When someone earns the title of “doctor,” it signifies that they have reached an advanced level of education and training in a particular field. However, the specific requirements to be addressed as a doctor vary between countries and even between professions. Understanding when someone has truly earned the prestigious doctor title requires looking at the nuances of academic degrees, professional titles, and customary usage.
Earning a doctoral degree
In most countries, the main educational path to becoming a doctor is obtaining a doctoral degree, such as a PhD or professional doctorate. These advanced degrees typically require multiple years of study beyond a bachelor’s degree, as well as completion of a dissertation or other substantial research project.
Some key points about doctoral degrees:
- A PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) is a common doctoral degree that focuses on research and academic study. PhD programs typically take 3-6 years to complete after a bachelor’s degree.
- Professional doctorates are specialized degrees that emphasize skills and knowledge needed for careers in fields like law, medicine, psychology, education, etc. The time to complete these degrees depends on the specific program but is generally 3-5 years after previous undergraduate studies.
- In the United States and some other countries, completion of all requirements for the doctoral degree except the dissertation is marked by a separate master’s degree (such as an MPhil).
- Traditionally, doctoral degree recipients are addressed as “Dr. [Full Name]” academically and professionally. However, social customs for professional titles vary between cultures.
So, at what point does someone earn the doctor title by virtue of their degree? In general, when they have fully completed all requirements for and been awarded a doctoral degree from an accredited institution. The specifics of when this happens vary though.
“ABD” stands for “All But Dissertation” and refers to a doctoral candidate who has completed all degree requirements except for finishing and defending their dissertation. At this stage, they may be addressed as “doctoral candidate” but have not formally earned the doctor title.
Defending the dissertation
The final hurdle is the dissertation defense, in which the doctoral candidate presents their research to a committee of faculty members and responds to questions. After successfully defending the dissertation, the individual is generally considered to have formally earned their doctoral degree.
The institution officially awards the doctoral degree and confers the title Dr. once the individual completes all administrative requirements after the dissertation defense. At this point, the new doctor’s degree and title are fully official.
Earning a professional degree in certain fields
In some professional fields like medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine, earning the qualifying professional degree to practice in that field also confers the title of doctor.
For example, someone who earns a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) degree from an accredited medical or dental school earns the doctor title upon graduation. At this point they are addressed as “Dr.” professionally even as they complete further specialized medical training.
The process of earning a professional doctorate
Here is a look at the timeline for earning a professional doctorate like an MD:
- Complete prerequisite undergraduate coursework in sciences, math, etc.
- Earn competitive admission to an accredited professional degree program.
- Complete classroom, lab, clinical, and field training over 4 years (MD program duration may vary).
- Receive the professional doctorate upon graduating from the degree program.
- Enter a residency program and supervised clinical training.
- Potentially complete fellowship for additional specialty training.
Upon completing the degree program and receiving the professional doctorate like an MD, the graduate earns the title doctor and can be professionally addressed as such.
Licensure and certification
In fields like medicine, psychology, law, and education, earning the qualifying doctoral or professional degree is not always enough to be licensed or certified to practice independently. Additional requirements like clinical rotations, exams, supervised practice, etc. may be mandated.
However, even before completing all licensing mandates, the earned doctoral or professional degree allows using the doctor title academically and professionally. Additional licensure or certification is needed to practice independently in the field.
Someone who graduated from medical school with an MD is addressed as Dr. Smith. However, after earning the MD they must complete residency training and pass licensing exams to be fully licensed as an independent practitioner. The doctor title comes with the degree, even if further steps are needed for independent practice rights.
A person who earns a doctorate in psychology (PhD or PsyD) earns the doctor title academically with the degree. However, after graduating they need to complete supervised clinical hours, pass licensing exams, etc. to be licensed to practice psychology independently. They are still addressed as Dr. though.
Some universities award honorary doctorates as a way to recognize exceptional accomplishments or contributions, without the recipient needing to complete doctoral training. However, in most countries customary usage dictates that honorary degree recipients should only adopt the doctor title in limited contexts, not broadly professionally.
Customs vary on when it would be appropriate for someone with an honorary doctorate to adopt the doctor title:
- In academic settings related to the granting institution
- In correspondence from the granting university
- In diplomas or other records from the granting university
- Potentially in professional biographies mentioning the honorary degree
However, customary etiquette generally advises against using the doctor title extensively based solely on an honorary degree. Doing so risks misleading others about earning a properly accredited doctoral qualification.
Doctors without medical degrees
In everyday terminology, calling someone “the doctor” often implies they are a medical practitioner. However, many earn the doctor title through education, research, and training in non-medical fields.
Some examples of doctors without medical degrees:
- PhD researchers and scholars in fields like history, physics, engineering, etc.
- Professors with doctorates in their teaching discipline
- Teachers with doctorates like a Doctor of Education degree
- Psychologists with a PhD or PsyD in psychology
- Lawyers with a Juris Doctor degree
- Dentists with a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree
- Chiropractors with a Doctor of Chiropractic degree
- Optometrists with a Doctor of Optometry degree
- Podiatrists with a Doctor of Podiatric Medicine degree
- Veterinarians with a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree
Anyone who earns a properly accredited doctoral degree in their field automatically earns the doctor title, regardless of whether they treat patients in a medical setting or not. Their specific professional practice rights depend on licensure and certification in their jurisdiction.
When can you start using the title?
Earning a doctoral or professional degree confers the right to adopt the title doctor, but customary etiquette provides guidelines on when it is appropriate to start formally using the title.
Using Dr. as a student
It would be unusual and seen as presumptuous for a doctoral or professional degree student to refer to themselves as “Dr.” before actually completing the degree. So medical students, PhD candidates, etc. should continue using Mr./Ms./Mrs. while still completing their program.
Once the degree is officially conferred, it is standard to adopt the doctor title, at least in academic and professional settings related to the degree. For example, someone who just completed their PhD program would likely update their titles on social media profiles and published academic work to Dr.
New recipients of doctoral or professional degrees need to allow some time after graduation for name changes to be processed if they want their title to reflect their new name. Once the name updated, it would be “Dr. [New Last Name].”
Using first names
In formal correspondence and records, it is standard to use the full title + name, like “Dr. Pat Smith” or “Dr. Smith.” In informal contexts like conversation, it is often acceptable to use just the first name, like being introduced as “Dr. Pat.”
Appropriate contexts for using the doctor title
Although earning a doctoral or professional degree confers the right to the title doctor, expectations still exist for when it is suitable to actually adopt the title.
Some appropriate contexts for using the doctor title include:
- Academic publications and conference presentations
- University/employer records and documentation
- Formal correspondence related to the doctor’s profession
- Professional email signatures
- Business cards and resumes/CVs
- Introductions in professional settings
- Name badges at professional events
- Online professional profiles like LinkedIn
However, customs generally dictate avoiding using the doctor title in informal social settings or contexts unrelated to the field of qualification. Doing so can come across as pretentious. Some guidelines for everyday usage:
- Do not insist on being called Dr. in casual social settings
- Only use Dr. selectively in general social media profiles, not throughout
- Do not refer to yourself as Dr. in contexts unrelated to your degree/profession
Standards for using professional titles can vary between cultures though. It is best to observe local customs.
SUMMARY: At what point are you called a doctor?
In summary, customary standards generally dictate that the doctor title is earned and can be used once an individual:
- Completes all requirements and is awarded a properly accredited doctoral degree, like a PhD or professional doctorate
- Graduates from an accredited program with a qualifying professional degree like an MD, DDS, etc. in fields where this degree confers the doctor title
At this point, the doctor title would be suitable in academic and professional contexts relevant to the degree. Honorary degrees may confer limited usage of the title as well.
However, it is best to avoid referring to oneself as doctor in informal social situations or contexts unrelated to the doctoral qualification. Formal or informal standards for when to adopt the doctor title can vary between cultures and professions too.
Ultimately, earning a doctoral or professional doctorate degree through years of advanced education and training allows use of the prestigious doctor title. But traditions and etiquette still guide when and how it should be applied.