travel diary: titles – do they matter?

What do I mean by title?

Well, let me get this straight from the start. I’m not talking about book titles here. Or how you decide to begin your journal article or what you call your thesis. They are all important and I do have things to say about them, but right now I’m talking about the bit that goes before your first and/or last name.

Having just completed a journey from one side of the world to another, on two different airlines, I’ve discovered I can get pretty miffed about what people decide to call me. I’ve been Ms., Miss or Mrs the entire way to Australia and back, on planes and in hotels.

So what’s wrong with that?

Well, first off, the ancient part of me that struggled with lots of other women to say that our marriage status was pretty irrelevant to most aspects of our lives, and that we wanted to be called Ms. instead of Miss or Mrs, is pretty shocked at the way that this seems to have dropped off the list of titular possibilities. Only Qantas managed to print out a boarding pass that listed me as Ms.

But hang on Qantas, I’m in your data base as Dr. In order to print out my boarding pass I shoved my Qantas card into the appropriate slot and it clearly says Dr. What kind of translation goes on in the machine, I wondered, as I proceeded to board the plane and get called Ms. for the entire journey.

On the other flights and hotels, all booked via the university travel agency in which my academic titles are clearly entered, I become Miss or Mrs. When I produce my credit card for authorisation when checking in, it can be clearly seen that my very polite and proper British bank has written Prof or Profr as my title. Yet I remain firmly Miss or Mrs in hotel records.

I’ve even recently had two emails from academic conference organisers addressing me as Miss. And surely they ought to know better!

Am I just being a silly here?

Well, most of the time I actually don’t worry about titles. I don’t call myself Dr. Pat Thomson on Twitter or this blog. I know that some people do and I don’t have a problem with that. It’s just not that important to me. But I do know that lots of people click on the ‘about me’ part of the blog to see who I am and, I bet, whether I have any qualifications at all for talking about academic writing, research and other bits and pieces of academic life. So that’s where I put my stuff in this instance, where it’s about track record and street cred.

However, I discover that I am passionate in my belief that the use of a title is an option that people have the right to choose. Most of the time I choose not to use my titles. However I’ve recently confirmed that I object strongly to other people making that decision for me.

I worked hard for my PhD, as did everyone else who has one. As I keep saying to the doctoral researchers with whom I work, if a PhD was easy everyone would have one. So, in part, having the title is a recognition of something that I and every other Dr. have achieved. I’m not so fussed about the Professor bit but I guess it’s also some kind of achievement that in some places does matter – and as one person said to me on Twitter recently, not caring is a luxury I can have.

But the other thing – and actually the main and serious issue – is that an academic title is part of my identity. Like any other bit of the ‘me’ that I present to the world, I want to be able to control how I represent myself. If I choose to represent myself as title-less – another option not usually available – that’s up to me I reckon. If I choose to be known as Ms. then that’s my choice. And if in some circumstances, such as being notified about acceptance of a paper for a conference, or checking into a hotel or flight, I choose to be Dr. or Professor then I think I should be able to make that decision for myself.

Most of the time I don’t care to push my title(s) under people’s noses. Sometimes it’s downright embarrassing or counter productive – for example at the hairdressers, when Dr. or Professor makes normally voluble young women get very tongue-tied as they lapse into thinking about their own academic successes and failures. I can often see this happening in front of me when they ask what I do.

But when I am denied the option to choose my title I get crabby. What I get called is my decision to make, not that of some corporate computer programmers!!

What do you think? Is this just a girl thing? Does Mr not have the same effects? When do you use your title(s) and why?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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12 Responses to travel diary: titles – do they matter?

  1. missmcinerney says:

    If there were a straightforward choice between Dr and Ms (as would be the case for Dr and Mr) then this might be less irritating. The confusion with Miss and Mrs is annoying. It still irks me that my ‘title’ might denote marital status whereas men don’t have the same issue.


  2. I suppose my correct title is Miss but, given that it is obvious I am well past my thirties, this can have a very strange effect on people who have the expectation I should be married by now. Using Ms. seems to send out signals that I am militant and therefore likely to cause trouble. In many cases, just for a quiet life I go along with Mrs.
    As I am going through the process of doctoral study, I can fully appreciate how hard won the title of Dr is and probably when I have gained the right to call myself Dr this might make life easier. Providing no one asks me to deliver a baby or deal with a heart attack on board a flight.


    • M-H says:

      There is indeed a downside to being known on the flight as ‘Dr’. I’ve been on two flights recently where someone was taken ill – very ill in one case – and some poor (presumably medical) doctor had to care for them. I hope they refunded the price of their tickets! I think it would be very embarrassing to be approached by flight crew asking me to minister to someone and have to say “Sorry, no, I’m not that kind of doctor.” And yet, when I can I will certainly claim Dr. And I will be Writing Letters if Qantas print my boarding pass without it. (They usually manage Dr for my partner, Pat, I think you’ve been very unlucky.)


  3. Karenmca says:

    All valid points, Pat; we’ve all been there. For myself, I didn’t complete my first doctoral attempt, but a quarter of a century later, I completed the second, on a totally different subject. To me, the “Dr” is an affirmation of the fact that I struggled and won! (On a different but related matter, though, I don’t entirely like the fact that just s-o-m-e-t-i-m-e-s, the use of my “Dr” gets results where it shouldn’t be of any practical difference. Like appointments, if the person at the other end of the phone is being offhand…)


  4. Simon Bailey says:

    I think there are some things that are gender specific about this – Mr is Mr whether he is married or not, so there are no assumptions being made. I have a different bug bear, which is the colonisation of Dr by the medical profession. If I don’t use my title, and I rarely do, it is because I can’t be bothered with the performance that follows in the ‘so what kind of doctor are you then…?’ vein, which is nearly always an awkward and undermining experience.


  5. Completely agree with all said above. Awaiting my designation of ‘Dr’, and had previously thought I wouldn’t use it much. Then I realised that using it was the only way to avoid the Mrs/Ms/Miss thing. It’s the only way to create not just a marital-status-specific title, but also the only way to avoid a gender-specific title. And frankly, I believe that *does* make a difference in so many situations. I shall be using “Dr” with pride, once I achieve it, and thank you Prof. Pat for being vocal on the issue!
    (Nearly-Dr Sarah R-H)


  6. I experience the opposite: not quite a Dr yet, but not that unfrequently called so – even by people who should know better (such as conference organizers). I make it a point to correct them, most of the time. To add to the discussion: its not just the title, its also the institutional affiliation (esp inside academia, but also vis-a-vis “outsiders”). I currently have three: my main one at a very good German university (Bielefeld), an association with Oxford, and an affiliation at JNU Delhi. People react very differently to my respective email IDs, pick different ones from my visiting card (where there are all three, in this order), and write all kinds of things (including “independent researcher”) on conference badges. I tend to ignore it (but make mental notes and smiles with my sociological mind). But that is probably a luxury of the not-yet-Dr as much as of Patter as a Prof – once on the job market, I would prefer people would take a second to ascertain who I am (or what I am titled at least)… Oh – and very happy that I am always Mr. – that must be very annoying indeed for the opposite gender…


  7. I too value the Dr title (and still have the first envelope I received with this title on it!). I agree completely that this is about choice of the individual concerned.
    Regarding the airlines: I regularly get boarding passes with “MRDR” on them. I was once told by an airline official when checking in that the reason for the gender being included is that airlines tend to try and not have single women travellers in the middle of a seat row with men, and therefore gender-determining titles are helpful. I can sort of see the argument here, but the records on their computer will already show this, and I don’t see the need for it to be printed. It doesn’t, of course, explain why they use Miss instead of Ms etc!


  8. Siobhan says:

    Great piece Pat.

    I work in a field where most academics are at least 20 years old than me. I also look younger than I am. So I often use the Dr to avoid being confused for a student and to ensure that I’m taken seriously. (As recently as this year a first year student in the course I was convening asked if I knew who the lecturer was – I sheepishly replied ’me’)

    I also use the Dr to deflect the marital status question. Australians don\’t really understand the concept of Ms. So when asked ’is it Miss or Mrs?’ I say, ’actually it’s Dr’. (Though I object to the fact that this answer once made an appointment with a specialist gynaecologist magically appear for the following day, when 10 seconds earlier there hadn’t been an appointment for six weeks!)

    It does bother me though when I use the title and less educated people then make assumptions about the sort of person I must be. I once had a date with a man who refused to speak after he discovered I had a PhD, because ”I’m a bus driver”. I try to explain to people that for me getting a PhD was like doing an apprenticeship. I wanted to be an academic, so I did a PhD. If I’d wanted to be a mechanic, I’d have done an apprenticeship. Yes I worked hard to get it, but I don’t think it makes me better than you.


  9. Tseen Khoo says:

    Enjoyed reading this – thanks! I tend not to use my title unless I’m asking for a bank loan… 😉 Mostly, I go by Ms.

    In my current job, though, which is alt-academic, I was encouraged to use my title at every opportunity and it works beautifully when I’m meeting researchers for the 1st time and they’re ready to mistrust/dismiss a mere ‘admin’ person’s point of view on research. I also found myself talking about my research successes (e.g. grants/assessing/editorial roles) much more than I ever did before because there has been occasion to be doubted on the professional and intellectual front!


  10. Peter says:

    On a flight to NZ, I was asked by one of the FAs whether I was a medical doctor … I had to disappoint him. I would have liked to add, that I was a ‘real’ doctor (PhD), and not a MBBS ‘referred to by the courtesy title of Doctor’.
    Upgrades to Business Class don’t seem to happen, but in hotels, I have been lucky once or twice….


  11. asehelene says:

    I got here through Tom Hartley, who has been talking a bit about how to address your profs/lecturers etc in an introductory e-mail (instructions to students that is). I moved from the US (where I got my Ph.D) to Sweden where I got my faculty job. (Originally I am from Sweden). And, in the US, with all its friendliness, I would, of course, have been a Prof so and so or Dr. so and so, which is nice (I would also be a Mrs, given that I’m married, but since I took his last name, along with my own, that is not one I push). And, in Sweden, as the lecturer, I’m Åse. My first name. Because Sweden is hyper egalitarian, and you don’t get to differentiate yourself with a title.

    In fact, there are people from slightly older than me (the baby boomer proper equivalent) who can be aggressively egalitarian, and who, on occasion, write to the newspapers about how wrong it is for young people to address them with the more deferential (and supposedly polite) wording.

    I kind of end up forgetting I have a PhD, because I’m just my first name. And, really, I’m not a terribly formal or hiearchical type of person, but I kind of liked that imposed distance of being addressed as prof (which I can’t do here, since it is a higher title than I possess), or at least Dr. After all, I will have to grade you, and give you grades that may disappoint you, so although I don’t mind being friendly, I don’t really want to be friends, because friends don’t give you a failing grade!
    Whenever I can, I do put down my title as Dr, just to remind me that I actually am, and that I worked hard for it. As it is, I tend to forget. When an old grad school buddy of mine mentioned on facebook that she actually held a PhD in psychology, I almost wrote how impressed I was, until I realized that so do I.
    I kind of lament this, actually, because the work is an accomplishment, and although I don’t really want to lord if over people, I’d like it to be acknowledged somehow. But, I guess, I’m just plain Åse. Well, at least, that is a bit better than being, you know, someones wife. Which, of course, I’m pleased I am (and I figure he should be as pleased to be my husband), but not something I want as a marker of status.


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