What to call Jill Biden


A recent column about Dr. Jill Biden’s doctorate and what honorific title she should claim caused backlash and controversy. She earned a Doctor of Education (EdD) degree. Should she be called doctor?

Few can distinguish between graduate degrees even as the number of degrees and recipients increase.

Biden received the EdD degree in the field of education. It is in a category of degrees granted by professional schools. Doctor of Medicine (MD) granted by medical schools is widely known and respected. A few area ministers earned Doctor of Ministry (DMin) degrees from seminaries and divinity schools. Other professional degrees are Doctor of Podiatric Medicine (DPM), Doctor of Audiology and Doctor of Optometry. Each graduate degree has specific professional focus and requires a thesis reviewed by a committee of scholars in the profession.

Some professional organizations require certain advanced degrees for certification. For example, some church bodies require the Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree for ordination, which signifies three years of graduate study following a four-year bachelor degree. Many ministers in Crawfordsville have the MDiv degree.

The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree is a research degree in an academic discipline. Most, Wabash College faculty members have PhD degrees, but not all. The PhD requires research and a dissertation based on original research in a discipline, such as biology, economics or classics. Wabash commencements display bachelor, master and doctoral gowns and hoods indicating to insiders the level, the type of degree and the granting institution by the colors, designs and length of the garb.

Some people display honorifics; others do not. I was warned by my doctoral advisor to be careful when addressing a letter of gratitude to a reader of my dissertation to address the British scholar as The Reverend Doctor Professor. He held both a PhD and was a Regis Professor of Divinity at Oxford by appointment of the Queen, so he would expect honorific titles of respect. My daughter has a PhD in psychology and early childhood development, but she rarely uses doctor as a title or places PhD after her name in her context at Notre Dame. At the University of Chicago during student days, only medical doctors were called doctor. In fact, world-class scholars (Tillich, Barth, Eliade and Grant) were called mister, and some professors did not have PhD degrees.

Degrees mentioned above are called “earned degrees.” Many higher education institutions grant what are called honorary degrees for distinguished service to the academy and society, for example, Doctor of Divinity (DD), Doctor of Humane Letters (LHD). At my college commencement, the president introduced honorary degree recipients by saying to us, “You worked four years for your degree, but they have worked decades for theirs.” I thought that was insensitive and demeaning to us on our day.

A great deal of gamesmanship goes into use of status symbols, which is the background for the insulting or humorous column about Biden. How, then, does one begin to determine status, or is that just in the eye of the beholder?

One must first determine the purpose of the evaluation. One doesn’t want a PhD in a related academic field, say in biology, to prescribe your medicine. Best consult a highly skilled MD. However, if developing a vaccine for COVID-19 you best employ academic researchers. Once one has decided on the type of degree specialization needed, the quality of the institution is important. Then, the quality of the department where research is conducted and the excellence of the doctoral advisor for the advanced research are determinative. For example, Indiana University’s music program has long been regarded as one of the finest in the country. Finally, one has to gage the quality of the individual holding the degree.

The chair of my doctoral committee gave chilling advice on graduation day: “You have done well in earning this PhD. It will carry you for about five years. Your future will be determined by what you accomplish in that next five years.” The warning! Any degree is a commencement not the goal or fulfillment.


Raymond Brady Williams contributed this guest column.


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