Is a PhD a Doctor? [The full guide]

The term “Dr” is very prestigious and projects expertise and respect in those who use it. There is a long and complicated history with the doctor title and who should (and shouldn’t) use it. Medical doctors, lecturers, and other medical professionals use it, but where did it come from and is a PhD a doctor?

Yes, a person with a PhD is a Doctor and use the “Dr” title before their name. This is not to be confused with a medical doctor. There is a complex history with this term but is currently accepted for people who hold a PhD as well as a wide range of other professions.

I have a PhD in chemistry and I call myself Doctor Stapleton in professional settings and when I want to let certain entities know that I have been awarded a PhD. In my experience, other PhD holders mainly use their titles in a similar way.

This article will cover everything you need to know about the Dr title and who can and cannot use it.

There have been people who have argued that the term doctor should be reserved for people who have studied and are practising medicine so that there is little confusion about the people suitably qualified to make health care decisions for you.

However, as you will see through this article the doctor title has a very long history that has nothing to do with the medical field at all.

Where the term Doctor comes from

For those that love a little bit of word history:

is a PhD a doctor

The word doctor comes from the Latin verb ”docere” which means to teach or is used to refer to a scholar.

In history the doctor title was invented to signify that a person was an imminent scholar. The doctorates date as far back as the 1300s and those who were able to get the doctor title in front of their name were rewarded with a lot of respect and prestige.

These people were often the lecturers of their day and would therefore teach many students in their areas of expertise.

Therefore, I think it is reasonable to conclude that the original intended use of doctor was for academics and scholars.

As time went on, the doctor title was awarded to other professions that wanted to elicit the same level of respect and prestige.

Health professionals receive an undergraduate degree in medicine and can call themselves doctor. However, these are professional degrees (undergraduate qualifications) and not really considered doctorates in the true sense of the word – it is more of an honorary title.

I don’t think that anyone with a PhD really cares about who is using it and accept that the majority of the public think that anyone with a doctor title has a medical degree.

I know that I was very excited to receive my doctor title but the excitement soon wears off when you realise that it doesn’t really matter in everyday life – but it still makes you and your parents proud.

These days, the doctor title is used by a variety of non-academic professions and it can get a little bit confusing.

So let’s have a look at who can actually use the doctor title and where it came from.

Who can use “doctor”

Even though the original use of the doctor title was for imminent scholars, nowadays there are several different professional qualifications that can use the doctor title.

It’s no surprise that more professional qualifications want to use the doctor title as it indicates many years of study, status and makes parents very proud.

A 2016 peer-reviewed publication submitted to the Canadian Medical Association Journal asks who is entitled to the title of Doctor?

Exactly who can use this term is starting to get a little bit confusing for the public.

There are many honorific doctor titles, including those found in the table below.

Medical doctorsPharmacistsDentists
Veterinary surgeonsLawyers (Doctor of Juris)Podiatrists

The use of the doctor term for many healthcare-related qualifications can cause a fair bit of confusion about what qualification the person has achieved.

That is why the title of a person is only the second most important thing to look at.

If in doubt, have a look at the letters after their name to really understand what the doctor title is referring to.

There are some interesting deviations in the doctor title and interestingly, in the UK, surgeons do not refer to themselves as doctor but rather use the term Mr/Miss/Mrs/Ms etc. I had a family friend who was a brain surgeon who was a medical doctor and, after becoming a surgeon, changed back to Mr – a prestigious indicator in the medical field.

It’s strange to me how each field has its own customs to denote prestige.

There are arguments that in a professional and medical setting that the term doctor should be reserved for those who are medical doctors.

This can be difficult as many other healthcare professionals have also received doctorates in their specialisation and would want recognition for that effort and achievement.

In a 2011 article in the New York Times, physicians said that they were worried about losing control over the title of doctor because it could lead to a loss of control over the perception of the medical profession itself.

Anything that makes it more difficult for patients to make an informed decision about their healthcare could be very dangerous.

However, the fact that they are using this doctor title at all is a deviation from its original intention. Here is why the doctor title really is only meant for holders of a Doctor of Philosophy.

PhDs – the original doctors(?)

PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy and, arguably, accounts for the only true use of the doctor title.

Being awarded a PhD means that you have completed postgraduate original and/or applied research that adds a significant contribution to the knowledge in a particular field.

It could be a PhD gained at a university or a professional doctorate but should signify that the owner of the title has completed the highest qualification obtainable in their field.

I talk about this in my short YouTube video:

You don’t necessarily have to use your doctor title after you have your PhD.

I know that there are many people who only use their Dr title in professional settings or as a way to stand out in other settings.

I only use my PhD title when I am in a setting where it is traditionally used. For example, I use my doctor title if I am giving a talk at a university or I am applying for funding within my field of expertise.

Some PhD holders find it a little bit awkward using their Dr title in everyday life whilst others use it on everything from rental applications to restaurant bookings.

How people use their Dr title once they have one is completely up to personal and individual choice. Initially, I was very excited to use my doctor title in as many situations as possible but quickly became wary of using it when it wasn’t required.

However, one of my guilty pleasures is seeing my doctor title on a plane ticket – I’m not quite sure why that is!

What you should call a PhD holder/your lecturers

One of the most common questions that I get asked when I am lecturing at a university is what students should call their lecturers.

Students can get confused with all of the formalities – especially if they have never been in a university before.

Professors, associate professors, doctors, lecturers, researchers – what does it all mean and how should you refer to academics?

Ultimately, it depends on the person.

Some PhD holders who lecture in a university want to be called by their official title and surname during every interaction.

Other lecturers and PhD holders are happy with students calling them by their first name. I certainly didn’t mind people calling me Andy during my workshops or lectures.

Also, some cultures are much more formal than others and wish to show respect by always using the official title of an academic.

Feel free to use whichever mode of interaction you wish – but, as a general rule, always err on the side of caution and use the more formal term for safety. Quite often, I have seen academics prompt students to use their first name as they also feel a little bit awkward being called their professional titles.

Doctor vs professor

When you graduate from a PhD you are entitled to call yourself by the doctor title.

All PhD holders are called Doctor in their professional setting. This can be on business cards, newsletters, websites, and other official documentation.

Universities in some countries also have a graduated career progression title system which denotes the expertise and seniority of the academic.

For example, in Australia the academic system is graduated like this:

  1. Lecturer
  2. Senior lecturer
  3. Associate Professor
  4. Professor

Therefore, in Australia it is not always appropriate to call someone in a university professor. Even if they are teaching your subject.

Professor is reserved for those who have achieved demonstrated expertise and outcomes in a variety of academic areas such as administration, teaching, research, and community outreach.

In other countries, however, you are automatically deemed a professor if you are teaching at a university. For example, in America your students will refer to you as a professor no matter your seniority in your university.

One of the first things you should do if you want to talk to your lecturer in a university setting is ask what their preference would be to be called.

Ask your lecturer about their preference

Whenever I gave a lecture, I would always start by saying that people can call me by my name (Andy), or they can choose to use Dr Stapleton if they feel that is more appropriate.

In my experience, most academics will not mind if you call them by their first name and, in countries like Australia, it seems to be the most common way for students to interact with their teachers.

It is not uncommon for the opposite to be true – and, like I have mentioned above, always start with the formal interactions. It is likely that you will be invited to call the PhD holder by their first name.

Outside of a formal setting most PhD holders really don’t mind how you talk to them.

The things a PhD student needs to do to become a doctor

The reason a PhD can call themselves doctor is because they have been awarded the highest qualification possible in their field.

A PhD requires you to perform research and produce a thesis or dissertation. The new information must contribute significantly to the field and report novel and new findings.

The PhD thesis is examined by other experts in the field (known as peers) and these other experts are responsible for telling the university whether or not you have satisfied the criteria to become a PhD.

There are other, more modern, ways of reporting your findings including peer-reviewed journals and professional doctoral reports.

Either way, admission to a PhD requires many years of hard work and dedication to answering a unique and unanswered question in your field.

I think that this satisfies the original use of the term doctor and is a great accomplishment for anyone.

It’s hard work but with the right guidance and dedication it is achievable by almost anyone.

Wrapping up

This article has covered everything you need to know about whether a PhD is a doctor.

The original term was introduced in the 1300s to denote an imminent scholar. This scholar would teach and pass on information to their students.

In modern times, the term doctor has been used as an honorary title for other professional careers in recognition of the hard work that they have put in to achieve their position.

However, there are fears that the doctor title is slowly becoming used for too many health professional areas leading to confusion around who is a medical doctor and who has other health-related qualifications such as dentistry, naturopathy, and others.

Nonetheless, people without an understanding of the convention can still get confused between medical doctors and holders of a higher degree PhD.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.