor what to call him. He unhelpfully answered "Whatever you feel comfortable with." (I wouldn't have asked if I felt comfortable with any particular form of address). He did add that "Bert" was fine, however. So I too have an answer, even if I have not actually made use of it.
Dec. 8th, 2003 03:54 pm (UTC)
Re: the answer?
I used to have issues with calling my professors (advisors, teachers, slave-drivers, whatever...) by their first names until my fellow classmates did so religiously. After awhile, I just fell into calling them by their first names (when they assured us that is was alright, of course) after awhile. Still, it took me two years to call my undergraduate advisor by his first name. I used to start my e-mails with "Hi" or "Hello" or "Yo!" just to avoid using names.
Dec. 9th, 2003 07:00 am (UTC)
Re: the answer?
I still generally err on the side of avoiding direct address and start with Hello, or the like. I'm somewhat embarassed by the fact I do it, since it seems so obvious that I write it in part because I'm missing out on whatever out to be the right protocol for the situation. I generally avoid calling anyone anything, which is probably just as bad, but less likely to embarass me immediately.
Dec. 9th, 2003 10:14 am (UTC)
Re: the answer?
When I have students, I'm going to make it very clear from the beginning:

"You may call me 'The All-powerful Fist of Doom'".

Dec. 8th, 2003 12:29 pm (UTC)
This whole thread has been very interesting - good topic, owlfish! just to complicate things even further, i will venture the suggestion that there may be regional, not just national differences as well. For example, i did my B.Sc. and M.A. at the University of Alberta, and there everyone with a Ph.D. is called Doctor, by students, colleagues, and during introductions, until and unless the Doctor in question specifically invites you to use their first name or some other form of address. Very rarely you would hear someone use Professor instead of Doctor, and that always meant they had come from another country or institution where that title was used. And I never heard even a whisper that it was pretentious or uncalled-for to want to be called Doctor. Interesting...
Dec. 9th, 2003 06:58 am (UTC)
University cultures can be quite independently strong, regardless of other generalities. I certainly haven't surveyed many institutions in the claims I'm making, but I figure that the people who comment on my post will make up for any inherent lack of knowledge on my part. Such as you!

Formality in particular varies. hilly02 went to an informal undergraduate institution, where first names were the usual form of address. Your programs were at the other end of the spectrum, and mine have all been somewhere in the middle. I wonder how many err on the side of formality these days? I know it was more common 20 years ago.
Jan. 4th, 2004 10:02 pm (UTC)
From talking with friends, I get the impression that "Dr." is the more common form of address at most universities in the United States. "Professor" may be more common in New England, however.

Most undergraduates seem unaware of their instructors' credentials, so the forms of address are sometimes not quite correct -- an art instructor (MFA) addressed as "Dr.," for example.

The use of first names appears to be generational -- much more common with younger faculty than with others.
Dec. 9th, 2003 01:59 pm (UTC)
Twenty or thirty years ago in the US there tended to be an inverse relationship between the academic respectablility of the degree and the determination of the holder to be addressed as Dr. and to string "Ph.D." after the name. People with doctorates in education were particularly insistent on being called "dr.", which told others more about them than they realized. For all I know, this may still be the case. - P
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