How to Properly Address a PhD

Honorifics play an important role in the English language. Not only do honorifics signify rank, but they help to convey courtesy and respect. In academia, honorifics are especially important, so it’s vital to address someone correctly. Many people wonder if they should address a PhD as doctor.

You should address a PhD with the honorific term “Doctor,” followed by their name in both spoken and written situations. The term strictly applies to anyone who has obtained a PhD degree, MD (Doctor of Medicine), or JD (Doctor of Law). English derives the honorific “Doctor” from the Latin word docere, which means “to teach,” and it applies to a PhD because they have reached a level where they can teach others.

Honorifics exist across all languages and cultures and are significant when using and understanding a language. Who should have the title of “Doctor” is widely debated by the academic world, revealing just how important honorifics are in modern-day English.

What Is a PhD?

A PhD is also known as a Doctor of Philosophy. A PhD is considered a terminal degree in the academic world, which means that the person has obtained the highest formal degree in a specific field (source). 

A Doctor of Philosophy is considered to be the traditional doctoral degree. However, over the years, many other types of doctoral degrees have been introduced. Examples of these include the EdD, a Doctor of Education, and DBA, a Doctor of Business (source).

Furthermore, a Doctor of Philosophy is considered an academic degree, while other types of doctorates are deemed professional degrees.

If you are considering pursuing a PhD, then you may be interested in exploring this article, “How to Set and Follow Through on Academic Goals; Examples for Success.”

How and When to Use the Honorific “Dr.”

The honorific “Doctor” or “Dr.” should be used when addressing someone with a PhD, whether via written or verbal correspondence, and it applies to both males and females.

People working towards a PhD, also known as an ABD (All but Dissertation), should not be given the title of “Doctor.” Instead, you should refer to them as “Mr.” or “Ms.” until they have officially completed their PhD.

Undoubtedly, the candidate who has earned their doctorate has worked hard, so it is understandable why they deserve to be addressed correctly. 

The Prenominal and Postnominal

When discussing the subject of addressing someone with a PhD, it’s vital to consider the prenominal “Dr.” and the postnominal “PhD.”

Example:

Dr. Douglas Ferguson (Dr. is the pronominal)

Douglas Ferguson, PhD (PhD is the postnominal)

When someone earns the title of “Dr.,” they lose the previous honorifics they may have carried, such as “Mr.” or “Ms.”

A postnominal and pronominal are never used together at the same time.

Furthermore, when discussing these terms grammatically, the prenominal is used in the third person, while the postnominal is most often used in the first person. However, this may change depending on the context.

Written 

In academic circles, a considerable amount of correspondence is done via email and the written word. If you want to send a letter addressed to someone with a PhD, such as a cover letter, you use the prenominal “Dr.” 

When writing in a formal or professional context, you do not need to include the first name.

Examples

Dear Dr. Fergsuon,
I hope this email finds you well.

In written correspondence, if you are receiving an email from someone with a PhD, they may choose to sign off with either the prenominal or the postnominal.

Examples

Regards,
Dr. Douglas Ferguson

or

Regards,
Douglas Ferguson, PhD

If you are uncertain, check your previous correspondence with them. Most people will have a footer at the end of their email, which tells you their qualifications. 

white mailing envelope beside white petaled flower
Image by Annie Spratt via Unsplash

Spoken

When addressing a person with a PhD verbally, you never use the postnominal.  

Examples

Good morning Dr. Ferguson

Dr. Ferguson, I have a question regarding the upcoming exams.

That was an interesting lecture today, Dr. Ferguson.

When Is It “Dr.” and When Is It “Professor?”

Whether to use the term “Dr.” or “Prof.” will depend on several factors. “Professor” is a higher rank than “Dr.”

However, the title only exists within a university context. Someone with a PhD will always hold the title of “Doctor”; however, they would still have to meet other commitments to become a Professor.

It is important to remember that not all those with the title “Professor” have a PhD, so the terms aren’t always exchangeable. 

Often the person lecturing you will indicate how they wish to be addressed. They may want you to call them “Dr.” or “Prof.” or even by their first names. However, it is not recommended to call someone by their first name unless requested to do so.

If a person has a doctorate, the general rule is to call them “Dr.,” whether they are lecturing you or not.

When it is appropriate to use the term ‘Professor’ differs from country to country. In America and Canada, anyone lecturing is generally granted the name “Professor” despite factors such as seniority and tenure.

However, in countries such as the UK and Germany, only full-time professors may be called “Professor.”

The list of academic ranks changes from country to country, but we can examine three examples to get a general idea.

United States

  • Distinguished, Endowed, or University Professor
  • Professor
  • Associate Professor
  • Assistant Professor
  • Master Instructor
  • Senior Instructor
  • Instructor
  • Lecturer/Research Associate
  • Part-time Lecturer

United Kingdom

  • Distinguished Professor/Chair
  • Full Professor/Reader
  • Senior Lecturer/Associate Professor
  • Assistant Lecturer/Clinical Lecturer 
  • Associate Lecturer/Teaching Assistant/Departmental lecturer

South Africa

  • Full Professor
  • Associate Professor
  • Senior Lecturer
  • Lecturer
  • Junior Lecturer

Honorifics in English

An English honorific refers to a prefix that occurs before a person’s name (source). Honorifics are not considered to be positions or titles that can appear without the person’s name, for example, the Queen or the President.

In English, honorifics are also often used to distinguish between males and females. However, some honorifics, such as “Dr.” and “General,” apply to both males and females.

This is because when these honorifics were first used, only males were able to obtain said titles.

Honorifics are an essential part of the English Language and must be used when formally addressing people, whether it be verbal or written. 

Common TitleApplicationExample
Mr. (Mister)For men irrespective of marital status.Mr. Smith is my math teacher.
Ms.For women irrespective of marital status. This has gained popularity in modern English recently compared to Mrs. and Miss.Ms. Jones works in the coffee shop.
MissA term for unmarried women. “Miss” is also used in the schoolroom in countries such as the UK.Miss York is my favorite teacher.
George, did you do your homework?No, Miss.
Mrs.For married women.Mrs. Smith is married to Mr. Smith.
University TitlesApplicationExample
Dr. (Doctor)Used for a person who has an academic research degree.Dr. Drew
I need to finish this assignment for Dr. Drew before Friday.
Prof. (Professor)Used for someone who holds the position of Professor in a University. Higher position than a lecturer and usually considered to be a tenured position.Prof. Walters
Today’s lecture on Shakespear is by Prof. Walters.
British TitlesApplicationExample
SirA formal word used to refer to men. Traditionally for those with a knighthood. The term is also used in schools to refer to male teachers and used by workers in the service industry.Sir Lancelot
Tom, did you do your homework?Yes, Sir.
May I show you to your table, Sir?
Madam or Ma’amUsed to refer to women with a tone of respect. Also used by workers in the service industry.Madam Porter
Thank you, Ma’am.
Excuse me, Ma’am, would you like to order anything else?
DameWomen who have been knighted by the Queen.Dame Judi Dench starred in nearly all of the James Bond Films.
LordFor males who are a viscount, earl, baron, or marchioness.Lord Fauntleroy is the husband of Lady Fauntleroy.
LadyFor the wives of Lords or the peers of those with a title of viscount, earl, baron, or marchioness.Lady Fauntleroy is married to Lord Fauntleroy.
Adv. (Advocate)Used for notable jurists and lawyers. Adv. Barnes is representing the accused today.
Religious TitlesApplicationExample
Br. (Brother)For men in organizations such as the Catholic church or Eastern churches.Brother John had devoted his life to teaching the youth.
Fr. (Father)Used for priests in Eastern and Catholic Christianity. Also used in the Anglican denomination and Episcopalian groups.Father Brown is from Ireland.
Pr. (Pastor)A general term used to refer to members of the Christian clergy.Pastor Park always chooses the best hymns.
Rev. (Reverend)A general term used to refer to members of the Christian clergy.Reverend Wakefield transferred to our church just before Christmas.
RabbiUsed in the Jewish Faith to refer to a person who is an ordained officiant or a teacher of the Torah.Rabbi Ginsberg gave an interesting derasha today.

Who Should Be Called “Doctor”?

In the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Dr. James P. Winter, a professor at the University of Windsor, argues that those with a PhD are the only ones who are entitled to be called “Doctor.”

In his argument, Winter poses some interesting questions concerning the evolution of the word “Doctor” and how it has changed over the last 700 years.

Winter argues that due to inappropriate use, the term “Doctor” has become overused and underappreciated.

Winters stated that in many countries, such as Canada, healthcare professionals who don’t have a medical degree, such as pharmacists, are allowed to call themselves “Doctor.”

Blue and Silver Stetoscope
Image by Pixabay via Pexels

Winters looks at the term from both a historical and linguistic point of view to support his argument. As the term “Doctor” is adopted from the Latin word docere, meaning “to teach,” those with the title should be teaching others. He argues that teaching others is not common practice outside of academia.

Furthermore, he argues that the title of “Doctor” originated in the 1300s when it was only used to describe distinguished scholars. 

Winter goes on to state that PhDs are the highest degree that anyone can obtain from a university, while many health professionals only achieve undergraduate degrees. He considers MDs to be professional degrees and not truly doctorates. 

He concludes that PhDs are the only “real” doctors as dictated by linguists and history. Many academics share Winter’s feelings, with many PhD holders feeling that they have earned the right to be called “Doctor.”

Dr. Fern Riddle, a historian and author, started a debate on Twitter in 2018 when she claimed she wanted only to be referred to only as “Doctor” rather than “Ms.” or “Miss” because she had earned her authority (source).

Her opinions received backlash when people called her arrogant and entitled. Yet, many female PhD holders prefer to be called “Doctor.”This is because it illustrates their achievement and status irrespective of whether they are married. 

Those in the medical field argue that the term “Doctor” is significant because it makes patients feel at ease. As such, any health professional who is helping someone should be allowed to bear the honorific (source). 

Who should rightfully be called “Doctor” is a topic that is continuously debated.

The reality is that the term “Doctor” has changed over the years to encompass a much wider circle of people. This includes not only professionals and academics but males and females. 

Whatever your perspective, it is clear that the title of “Doctor” is still much sought after and revered, and that is not likely to change anytime soon.

Final Thoughts

Those who have obtained a PhD have done so by working hard and dedicating years of their life to academia. As such, it is important when dealing with someone who has a PhD that you address them correctly.

The term “Doctor” and to whom it is applied is constantly changing from country to country. It remains to be seen who else will be awarded the title in the future and how those who hold the title will react to its evolution.

Dr. Patrick Capriola

Dr. Patrick Capriola is the founder of strategiesforparents.com. He is an expert in parenting, social-emotional development, academic growth, dropout prevention, educator professional development, and navigating the school system. He earned his Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Florida in 2014. His professional experience includes serving as a classroom teacher, a student behavior specialist, a school administrator, and an educational trainer - providing professional development to school administrators and teachers, helping them learn to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of students. He is focused on growing strategiesforparents.com into a leading source for high-quality research-based content to help parents work through the challenges of raising a family and progressing through the school system.

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