The Master’s Tools won’t take down the Master’s House

Graduate hat

Every couple of months it seems a certain debate flares up on my Twitter and it keeps annoying me. It keeps being brought up by people whom I generally highly respect, who are usually kick ass feminists and right in so many things, except this one that drives me up the wall: The great debate of titles.

It usually goes like this: If somebody has a title like “Dr.” or “Prof.”, you must use them.The arguments brought forward are sound at first glance: too often women and people of colour are denied their credentials. While a (white) man is introduced as “Dr. So and So”, a woman is much more likely to be introduced as “Ms. This and That” or even by her first name. We’ve all seen this play out with the Clintons, who are “Clinton” and “Hillary”. This portrays these people as less competent, their voice having less value and them being less worthy of respect.

Another one is that marginalised people who hold these positions have overcome significant obstacles to reach them. They’ve fought an uphill battle against sexism and racism all the way and had to work much harder than the white guy who then gets paid respect by being addressed as “Dr.” while they’re not.

While both points are true on the surface, they both rely on the very premise that people with a PhD are indeed worthy of more respect than others and leaves a hierarchy that has racism and sexism and especially classism built into its very foundation intact because now those people are at the top of said hierarchy and would like to stay there, thank you very much.

Academic titles have been historically part of the self understanding of the bourgeoisie. Look, they said, we have titles as well, and ours are earned. For a long time, in many places, a PhD was a requisite for becoming someone in politics. They were supposed to show that this person was really fit to rule, a title that belonged to the new ruling class, and much like noble titles, they are inherited. Congratulations if you are the first in the family, if you are a minority that used to be cut off such opportunities, yet the overwhelming majority of people in that group come from homes where usually the father holds a PhD as well. the further up you go, the more they become. By insisting on the great importance of your title, you’re staking an allegiance and it’s not one with the communities that brought you forth.

Academic titles do grant people privileges. They, and only they (plus priests), are usually allowed to use their titles as part of their name and they demand and are awarded special respect. My brother in law has a PhD. From his own experience, waiting times for medical appointments and in the waiting room have become drastically shorter since he introduces himself as “Dr.”, but then he gets to spend more time with the actual doctor. The peons can wait. Many of the privileges will be more subtle and as usually the privileged don’t actually see them.

Academic titles are the only ones that become names. Many other people also work hard for their qualifications, often for similar lengths of time. In Germany, where professions are highly regulated everybody who finished successful training has a professional title. Mine is “Assessorin des Lehramtes” and yes, I have a document that shows it and specifically grants permission to use that title. Craftspeople have titles, especially the masters. Yet only a small minority of people are granted the right to use their titles in their names and daily lives. Insisting on them further perpetuates the idea that those other professions, teaching, crafts, nursing, etc. are of lesser value and the people who do them less worthy of respect, which leads me to my next point:

Academic titles do not make you worthy of more respect and the only reason why people can disrespect you by not using them is because you think you deserve some extra special respect. Names and naming are tools of power. We’ve probably all had the teacher who decided to use something different for our name, yet we couldn’t get away with some nickname. When transphobes refuse to use somebody’s real name and pronouns, they’re showing power. This isn’t about respect and decency, it’s about demonstrating power. Scandinavia doesn’t crumble down because most people there just use first name (always somewhat confusing for people from more uptight places when the doctor introduces himself as “Sven” and the calls the patient “Lina”). Using your partner or children’s first name doesn’t show you don’t respect them. At least it shouldn’t.

Academic titles also don’t make you an expert, except in very narrow areas. Remember my BIL, the one with the PhD? He’s a biologist. He once famously claimed that leopards and cheetahs are the same animals. Also caribous roam the African Savannah. Family joke is that if you present him with a horse, a donkey and a zebra he’ll have to do a gene test to identify them. In short, he knows the general stuff every graduate learned and then he learned a great bunch of stuff in a very narrow field. I don’t have to take his opinion more seriously on any other subject than Hepatitis, yet somehow a PhD is supposed to grant him exactly that authority. He also believed in crystals on the top of the monitor preventing headaches…

To finally sum it up, academic titles are a tool of the ruling class to strengthen their position and further the idea that they are simply better people, more worths of respect and better treatment whose opinion should be taken as authority. They are used to exclude marginalised people and their voices from discourse, since they’re lacking “proper qualifications”. While I understand the great personal satisfaction of having gained such a title despite all odds, and the frustration of people then still excluding them from their special club, you cannot dismantle those systems by insisting that you’re really part of the club now and be awarded the privileges that come with it.

As a final note, I’d still recommend you always use those titles if you are a student because apparently those people are very touchy about it and can fuck up your academic career. So much for Foucault’s production of docile bodies…


  1. says

    I used to take Swedish lessons in my university. My Swedish professor introduced herself with her first name and she also used first names when referring to us. I really liked it.

    Personally, I’d like for all titles to be abolished. Among the queer community, I have heard a joke that all queer people have to get PhDs, because that’s the only way how we can escape gendered titles.

    In Latvian there are titles that are equivalent to “Mr.” and “Ms.,” but they aren’t being used all the time like in English or German. Back when I was a student in Latvia, most often being formal meant simply using a person’s full name or just their last name. When you wanted to be informal, you addressed somebody with their first name instead. Thus titles weren’t such a pain in the ass while studying in Latvia. At least they weren’t used all the time.

    In Germany, however, it was a real pain. Everybody referred to me as “Frau Last Name.” I cringed every time somebody literally called me a woman, but I had to bite my tongue. There was no point arguing over titles with the person who simply delivered my mail. Nor did I want to start a scene with my university professors. In a university, I simply had to attend the lectures and pass the exam, I wasn’t there to become friends with my professors, thus I didn’t even particularly want to discuss my gender identity with any of them.

    I’d much rather prefer if people simply referred to me with my name and skipped making implications about my gender. (I have a master’s degree, so no “Dr.” for me.)

    I really wish for titles like “Dr.,” “Prof.,” “Mr.,” “Ms.,” and “Mrs.” to be abolished entirely. They are discriminatory, every one of them in one way or another. Yet I doubt it will happen in the next few decades. It might not even happen in my lifetime.

    On one hand, I agree with you, because I would prefer a society where nobody uses “Dr.” or “Prof.” titles. On the other hand, I’m aware that this isn’t going to happen anytime soon. A society in which men get to use their “Dr.” titles but women are denied from doing the same is even worse than a society in which both men and women get to call themselves “Dr.”

    Telling a female Dr. that she shouldn’t demand the right to be referred with her title is like telling a gay couple that they shouldn’t demand the right to marry in a church. Sure, titles and churches are outdated and discriminatory, but they still are immensely important in the society. A status quo under which men get to use their “Dr.” titles but women are denied the same right is very wrong.

    By the way, if I had a PhD (I don’t), I would definitely use the “Dr.” title, but only because I absolutely hate it when people look at my body and automatically start using one of the gendered titles. I hate “Frau” or “Ms.” much more than I dislike “Dr.,” but insisting on “Herr” or “Mr.” requires a tedious explanation that I don’t want to have every single time I interact with some stranger.

  2. Jazzlet says

    Absolutely spot on Giliell.

    And I can see why you would choose to use Dr if you were entitled Andreas.

    I rather wish Mr J would play about with his name more often. He has a doctorate, and ‘evil’ is contained within his name, so after his viva when he had phoned me up to say he’d got it, I rang round his friends and asked that they phoned that evening to ask for Dr Initial Initial Evil and made Mr J answer the phone, Dr Evil cracked up after a hard day. :-D

  3. says


    A society in which men get to use their “Dr.” titles but women are denied from doing the same is even worse than a society in which both men and women get to call themselves “Dr.”

    But that’s exactly what this post is about. It’s the question about whether you fight to take down discriminatory, unjust systems or whether you fight for your own spot in the hierarchy.
    To me that’s similar to the brand of feminism that cheers on “women in combat roles”. Should women be allowed to join? Sure, but I want to stop the US military from terrorizing the world. The young female soldier who tortured people in Abu Ghraib wasn’t a triumph for women.
    Titles are job qualifications and should be used in that context.
    If i spoke at a teacher’s conference, my qualification and experience would be relevant. If I spoke at an arts convention they wouldn’t.
    BTW, you would still be out of luck with a PhD in Germany. We use Herr Doktor or Frau Doktor soandso and it’s doktor/Doktorin

    In Germany women were allowed to use their husband’s title together with the husband’s first name. When my BIL got married we were wondering if that law was still in place, because his husband has the same first name so they could both be Dr. First Name Last Name. Two titles for the price of one!
    BTW, the whole “buy a PhD businesses” show exactly that this is about hierarchies and privileges.

  4. Jazzlet says

    Ooooh Frau Doktor Evil does have a certain vibe to it that appeals. ;-)

    In the Uk a how a woman was addressed depended on a lot of things, to the extent that we actually covered it in English classes, but all were descriptions of her relationship with either her father or her husband and his relationship to his father. Thus Mrs Jazzlet would be the wife of the oldest surviving male, wives of younger male Jazzlets would be Mrs {husband’s name} Jazzlet, Miss Jazzlet would be his oldest daughter, and so on. I never took Mr J’s name and have always used Ms when people insist on a title as I am not Mrs ‘Jazzlet’, that was my mother as far as I was concerned.

  5. rq says

    This is something I often think about, because my youthhood dream was to be a PhD, and I still want to continue my education, and in a lot of ways it would be good for my career because of my field and the professional circles I’ve been orbiting the last few years. But I also see what I’ve been doing and how I’ve been accepted without those credentials and papers, and I sometimes wonder if it’s going to be worth the effort. On the third hand, I would just really, really love to do some cool research that would have my name on it for years to come. So we’ll see.

  6. lumipuna says

    I can scarcely imagine mentioning my current/future academic title outside of formal academic introductions. I think in Finnish popular media, researchers are usually just referred to by their job title. If/when I’ll be a Dr, the Finnish equivalent would be a more field specific abbreviation that’s not very recognizable to public.

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