Doctor, Professor, or First Name Basis?
If you haven’t seen it already, check out this hilarious video of a student seeking advisement from her professor on whether to get her doctorate in psychology.
If you don’t have time to watch this, or perhaps are at work, the gist is that a student approaches her professor and states her intentions to get her doctorate, all in the hopes that someone—nay, anyone—will call her “doctor” once she gets her psychology degree. Her professor delivers the harsh truth that, no, no one will call you doctor. Not even your cats.
It’s a nice representation of what a lot of us experience as we embark on our journey to higher education. Attain the elite doctoral degree and forever be proclaimed a doctor!
It was an easy enough decision for me to apply to a doctoral program. I was told, early on in my Master’s program, that a PhD was the route to go if I wanted a career in psychology. I was interested in research, Developmental Psychology to be exact, but was directed to go towards Clinical Psychology so I would have a myriad of “hats” to wear (e.g., therapist, researcher, professor).
It was a tough period. At the time, I was the Program Director of a non-profit institution and I oversaw the research projects that our team was producing. At a young age, I was accomplishing a great deal. But how I saw myself, and how others saw me, remained vastly different. I envied the doctoral-level students and the professors with their doctorates. I felt a strong push to get my doctorate so I could be on the “same level” as everyone else. It all began to materialize in my fantasies – they would have to call me “doctor” then.
I could probably write a book on how various insecurities are correlated with the perceived esteemed title of “doctor”. And this is not just a personal observation, but one that has been validated by nearly everyone in my cohort. But alas, that’s not the (exact) purpose of this article.
I suspect that it’s tied to impostor syndrome. Those articles, of course, came out after I had graduated. It was validating to see a term that perfectly encapsulated my feelings for five years.
[A slight interlude. How to address someone has always been a thorn in my side. I hated the awkwardness of referring to my friends’ parents as Mr. or Mrs. Smith and strategically avoided any situation where I’d have to refer to them by name.]
What nobody bothers to say, or perhaps what I haven’t stumbled across, is that the impostor syndrome is constantly evolving with our professional and personal identity.
In graduate school, I was “professionally raised” to work collegially with my professors. In a short time span, we were on a first name basis with one another, routinely texted or emailed (for work-related reasons), and my ideas were valued and heard. I was seen as an emerging professional.
My New Role as an Academic
This has carried with me. A review of the author byline and you know my name is Amy. My clients have always called me Amy (perhaps an artifact from when I was in training and there was no “doctor” title to attend to). I answer the phone with “This is Amy speaking” and I regard myself as a person who has a doctoral degree, but I do not believe the doctoral degree is a part of me.
The simplest (and perhaps most meaningless) tasks stymied me as I entered academia in my role as an Assistant Professor this past month.
What should people call me?
My biggest challenge in acclimating to the teaching role has been the boundaries. You might pause and think, “Um, didn’t you maintain boundaries as a clinician? Or as a supervisor?” I did, and do, indeed. But those boundaries are quite different than the ones in academia. Each sphere of influence requires its own unique assessment of relational factors, all while balancing your own intrinsic sense of self.
And so I’m left with these questions:
- Does the informality of “Amy” impede the structure and expectations of the classroom?
- Is a first-name basis something that is earned over time?
- Am I considering the use of “Dr. Ellis” because of my own insecurities in my lack of experience?
- Is this cognitive debate a recapitulation of my graduate school impostor syndrome?
And that’s just one social sphere – that of my classroom. But there’s also the question of “who am I?” with fellow faculty, staff, and teaching assistants.
And I’ll argue, the questions apply to the “real world.” Do you correct someone when they refer to you as “Ms.” when you check into a hotel or rent a car? Do you check off the box indicating your title for your plane ticket?
My Personal Challenge
For right or wrong, I’ve enacted a new personal challenge. Whenever I’m introduced to someone as say, “Amy”, I challenge myself to explore whatever guttural reaction I have. Usually I find myself thinking “Doctor…” in some stern corrective tone, and then I have to remind myself to think about why that matters so much. Am I feeling insecure in my professional identity? And similarly, when someone introduces me or refers to me as “Doctor Ellis” I push myself to explore the reflexive need to correct them and replace it with my first name. Am I feeling like an impostor who does not deserve the hard-earned degree she’s worked for over 10 years to attain?
Now, this is not an article with answers (sorry to have kept you reading this far if that’s what you were in search of). It is an article with questions…for myself as I transition into this next stage of professional identity…and for you, my dedicated readers:
Do you find yourself struggling with the same issue; or perhaps do you have words of wisdom if you find yourself quite comfortable and in the absence of any inner debate?
P.S. As a quick update, my students have begun referring to me as “Professor Ellis” seemingly bypassing my whole professional existential dilemma. Go figure.
Cite This Article
Ellis, A. E. (2016, November). Doctor, professor, or first name basis? [Web article]. Retrieved from: https://societyforpsychotherapy.org/doctor-professor-first-name-basis