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{PhD} Why I don’t care for the Dr title

It occured to me recently that I don’t have any formal photos of me graduating/getting my PhD (I have a rando phone selfie taken with my certificate somewhere but can’t find it now and I didn’t go for the graduation ceremony because I just couldn’t be bothered / was so over it by then).

It’s also got me thinking about the whole Dr title thing and how I have never actually cared for it.

It’s actually always embarrassed me a bit. I never liked it when family/friends would say jokingly-but-proudly “Oh, you’re going to be a Doctor!” because it felt like that was what my entire PhD experience was being reduced to – a title.

It was also never enough of a motivator for me in challenging times to think ‘I’ll get to be a Doctor if I get through this’. Like, um… I’m doing all this just for a name change? That’s not enough for me.

{I did the PhD because I am a big nerd who loves learning and going to school, and I wanted to learn new ways of doing deep research on an issue that was so important to me. Emphasis on the title felt like it trivialised the full and depth of the whole experience, and diluted the specialness that it meant for me personally}

I’m not saying that the title isn’t to be appreciated and I know it means different things and holds different kinds of value for different people.

But for me, it’s always felt like an odd, almost unnecessary thing and my lack of enthusiasm around acquiring the Dr title has not only made me feel like a weirdo but was also a cause of much internal friction, confusion and disconnect throughout my PhD years – like, what’s wrong with me for not thinking this is important? Am I doing the PhD for the wrong reasons? Why isn’t this valuable to me in the same way that it is for others? What am I missing?

What’s really in the name, anyway?

It’s then occured to me that I can’t be the only one who feels this way. So I’m hoping that reflecting on this openly might help someone else make sense of and get creater clarity around their pursuit of a doctoral research programme (and title).

I think this ambivalence stems from me having always seen the PhD as just one among many things I’ve aspired to do, actually got to do and will continue to aspire towards/do through my life.

It’s not the ‘best’ or biggest thing I’ve done (or will do), and I don’t believe it deserves any more or less of an honorific than anything else I’ve encountered in my 4 decades.

I believe that after some of the other horrific experiences I’ve gone through and ‘graduated’ from, the PhD was definitely not, in the end, the hardest thing I’ve had to work through, nor even the most important. Surviving and escaping abuse; recovery from that trauma; starting life over again at 32; overcoming a eating disorder definitely tops that, but there aren’t any titles for that and the ‘Dr’, by comparison, feels… ‘small’.

Also, (and yes, this is perhaps quite a jaded perspective but…) I’ve met plenty of exceptionally stellar, intelligent people who are creating tremendous impact on their immediate worlds and beyond, who don’t have any fancy qualifications or titles

(or who would continue to do these amazing things whether or not they had a title….)

And conversely, I’ve met plenty of exceptionally mediocre – if not outright horrible human beings – who DO have lots of fancy qualifications and titles, including Dr.

I kind of believe that if you’re going to be a brilliant person (or a shit one) you’re going to do it regardless – with or without a title (or qualification or even basic education).

And so the title is more often than not a false indication of the kind of person someone is/could be and what they are/aren’t capable of doing (good and bad!)

All this is to say, really, that I’ve recognised the big disconnect between how I’ve been thinking of and defining myself through this Dr gubbins, and the value that external systems/societies/culture/ideals place on things like titles and honorifics.

All this is to say, really, that there’s a disconnect between how I’ve been thinking of and defining myself, and the value that external worlds place on things like titles and qualifications.

So it seems odd to me now that we place so much angst and struggle on achieving those titles for the sake of…. what exactly?

I guess it’s the ‘what exactly?’ that I haven’t been able to answer for myself which has caused me so much discomfort and frustration.

And right now, as I move into carving out my own spaces and boundaries, I’m giving less and less of a fuck about these things.

(and how freeing that feels!)

I know why I did the PhD. I was very clear about this all the way through my research, and it had nothing to do with getting the title at the end of the road (this is also what made things easier for me as I worked on the horrid revisions and faced the prospect of possibly not actually passing the bloody thing – which I reflect on more deeply here and here).

I also know what I want to continue to do or not in my immediate world now that I’ve ‘got’ the PhD and am moving beyond it.

I know who and what I value and love and want to surround myself with.

And none of all of that has anything to do with the outward, external material trappings of titles, or status, or prestige.

I also invite you to think about what the titles and qualifications and the actual research means for you.

Hingeing your sense of self, worth, deservingness, fulfilment and accomplishment a title alone can be a tricky, tenuous thing.

So, what’s really in the name and title for you? (or not?) Why is it valuable for you? (or not?) What does it signal and mean for you?

(And fuck what everybody else thinks about titles or how they define/value it. Other people’s motivations, expectations and busybody opinions are not what’s going to motivate and get you to your goals and loves!)

So if there was something else to encapsulate/indicate all of the things I have done and seen and loved and lost and ‘survived’, I think I’d much prefer that – and am still looking for the right words and names.

Perhaps my current social media moniker VERYMESSYJamie is more suitable and meaningful for me than Dr and the most perfect description of who/where I am up to this point in my life. But I’d also welcome any other suggestions!

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One Comment

  1. Hi Jamie, thanks for writing this post. For me, I’m doing the PhD because I want to do education research. So I’m already living the dream – someone’s funding me to do research right now! Which means ‘passing the PhD’ or ‘getting it out the way’ feels like a weird goal, a bit like ‘getting the Dr title’ was for you. Of course I want to pass, but only so it (hopefully) opens the door to the next research project/ job, so I can keep (not start) doing what make me feel alive.
    I’ve heard lots about the feeling of anti-climax/ loss of purpose that can come with finishing the PhD and I’m hoping that thinking longer term will help avoid that. Plus I’m very lucky to have supervisors who often affirm that it’s not all about the PhD – we’re already (end of yr1) discussing which parts of my data will contribute to my PhD project and which could form another post-PhD piece of research… and which ideas are on the ‘life’s work’ scale!

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