During the recent British Columbia provincial election, a small fuss arose around how the leaders of the three major political parties addressed each other during the few times they met in debates. Liberal leader Christy Clark addressed New Democratic Party leader John Horgan as “Mr. Horgan” and Green Party leader Andrew Weaver as “Dr. Weaver”. Some people interpreted the “Doctor” as Clark being unnecessarily deferential to Weaver so as to implicitly insult non-Doctor Horgan.
Weaver does, indeed, have a Ph.D. – from the University of British Columbia, in applied mathematics. He was also part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that was a co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, although I suppose “Dr. Weaver, Nobel Peace Prize co-winner” would have been a bit unwieldy as a form of address.
But what to call Weaver genuinely seemed to puzzle many people – to the point where one debate moderator, Jennifer Burke, asked him what title he preferred. His refreshingly unpretentious answer was, simply, “I don’t mind. You can call me Doctor, or Mister, or just Andrew. I honestly don’t mind” (although Clark continued to call him “Doctor”).
In my own experience, some people think it’s disrespectful to call a Ph.D. anything other than “Doctor”. Some Ph.D.s are hugely offended if they’re not called “Doctor” at every possible opportunity, and some Ph.D.s don’t care one way or another – which leaves many people unsure about what form of address to use. Here’s a few guidelines.
- If you’re talking to more than one person with a Ph.D., call everyone “Doctor” or don’t call anyone “Doctor”. This is especially important if there’s gender or racial diversity among the group. If everyone has the same academic qualification, but only the members of the dominant demographic get called “Doctor”, it’s insulting to the others to not be addressed by the same title.
- In an academic setting, or if you’re talking to the person about something to do with their professional expertise, “Professor” or “Doctor” is appropriate, unless the person says “Please call me [whatever]”. In a setting like the grocery store, or a party, or a concert, it’s fine to call the person Mr. or Mrs./Ms./Miss, or by their first name. Only the most uptight Ph.D.s will get their shorts in a knot if you don’t call them “Doctor” outside their workplaces (and honestly, that’s their problem, not yours).
- Without going into the complicated history of conflict between medical doctors and Ph.D.s whose degrees are not in medicine, it’s sufficient to say that medical doctors are always “Doctor”, and the medical “Doctor” takes precedence over other kinds of “Doctor”s in a medical setting.
- Some Ph.D.’s prefer not to be called “Doctor” at all, because the title genuinely doesn’t matter to them, or because they think it creates unnecessary hierarchies or distinctions. Generally those people will let you know that when you meet them. (Incidentally, one of the most useful pieces of advice I received when I graduated with my Ph.D. was never to travel using the title of “Doctor” – unless you like being woken up at night by frantic hotel staff looking for help with a medical emergency.)
So the best way to get it right is to do what Jennifer Burke did with Dr./Mr./Andrew Weaver – just ask! It’s not an offensive question, and most people will appreciate that you were courteous enough to inquire. It’s as easy as that.