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How Should One Address
the Holder of a Ph.D.?

Dear TIA,

I have wondered about the use of proper titles for myself when addressing others (not personal friends, of course). I have a Ph.D., and I have never known when I should sign my name with my credentials following.

Should I do so only when addressing a professionally-related colleague, or should I use it in any formal communication? For example, I have been dealing with a social worker with whom I have spoken via telephone, but we have never met, about a family issue unrelated to my profession. Should I sign my letters to her with my credentials?

Any suggested guidelines would be helpful in this time of such pernicious egalitarianism.

     Thank you,

     E.S., Ph.D.

TIA responds:

Dear E.S.,

We are pleased to respond to your question. It is topic that we had already considered addressing, and your request provided us with the opportunity.

First, we will set out the simple rules for signing your name if you have a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy). Second, we will present some guidelines for spoken address and when the holder of the title should use it.

1.  Rules for written correspondence
  • When you write to a medical doctor, use Dr. James Brown or James Brown, M.D. (medical doctor or psychiatrist); D.O. (osteopathic physician); D.D.S. (dentist), D.V.M. (veterinarian), N.D. (naturopathic physician);
  • When you write to a holder of an academic doctorate, use Dr. William Green or William Green, Ph.D.
  • When you have a Ph.D., sign your name either as Dr. Ernest Smith or Ernest Smith, Ph.D.
  • If you have a Ph.D. you should engrave all your personal envelopes or labels with either Dr. Ernest Smith or Ernest Smith, Ph.D.
  • An analogous procedure should be used when signing your e-mails: For formal or professional correspondence always sign, Dr. Ernest Smith, or Ernest Smith, Ph.D.; for correspondence with family members or close friends, you may sign your first name, but below it, at the left margin of the page, your full name should appear preceded by Dr. or followed by Ph.D.; in the line below your name repeat your e-mail address.
  • Never write both Dr. and Ph.D. before and after your name; nor should you use both designations when you write to another person who holds a doctorate - Dr. William Green, Ph.D. It is a redundancy.
  • If you have a close relationship or are on a first name basis with someone who holds a doctorate, then on the envelope use his formal official title, Dr. William Green, and in the letter you may start with Dear Bill.
2. Rules for spoken language
  • When someone has earned a Ph.D. degree he must subsequently be referred to as “Doctor” in formal speech. The same is true of a person who is a medical doctor, psychologist, dentist, veterinarian, osteophatic or naturopathic physician.
  • When a holder of a Ph.D. makes a telephone call and is asked “Who is speaking?” or “Who is calling?” he should answer Dr. William Green.
  • The same applies to any other type of presentation. When introduced to a new acquaintance by a common friend, the friend would say: “I would like you to meet Dr. Ernest Smith..." then, the holder of a Ph.D. should only say, "Ernest Smith at your service." Should the person introducing you leave out your title - “I would like you to meet my friend Ernest, it is appropriate to say amiably: “Dr. Ernest Smith at your service.”
  • If you are introducing someone who holds a Ph.D. as a speaker before an audience, you must use his title: “I have the pleasure to introduce Dr. William Green, who will instruct us this evening on the fruit of his studies on such and such a topic.”
In situations not addressed here if you have a doubt about when to use your title, take the military usage as a model. In the military, one always presents himself preceded by the title of his rank: “Lieutenant Jeremy Parker speaking,” or “Tell him Captain Jeremy Parker called and would like to speak with him,” or “Let him know that General Jeremy Parker would be glad to receive him at our headquarters.”

Fighting egalitarian trends

It is an interesting quirk of our American society that medical doctors are commonly called "doctor" whereas a Ph.D. does not receive that same token of honor and respect. In passing, let us note that this was not always the case and reflects an egalitarian trend to reduce the honor due to a higher level of education.

medieval doctorate


A medieval doctoral candidate invested with a biretta in Madrid. Its color and shape signaled his status
In a more hierarchical system, the man of thought has a higher status than the man of practice. We believe we should try to restore in our society the good patterns we lost. It is a way to make our country ascend in influence.

Another peculiarity of American society is the reluctance of a person who earned a Ph.D. to use the title "doctor." According to the erroneous egalitarian myth, it is pretentious to use the title, a sign of pride.

In fact, the opposite is true. Justice is normally defined as the act of giving to each one what he deserves. Thus, it is an act of justice to give to others the title they earned with such a great effort. The one who holds a Ph.D. should also render justice to himself. This is the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas in his Treatise on Justice. (Question 58)

Therefore, one should address a person with a doctorate by his title, and the person should have no fear in calling himself or herself by that name. We believe that to do or think otherwise is to fall into the egalitarian trend of our times.

We hope these simple rules may help you,


     TIA correspondence desk


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Posted November 26, 2013


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