Dr. Jill Biden and the Doctoral Title Controversy

The internet usually doesn’t pay too much attention to doctoral degrees and the people who hold them. Oh sure, we have our own corners of the web, but seldom does mainstream social media erupt with discussions about academic issues.

This past weekend, that all changed. The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece* by a Mr. Joseph Epstein that quickly went viral. The piece was addressed to Dr. Jill Biden, incoming First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS), who holds an Ed.D. for her research on student retention in community colleges.

In his article, Epstein urged Dr. Biden to drop her academic title, claiming that “’Dr. Jill Biden’ sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.” He went on to insult Dr. Biden’s thesis (apparently without reading it); complain about the supposed degradation of doctoral degrees; and share his perception that their quality and prestige has declined.

Mr. Epstein’s ultimate point appears to be summed up by a line in his first paragraph: “A wise man once said that no one should call himself ‘Dr.’ unless he has delivered a child.”** This perception that the only ‘true’ doctors are medical doctors (and, in Epstein’s language, gendered male) is not new. Many academics are accustomed to being mistaken for physicians when using their titles.

But a basic understanding of etymology shows the holes in Epstein’s logic. In the English-speaking world, academic doctor titles predate medical doctor titles. The first known usages of the word ‘doctor’ referred to teachers (usually theologians), and the very word comes from the Latin docēre, meaning ‘to teach.’ (The folks at Merriam-Webster dictionary helpfully tweeted this fact right after Epstein’s article appeared.)

A great many commentators have also pointed out the misogyny in Epstein’s article. His language in addressing Dr. Biden is often condescending and, at one point, literally infantilizing (“kiddo”). He urged her to “forget the small thrill of being Dr. Jill, and settle for the larger thrill of living for the next four years in the best public housing in the world as First Lady Jill Biden.” His suggestion that she should use a title derived from her husband’s position, rather than one she earned herself, smacks of sexism.

In fact, Dr. Biden will be the most highly qualified FLOTUS of all time. Even if she were President herself, she would be tied for most highly qualified (with Dr. Woodrow Wilson, the only President of the United States to have held a doctoral degree).

While there have been a few voices in support of Epstein, the response has been mainly critical. Northwestern University, where Epstein used to teach, has openly and publicly denounced his “misogynistic views” and deleted him from their website. The Atlantic titled their biting response The Professor and the Madman. Many public figures have tweeted their support for Dr. Biden.

A tweet from Bernice King reading: "Dr @DrBiden: My father was a non-medical doctor. And his work benefited humanity greatly. Yours does, too."
A tweet from Douglas Emhoff reading: "Dr. Biden earned her degrees through hard work and pure grit. She is an inspiration to me, to her students, and to Americans across this country. This story would never have been written about a man."

T-shirts and mugs with slogans like “That’s Dr. Biden to you” are already on sale. Twitter jokes about the “2nd most hated Epstein” are flying freely. Female doctoral degree holders have added their ‘Dr.’ titles to their social media handles in protest.

Twitter handles of female PhDs with names altered to emphasize their qualifications and criticize Joseph Epstein

The article prompted such harsh backlash that the Wall Street Journal published another piece responding to the criticism. In the follow-up, opinions editor Paul A. Gigot defended his choice to run Epstein’s article; effectively doubling down on an incredibly unpopular decision.

This whole episode serves as a reminder of two things: (1) there are people out there who have a bias against non-medical professionals using their Dr. titles; and (2) those biased people are seemingly in the minority. As a PhD-holder myself, it has been heartening to see how vocal and emphatic the support has been for Dr. Biden.

Thesislink readers know first-hand how hard we work for our research degrees. Of course we deserve to use our titles. It’s nice to see so much public discourse defending them.

*I won’t inflict a link on you, but curious readers can easily find it.

**The fact that Epstein does not cite a source for this purported ‘wise man’s’ claim perhaps reflects the fact that Epstein has never written a doctoral thesis himself.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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