The Ecphorizer

A Matter of Degrees
Paul W. Healy BA., B.S., MA., Ph.D.

Issue #41 (January 1985)

Contemporary usage conflicts with historical heritage

A recently employed maid of the late Dr. Robert Milliken, the noted American physicist, once answered the door at his residence to a caller who inquired, "Is Dr. Milliken in?" "Yes," responded the maid, "but he's not the kind of doctor that does anyone any good."


The great majority of Ph.D.s never do any further research except for the sole purpose of acquiring promotions.

former office-mate of mine, Dr. Frank Gentry, was once introduced to a physician. After a few moments of conversation, the physician inquired as to the type of doctorate my friend held, and was told that he had a Ph.D. in mathematics. The physician's response was, "Ah, then you are one of the real ones."

And to the semi-literate woman who once protested to my wife that I really shouldn't use the title because I wasn't a physician, dentist, or veterinarian, the response could have been, "When the predecessors of those who you think most deserve the title were wrapping bloody rags around white poles to indicate that they did surgery when they weren't cutting hair, the only doctors of the day were giving lectures in philosophy and religion at the Universities of Padua and Bologna."

Literally, "doctor" (from the Latin docere, to teach) was originally applied to any learned man, but especially to one who had received the highest degree from a university. It did not become most commonly applied to physicians until the late Middle Ages. The first American Ph.D. was conferred by Yale in 1861; Columbia conferred its first doctorate in 1875, and Johns Hopkins its first in 1878 (only two years after its founding!). But for many years most Americans desirous of obtaining a Ph.D. went to universities abroad, usually in Britain, France, or Germany (with most scientists going to Germany).

Earned doctorates are of two distinct types: professional or practitioner degrees, such as M.D., D.D.S. (dentists), D.O. (osteopaths), and D.V.M. or D.V.S. (veterinarians); and research degrees, such as Ph.D., D.Ed. (education), D.Sc. (science), and D.B.A. (business). The professional degrees normally require two or three years beyond a bachelor's degree, including a substantial amount of in-service training; the research degrees also require a research paper, called a dissertation (or thesis), which is supposed to be a significant contribution to human knowledge. This, of course, is very rarely the case. There aren't many Einsteins, Millikens, or Oppenheimers around, so a large percentage of doctoral dissertations are trivial and a waste of good paper. A D.Ed. can earn a degree for writing a learned discourse on "A Study of Two Methods of Teaching Bowling to College Women of High and Low Motor Ability." Although the profoundness of this topic and its "significant" contribution to human knowledge are surely much more typical of education degrees than other degrees, equal triviality is by no means unknown in scientific circles, and not just in this country. A Russian got a degree for writing on "A Study of the Microclimate in the Cow Barns of the Estonian Republic." It seems highly probable that no Estonian dairy farmers read it, or, if they did, they laughed at it.

 The great majority of Ph.D.s never do any further research except for the sole purpose of acquiring promotions in the institutions where they work--so many pages of paper published in a scholarly journal are worth a certain equivalent in academic salary. Performance in the classroom is, of course, worth precisely nothing. So many professors come to regard their students as a necessary inconvenience, except for those graduate students whose dissertations they are supervising, and to whose papers they can attach their name, often as the principal author.

Most institutions that confer doctorates as earned--and a lot that don't--also confer honorary degrees. Many of these degrees (Doctor of Laws, Doctor of Letters, Doctor of Literature, Doctor of Humanities, Doctor of Fine Arts) are not awarded as earned degrees, but others, such as Doctor of Science, Doctor of Divinity, and Doctor of Education, may be either one. At its best, the honorary degree is awarded as deserved recognition for distinguished public service or outstanding creative work. Surely the Doctor of Laws that George Washington received from Harvard in 1776 and the same degree given to the young Marquis de Lafayette by Harvard in 1784 (at age 27) were richly deserved. But too often the degree is awarded in return for a substantial donation to the school's endowment fund or even for simply delivering the commencement address.

In addition to the legitimate institutions awarding honorary degrees, there are the so-called diploma mills, which "award" degrees (often with a more elaborate diploma than legitimate institutions offer) for a monetary consideration and either a purely token amount of "study" or "experience." Most often they use degrees that are the same as the regular academic degrees, but they also make up some that are dead giveaways to anyone familiar with standard degrees. One such Missouri institution listed the following fee schedule:

Doctor of Psychology (Ps.D.)       $100
Doctor of Metaphysics (Ms.D.)     $150
Doctor of Divinity (D.D.)               $200
Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)        $250

The first two (the cheap ones) are mysterious degrees, never awarded as earned degrees. Other spurious degrees are preceded by the word "Diplomat" (e.g., Diplomat of Character Analysis) or "Fellow" (e.g., Fellow of Masso-Therapy).

Another problem with degrees is the use of abbreviations: the same two or three letters may stand for many different degrees. The best example is M.E. Is the holder of the degree a Master of Education, Master of Elements, Master of Engineering, Mechanical Engineer, Military Engineer, Mining Engineer, or Mistress of English? If the last named, she is probably an old woman, because neither that degree nor any other Mistress degree has been in use for more than fifty years.

By a sort of reverse snobbishness, a great many Ph.D.s decline to list themselves as doctors, thereby allowing the title to revert to those who have far less claim to it on a historic basis. Most people with the professional degree now list their names as John Jones, M.D.--or D.D.S. or D.O. or D.V.S. or whatever. Also, most law schools and divinity schools are now awarding doctorates for little or no additional work beyond that required for the basic degree, an entirely legitimate move since their graduates have put in as many years of study as an M.D. or Ph.D.

In addition to being the union card for academic positions, doctor's degrees do sometimes come in handy. When my wife was in the hospital in Kansas it was difficult to find empty parking spaces in the hospital lot, so I always parked in those marked "Doctors Only." And when the nurses were reluctant to let me into the delivery room after the birth of our son, my wife's physician said, "Oh, let him in--after all, he is a doctor." For the last twenty years of my career as a civil servant (well, mostly civil), I was addressed by my coworkers as "Doc"-which I rather enjoyed.

So, Ph.D.s, let's reclaim our heritage and not let a good title be monopolized by those who have done no more to earn the degree than we have--and have much less historic right to it!

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