Feel free to call me Dr.

It happens so frequently, to me, to my friends and colleagues, and in professional settings no less. In asking about your work, they say, “Mrs. Biolock, can you explain your findings?” You find yourself wondering if it is necessary to correct them, to ask them to refer to you by your professional title: “Dr.” When deciding whether to halt the conversation, to introduce that awkward moment of correction, we are actually considering whether (as my mother would say) we are willing to ruin the party. Is your name, your title worthy of the tricky pause, the halted speech, and the stilted correction?

Whether someone refers to you as “Dr.” or “Mrs.” or “Ms.”, and whether or not you correct them is in some small part about the politics of respectability. Not the typical respectability politics (à la Don Lemon ) that continues to haunt the Black community, but the kind of respectability politics that forces you to acknowledge that titles matter. They shape how people speak to you, whether they respect your opinions, whether they validate your work, how your work gets covered in broader science communications pieces.

In my discipline, there has been much talk for the at least the past 40 years of abandoning the well-worn practices that reinforce institutional hierarchies. For some scholars, this has meant aligning oneself with leftist politics, engaging in extensive community outreach, or even simply dressing casually and encouraging students to call you by your first name with no signifier. However all of this positioning occurs while folks remain fully entrenched in the privileges bestowed upon them by the doctorate, seniority, and ethnic and/or socioeconomic backgrounds.

For women and people of color working in the academy, decisions around titles are constantly being weighed by several factors including the age of the professor, institutional cultures, students’ backgrounds, and gender dynamics. As a person of color and junior faculty member, I do not allow my students to call me by my first name. However, I know of several white woman of similar rank who encourage students to call them by their first name in the classroom.

In my experiences, I have never needed to encourage students to be less formal with me. I remember standing in front of the classroom a few years ago, writing my name on the board, when I overheard a student ask “do you know who the professor is?” I gently turned and said, “That is me” to surprised faces and raised eyebrows. While most students are at least outwardly comfortable with me as their professor (and some students are openly excited at the prospect of having a young female professor of color), many students are unsure of how to manage me in the classroom. Should they trust me? Is this a valid educational experience? I have had to explain my credentials so often that I only recently stopped beginning each semester with a not-so-subtle run down of my professional qualifications.

Although I only completed my doctorate six years ago, I am already exhausted by the constant need to validate my worth in the professional settings. As evidenced by recent discussions at predominately white campuses throughout the country (including at one of my alma maters), this conversation about worthiness and deservedness begins for many people of color as undergraduates. So perhaps six years is not correct, maybe 17 years is more accurate. I have been asking people to call me by my right name for at least 17 years. An accumulation of racial and gender microaggressions has left me weary of informal titles in professional settings. In a few experiments, informality has never ended well. When I have had to rebuff requests for extensions and grade changes, it has ended in anger – because I was their friend after all; we spoke to each other so casually.

Additionally, the discussion of whether to correct someone if they refer to you as “Mrs.” is a question of identity politics. I am also married, and for professional reasons and personal politics (similarly discussed in a recent interview by famed author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), I did not take my husband’s last name. Thus, I am not Mrs. anyone. I am Dame, Dame B. Biolock or Dr. Dame B. Biolock, depending on who is asking. Mrs. Biolock does not live here.

Although I know that titles matter, respectability politics eventually fail at every turn. My professional identity will never supersede the fact that I am a woman of color (nor would I want it to). I am always living at the intersection of several identities. So let’s start with “Dr.”, and go from there.

34 thoughts on “Feel free to call me Dr.

  1. Thanks for this post! I’ve struggled with titles as a young white female professor. I tend to expect my title until I invite students to use my first name (typically in a seminar-style class or with grad students), but your post has made me wonder if by doing so I set students up to expect that level of familiarity not only undermines my authority, but also that of other faculty as well.

  2. Sounds like you and I could have a long chat about this issue. I stopped putting my first name on syllabi because I thought it encouraged students to call me by my first name. Whether proceeded by “Dr.” or followed by “Ph.D.,” many of them zoomed in on the first name as an appropriate way to address me. So, I use my initials, but, of course, that’s not foolproof either.

  3. I’m actually torn on this one. I did my MS at a west coast university (mostly white and very large Asian population) which was really informal in terms of the name/title bit. My current one where I’m doing my PhD is an east coast university that is way more diverse, but they were more formal with the Dr/Prof titles.

    I also work as a consultant with the Women in Public Service Project, and our leaders actually stress not calling each other by our titles because they believe it creates a hierarchy and prevents more open dialogue. We, the delegates and the mentors, are instead supposed to be colleagues who are all equally contributing to the advancement of all women on this planet. I’m not saying that our degrees are meaningless, but I do believe that a title is not what defines you. Many of our delegates and mentors are faculty, foreign ministers, and leaders, and we all say that we learn from each other. Every teacher I’ve ever met has also said that they learn a lot from students as well.

    I’ve worked as a research associate for more than ten years, and my PIs have always been faculty, but they were very insistent that we call each other by first names. I currently can’t be a PI since I don’t yet have my PhD, but it would be very odd of the PI on my project had to be Dr. XXX while I am Ms. XXX. If we’re meeting on a daily basis and talking about data analyses, I would actually find the titles uncomfortable. Maybe it is different for graduate students compared to undergraduates.

    • I should add that I do think it is different for graduate students and post-docs. At my former institution, I preferred that my graduate students call me by my first name. However, due to my age, ethnicity, and gender – many graduate students often dealt with me in ways that I found to be far too informal. It was a difficult balance to strike.

      • Yes, I can imagine that is also true. I might even say the same thing about undergraduates who work as student research assistants as well. I hired two in my last lab where I was the project manager of our grant. I never expected them to call me Ms. XXX or the PI Dr. XXX since we really were working together.

  4. I understand the arguments for not using titles as a means to reduce the hierarchies in the system, but at the same time, inequalities remain in how different genders, ethnicities, and ages are treated in the same situation. My biggest frustration as a young female white academic in a tenure-track position was the amount of times people, by default, assumed I was a new graduate student (this was especially true of my colleagues in the department and beyond). Another male colleague about the same age hired at the same time did not get the same default reaction. I wonder how many men get defaulted to Mr. rather than Dr.? I use my title when teaching large first and second year undergraduate classes, but tend to be more informal in upper-level seminars and with graduate students. Where I am most compelled to use my title, however, is when challenged professionally, often by older white male colleagues. I was an expert witness a couple of years ago and the lawyer for the other side called me “Ms.”. I immediately corrected him, especially to set the tone for his questioning and the way I was going to respond.

  5. I would add that the dynamics, in my experience, are completely different if the group is visually homogeneous than if it is not. More than once I have sat in meetings where male PhD’s were addressed as “Doctor” and female PhD’s were addressed as “Miss,” “Mrs.,” “Ma’am,” or even by their first names. I have seen similar unconscious verbal bias when white or Asian-looking female PhD’s are addressed as “Doctor” but dark skinned female PhD’s are called by their first names. In both situations I have been amazed at the resistance of the speaker to make the correction when called out – whether by the victim or by a bystander. The speaker sometimes apologizes for the “slip” and makes some joke explaining it … but then slips again a few minutes later. Sometimes changes what they’re saying but doesn’t apologize atall.

  6. Once…I was doing a science demonstration (blowing this up, changing colors etc) for 200 elementary school kids. In my white lab coat with safety glasses on and the principal turned to me and introduced me as Mrs. Niewood (my married name). I promptly turned to him and without thinking said in front of 200 kids and teachers…”that is Dr. Niewood obviously”. Never did it again.
    Curiously…one of the kids went home and told his parents that “Bill Nye’s wife” came to their school that day.
    Own it…you earned it.

  7. I would like to offer a different perspective. In Australia it is very rare for an academic to insist upon being called Doctor or Professor. I always start off by calling them that (especially in writing) but am almost always corrected and told to call them by their first name. (Once I was even mocked by a professor for using his title and he accused me of being a suck up.) I have never witnessed a lack of respect in a classroom, ever, in more than 8 years of study.

    I do believe that when referring to someone you should get their title right and if you don’t expect to be corrected, but I don’t believe that calling an academic by their first name engenders disrespect. One of the reasons academics insist upon first names here is to encourage the idea that young scholars are academics in training and part of the collegial community. It works well.

    • I think that there are several ways to create engaged classroom and learning environments. However, demographics and positionality matter. I cannot speak to the experiences of your professors in Australia. As I noted in the post, my experiences are specific to my identity as a woman and person of color. Additionally, there are several recent publications that suggest that I far from alone in having to manage these identities, and the ways that they are perceived by students (See Presumed Incompetent for further reading).

    • If it is the case that the apparent equality with which individuals are addressed in the Australian context reflects an equality of treatment along other dimensions, it’s great. There is a huge element of culture in it, however – if it is common practice to speak informally in a given context, the practice does not set up the same tension as it does in a situation where individuals of a certain type are clearly addressed differently in a manner that implies assumptions are wrongly being made. A few years after my family first moved to the US, I had a high school teacher who insisted that his students call him by his first name, as a mark of being the cool guy who is just one of us. I simply could not bring myself to do it, as this to me was a blatant indicator and invitation for disrespect. I come from a culture in which all adults are accorded some term of respect, and never spoken to by their first name alone.

      The level of the student also matters. Undergraduates in the US are expected to use titles, graduate students and postdocs are not. I remember awkwardly making the transition when I stayed on to work as a research assistant with a prof who was my undergrad advisor – the switch to being on a first name basis happened simply because our interactions progressed to a level of greater mutual respect. I do feel that having earned the “Dr.” now myself that there are professional occasions when it needs to be emphasized and others when it does not.

  8. Here in Australia, the culture is very different. I don’t think we can compare situations in two different places. From what I see, the American culture in general (not just in academia) uses titles where we would not. It is important therefore, to be consistent with the society norm AND CORRECT.

    If titles are being regularly used, then I think we as individuals should INSIST the title is correct. Whatever the situation, we should never put up with an ‘incorrect’ form of address. And as commented above, where some people are given ‘Dr’ and some more informal titles, within the same meeting, then this should be addressed and everyone called by their professional title. And if you don’t know if they have a PhD (yet) or not, it is always best to err on the side of caution and call them Dr anyway.

    I go as a volunteer within in a science program into a primary (elementary) school, and we discussed this title thing before I joined the program. We decided that I am Dr (surname); all the teachers, the principal, the kids and any parent helpers call me this when in front of the children or in a formal situation such as presentation night. We decided that this formality highlights a few good things – it shows that I am qualified as a scientist; it starts a discussion within each new class about the difference between a PhD and a medical doctor; i get to explain university courses to little kids in the first lesson; and it shows me as a role model, that someone who looks like their little ol’ grandma can be Dr someone, so maybe they can aim for that too.

    However, when I was working in a Uni as a lecturer, there was a totally different culture as indicated by the Australian post above. I was happy in that situation to just fit in with what everyone else around was doing (usually first name). But in an initial introduction or a written communication, i would always try to use the correct title for someone unless asked to do otherwise.

    • Wow, I’m glad I read this! As a recent transplant to Australia and someone who has discussed this a LOT in the US, I was gearing up to expect my undergrad students to call me Dr J when I start teaching next month. So helpful to find out the different cultural norms!

      • J, I would ask the others in the Dept …it can vary from place to place. Also, if you are more comfortable with Dr, then start with that. Change later if necessary. If they are first-years straight out of school, you will probably get ‘Miss’ because that is what they call all their female teachers (in NSW anyway, maybe not in other States). I used to call them out on this, but gently and tell them they had until Easter to change.

        don;t change your personality or culture immediately if it isn’t true to who YOU are. As long as you don’t appear to be putting on airs and graces, people will be laid back about it (which might result in some teasing, but just realise it is friendly teasing, and probably indicates you are being accepted).

        We do do things a bit topsy turvy down here, a result of standing on our heads.

        have you noticed the light switches go the other way too?


  9. Introduce yourself to the class as Dr. … and write it on the board. Include comments and anecdotes frequently about talks you’ve given at conferences, your research, or opportunities you have had.

    People still wander in my office and ask if I know Prof. XYZ’s schedule or can they make an appt. to see him. Surrounded in my office by journals, certificates and other forms of recognition, I still am mistaken for a secretary. When I traveled to Japan on the invitation of the govt there, the limo driver rushed up to my husband and greeted him assuming he was the invited guest. It is better in the US. I’m grateful for that.

    • Oh yes, I have seen these things happen too. It sometimes also happens when a younger PhD (male or female) is travelling with an older person who does not have that title; the older person gets called Dr and gets the initial greeting and respect. That has also happened to me, and also to my husband when he was younger. It happens in hospitals too. Only this week, someone told me that patients still say to her mother (a mature medico) “now can I see the real doctor please”.

      These are ingrained stereotypes, and in these situations I would insist on correcting the person concerned, every time, no matter what i do with my own students.

  10. My significant other and I are happily unmarried but wear rings as outward signs of our long-term commitment.

    I’ve often been given the courtesy of being addressed as Mrs, by students and others who are evidently more than willing to assume that I am a respectful married woman. Deeply ironic, then, that they cannot front the same respectful courtesy of assuming that I am a Dr. or Professor.

  11. Fascinating post. In the UK, it is my experience that undergrads use the formal academic title of the member of staff (Dr or Professor); I demand that they move to first name terms only when they join my research group for their final year lab projects, as this marks a fundamental transition in their education and the demands made on their intellect. Members of the research group and their collaborators are always on 1st name terms. However, it is also plain that this varies tremendously across the world, so there is no fixed solution – whatever works and is comfortable is likely to be right.

    • You mentioned that you “demand” that final year grad students call you by your first name. What would happen if a final year student just did not feel comfortable with that and continued to call you by your title? Would they be seen as fitting in?

      • Undergrad students, not grad students! I explain why – they are transiting to being a colleague and colleagues have to be on first name terms. I never have a problem with undergrad students, regardless of their land of origin, which reflects, I think, that science students understand that open discussion lies at the root of science. Open discussion is not possible in a hierarchy. What is fascinating is that a number of MD students have great difficulty in not calling me “Prof”, which reflects the unfortunate fact that medicine is still very hierarchical and not so open.

  12. This happens to me ALL the time. I am a young, female assistant professor, and I am also a racial minority. I explicitly ask my students to call me Prof. or Dr., and most of them do — but I still get emails addressed to “Ms” or “Mrs.” Some other examples: just a couple of days ago, a textbook salesperson was on campus visiting professors. I heard him knock on my male colleague’s door (the office RIGHT next door) and ask, “Prof X, may I have a moment of your time?” Not 2 minutes later, the salesperson came to my office and asked, “Ms. Y, can I speak to you?” My title is on my DOOR. Another time, one of my graduate students introduced my husband and I to her parents by first saying, “Mom and Dad, this is Dr. X.” The father shook my husband’s hand. (My husband is not a Dr.) It is frustrating that when, as an underrepresented group member, you ask for respect (that you have earned and that White men get automatically), you are viewed as “complaining.” My university encourages all faculty to ask students to call them “Prof” or “Dr” so that titles are consistent across faculty and that it is not up to individual faculty to enforce. I love this. But even without this informal policy, I would (and often do) remind people of my title because it is that much more important for people to recognize the accomplishments of those of us who are often denied respect.

    • Re: “complaining” —

      Yes! There’s a definite difference in typical response to correction. If a male PhD is introduced as “Mr” and corrects the speaker, the speaker usually apologizes and moves on without a fuss, or maybe even feels embarrassed for the disrespectful mistake of not knowing the correct title. If a female PhD is introduced by a gendered title and corrects the speaker, there’s often an awkward silence which conveys that the speaker and any listeners are thinking that Dr. BitchyFeminist is a real pain in the neck for complaining. Why does she have to disrupt things by making a stink about her title? How were we supposed to know she has a doctorate?!?


  13. Where I was a postdoc, grad students were briefly responsible for arranging seminar speakers’ schedules. The female grad student in charge one year would write “Dr.” before the names of male postdocs and profs but never before mine. (The few times I noticed this, I was the only female on the schedule. I was pretty damn sure my postdoc status was clear.) I waited until it happened a few times before pointing it out to her. I wish now I’d pointed it out right away.

  14. As a female grad student who is applying for phd programs in the fall, thank you for this. I was actually just recently mulling this over and thinking about the gender dynamics between students and professors on my own campus. I am not a woman of color, but I connect with and appreciate this post. One of my advisors is a woman of color and I have absolutely observed her getting bulldozed in conversations with students in a way I feel they would not do with a white male professor. Thanks for this. I hope one day posts like this won’t be necessary.

  15. In professional situations with patients and students, I generally use Dr. I do want my colleagues to use my first name; some of the junior ones find that difficult!
    If someone at the kids’ school called me Mrs. Lane, I didn’t usually correct them because my MD wasn’t relevant.
    If I’m filling out an online form (as I blogged about a while back) I get really ticked off if they do not give me at least a Ms choice; there is no reason they have to know my marital status to sign me up to whatever it is.

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  17. I think that this is such an important conversation to have. I am still a graduate student, so can’t claim “Dr.”, but something that has come up as a topic of discussion amongst grad students in our department is how students are much more likely to default to calling male graduate student instructors (not TAs, but post-masters when we teach our own courses) “Dr.” or “Professor” but are more likely to call female graduate student instructors “Miss” or “FirstName”. There is also a very different level of respect and acknowledgment of status when talking to male versus female instructors; students are far more likely to try to challenge or outright bully female instructors. My friend and I, who are both young-looking (I’m actually 30), White women, had a discussion about the tactics we employ to ensure that our students don’t attempt to steamroller us. While we both acknowledged that we would prefer to use “Dr.” if we could, we realized we have developed different strategies around the respect issue. My friend, who is married but kept her name, insists on her students calling her “Ms. Lastname” but dresses somewhat casually (the same clothes she wears when not teaching). In contrast, partially because I’ve noticed that Ms. tends to slip to Miss (which I hate being called), I have adopted the strategy of allowing students to use my first name, but of dressing very formally for classes and outlining my academic credentials in the first class session. I also find that I tend to introduce my age as being older than my students think very early on. This strategy has seemed to work for me, although it is a pain to have to wear nylons and less comfortable shoes for classes, because I’ve find that some of my students would continue to call me “Professor” even though I don’t have my PhD (and I explain to my students that Professor is an earned title only according to certain faculty). My friend has been mostly successful, but has found that some (usually male) students will try to still use her first name and challenge her. I’ve had some students attempt to challenge me initially, but I actually find that I am much more able to resist these challenges in my “Professor costume,” which makes me realize that dressing formally also probably impacts my own mindset and behavior. Although I can only speak to my experience, I can readily see that adding race into the mix would only compound the problems faced by [especially young] female professors. I say claim the title and insist upon it — it was earned. I realize that the tone of correcting people will be a difficult balance to strike (with the risk of backlash), but hopefully a quiet insistence on the proper title will quell all but the most problematic of transgressors.

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  19. Very interesting discussion, thanks.
    I apologize for crashing into this feminine blogosphere, without invitation.
    Most of you have been discussing about the male-female bias or discrimination, with racial connotations.
    In America, there is something called hypocrisy together with some kind of schizophrenia. We are very nice people, but we are hypocrites with schizophrenia, without any treatment, because it is human trait to put down “others.” This has nothing to do with race or gender (Duh!); it is the way we are wired. I am a PhD with JD. I always call myself Dr., when I pick up the phone, by following the tradition of my fellow PhDs at various institutions such as universities, national labs and industry; especially when I want to sell myself to get some business to survive. Not only nobody ever acknowledges it, but also call me rude, arrogant and condescending; and I always get letters addressing me with Mr. or Ms. (because it is difficult for an American to decipher my gender based on my long unusual name), even though there is a clear easy way out of that gender confusion – the title Dr., right at the beginning of my name Dr. Xxxxxxxxxxxxx Yyyyyyyyyyyyyyy, PhD., below my signature or at top of my letter. They still insist on addressing me with Mr. or Ms. Xxabcxxxxxxxxxxx Yyyyyyyyyyyyya; (with a typo in my name). Is that deliberate?
    And I almost got fired at a reputable multinational company for suggesting to my “senior administrative assistant,” Mrs. Smith that she should prepare letters addressing PhDs with a Dr., not Mr, Mrs, Ms or Miss, when we know that person is a PhD.
    By the way, I am a male Dr., with a PhD, but neither white nor black. When I tell that my nationality is “American,” they laugh! Go figure, my nationality, race, and the bias thereof.

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  21. The “Ms”, “Mrs.” or “Miss” happens in the medical world too. As a Black M.D., I am often referred to as “Ms. So and so” in the medical context. I am usually the most conservatively and crisply dressed in the room and sport an Anglo-style hairdo. Today at in my new clinical position while on a 3-hour tour of the facility, I was called “Miss” or “Ms” 3 times by staff members of various races after being introduced as “Dr. So and so.” I corrected one person. I was even called “Girl” today. I have not heard my male colleagues of any race be called “Mr.” I love the author’s term “micro aggressions” for that it what they seem to be.

    I once had a patient come in to have me complete a form giving him back his ability to take care of his own finances. He repeatedly, despite many corrections, called me “Miss.” So I told him that if he was unable to get my title right after so much help, that maybe in fact managing his finances would prove too challenging for him. I very quickly became “Dr.” So that was a clear case of microaggression.

    And yes, finessing the correction thing continues to be challenging.

  22. Thank you for your post. As a holder of a doctorate I expect it to be used on official documents. And when people meet my brother and I (he’s an MD) I expect us BOTH to either be introduced with or without the “Dr.” title. One should not be above the other.

    That said, I am continually requesting to be called “Dr.” in settings and on documents where there is either a pull-down for Dr or if others are being addressed that way (if you have a pull-down menu and then call me Ms. I’m always so confused. I mean, did you even look at my documents??). I feel like as a woman I am automatically dismissed as not being a doctor. It’s frustrating. It has been hard to be a woman in a male-dominated profession, let alone get a doctorate in it. And it’s a continual fight. I hope one day the tides will change.

    And you are right- I always consider if I would be ruining the party if I speak up. But then again, how long will it take before all that hard work is acknowledged? I have to admit, 6 out of 10 times I don’t say anything.

    BTW, I read Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It was one of the most life-altering books I have ever read. She is truly gifted. Thank you for acknowledging her work.

  23. I was invited to call my committee members and mentor by their first name the day I successfully defended my dissertation. Now, 8 years later, I still struggle to do it because it seems disrespectful although I know they now see me as a peer. I am a young white female professor now and I introduce myself as Dr. However, even just today a student entered my office addressing me by just my first name and I debated whether or not to correct him. I usually go by Dr. to keep the relationship more formal since I am young. However, the need to do that did was less important than being approachable to the student in that moment so I didn’t say anything.

  24. Thank you for this post! I just found this post when I did Google search on how we address women differently than men. I referenced your post when writing an email to two journalists whom I had heard on NPR discussing a black woman who has just been chosen as the incoming Baltimore City schools CEO. The journalist (a black woman) referred to the incoming CEO twice by her first name, but the outgoing CEO and a previous CEO, both male, were referred to only by their titles (Dr.) and last name. I wanted to point their attention to these unconscious micro-aggressions, that because of her own race and gender, is likely coming from the internalized oppression that is impossible to fully escape in our society. I recommended that they have you as a guest on a show as a part of their reparations and show of commitment to critically examine this endemic issue.

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