Is He a Real Doctor?

The recent Opinion article appearing in the Wall Street Journal by Joseph Epstein asking President Elect, Joe Biden’s wife, Jill, to drop the “Dr.” before her name, I am happy to say, received many letters that cried disbelief.  One claim Mr. Epstein makes is that when Dr. Biden received her doctorate in educational psychology, the Ph.D. was no longer prestigious because, according to him, it “has been diminished by the erosion of seriousness and the relaxation of standards in university education.”  There has been much criticism of contemporary higher education such as Jonathan Haidt’s work, embodied in his essay, “The Coddling of the American Mind.”  Granted, I have heard of grade inflation, but I believe the University and not the student, working toward his/her doctorate, should be held responsible for this trend in education.

Given the steady ongoing erosion of University values that Mr. Epstein speaks about, I suppose he would be satisfied if Dr. Biden, who received her Ed.D. after 2000, should have an asterisk affixed to her degree.  By the same token, I imagine Mr. Epstein would like those that receive their doctorates after 2010 to have two asterisks appended to their degrees and, those poor souls, who will receive their doctorates after 2020, need have three asterisks affixed to their degrees.

My wife, Lisa, and I received our doctorates prior to the “relaxation of standards” of university education that Mr. Epstein talks about.  Nevertheless, we quickly discovered that her status as an Ed.D., and mine as a Psy.D., appeared not to merit the word Doctor in front of either of our names.  When I passed both the written and oral part of the licensing exam, my supervisor, where I worked at that time, addressed me as Dr. Natelson.  I had toiled countless hours to surpass the many hurdles necessary to arrive at that moment so I had a feeling of accomplishment.  It felt good being addressed as Doctor.  But little did I know that I was in for a rude awakening on both social and professional fronts.

Many years ago, before marrying, I enlisted a matchmaking agency that I thought might direct me to a woman that wanted to enter into a sincere relationship.  When I told the owner of the service what kind of doctor I was, she responded by saying that I was not a real doctor, that is a medical doctor.  My ability to gain access to what she had boasted was her vast supply of beauties that filled her dating service suddenly plummeted. She apparently preferred M.D.’s whose income potential was much higher than what I could earn as a Psy.D.  Needless to say, the two of us bid one another adieu.

In the professional area, I soon discovered that Ph.D. or Psy.D. psychologists et al., in the mental health establishment, are viewed as primus inter pares, that is first among equals, whereas psychiatrists hold a rank above us all.  When I first started working with my license in a clinic, I was there many more hours than the consulting psychiatrist, so I went on a first name basis with my colleagues who gave the title of doctor to the rarely seen psychiatrist.  Moreover, psychologists, in the public eye, with the exception of psychological testing, perform similarly to other therapists.   Psychiatrists, along with other doctors, on the other hand, distinguish themselves by being able to prescribe medication.

After beginning my private practice, I later took a job in a clinic in which I came in once a week.  In this latter situation, perhaps because I had become scarcer than I had formerly been, support staff, such as secretaries and receptionists, all addressed me as Dr. Natelson whereas the staff doing therapy, such as social workers, called me Bernard.  It took a while for me to recognize how I wished to be addressed that would make me feel most comfortable around peers, friends and strangers.  I soon realized that it was both arrogant and off-putting to have friends and peers call me Dr. Natelson.  It was perfectly fine for both them and me to have them address me by my first name. 

Later, however, for people that I might have been involved with on a non-personal, but business-like relation, I corrected those that called me Mr. Natelson.  Once when I consulted an agency in which a worker had died in an accident, I told the managers of the company that I was Doctor and not Mister.  They seemed perturbed but it didn’t bother me because I strongly believed that they needed to recognize, like it or not, my level of education.  Although in my private practice I always introduce myself as Dr. Natelson, occasionally a client will ask how I wish to be addressed.  I tell them either Dr. Natelson or Bernard, that is, whichever label makes them feel most comfortable.  I once had a husband of a woman, who I was treating for PTSD, tell me Ph.D.’s and Psy.D.’s are not supposed to refer to themselves as doctors.  “Fine,” I replied, “call me Bernard, but not Mr. Natelson.”

Obviously, as is the case for most life events, there are exceptions to the above rule.  If I know I am meeting a stranger on a one-time basis, I don’t bother to correct him/her.  But if the relationship is ongoing, I will indicate that I am not Mister but Doctor.”     

I remember the sudden acknowledgement of my title by a manager of a bank where I had an account.  When I opened a business account, she, suddenly, addressed me as Dr. Natelson.  I think in this instance my added business to the bank, rather than my degree, elevated my standing in her eyes.

No, I don’t think Dr. Jill Biden, as Mr. Epstein would like, “should drop the Dr. before her name” in favor of Mrs. Biden. She should still be referred to as Dr. Biden even if she is not a “real doctor.”  And to me, it does not at all “feel fraudulent, not to say a touch comic,” as Mr. Epstein asserts.  Because he never received a doctorate, perhaps Mr. Epstein envies Dr. Biden’s achievement.   I am sure that Dr. Biden, like the rest of us, had to go through the many hours of study it requires to obtain a doctorate degree in her area.  There are qualifying exams, practicums, internships and dissertations in conjunction with the advanced coursework that one must complete before a person can rightfully call himself a doctor.  I know I did not pursue my doctorate so others could refer to me as Dr., but rather because I wanted to gain as much knowledge in the field before I began to employ the tools of the trade.  Likewise, I’m sure this is true of Dr. Biden. To conclude, I recommend that we acknowledge Dr. Biden as a person who has expertise in her field at the doctoral level.