Call the Doctor!

Categories: Other, Research Roles, Research Skills, Supervising and Teaching Research Skills and Roles


You might have heard about the kerfuffle this weekend about who gets to use the title “Dr.” in front of their name. The writer of a controversial Wall Street Journal op-ed suggested that only medical doctors can be actual doctors, and in the process denigrated professional doctorates and Ph.D. programs generally. After clouds of steam coming out of my ears started to clear, I started thinking about how this topic relates to the MethodSpace focus for December: building trust and credibility for researchers and their work.

This post is a bit more personal and passionate than usual.

Janet Salmons

I was wild in my youth, what can I say? But I made the right decision to go back to school and was able to graduate from Cornell University despite — or because — I was an impoverished single mother of three young kids. I earned my Masters from Empire State College as a working mother with three lively teens. I earned my Ph.D. from Union Institute & University while teaching full time. At a career inflection point I chose to focus my efforts on adult and non-traditional students, and spent nearly 20 years working at Capella University, a then-innovative start-up institution with one of the first accredited online programs that granted Masters and doctoral degrees.

Call me Dr. so I can call you Dr.!

When I first started teaching I asked my students to call me by my first name. I wanted to develop rapport and be approachable. At some point a (male) colleague suggested that we should present ourselves as Dr. since we weren’t learners’ friends, we had responsibilities for assessing their work, and needed to demonstrate the authority to do so. I started using Dr. Salmons for a different reason.

The doctoral students I supervised had kids, mothers with Alzheimer’s disease, challenging jobs and job loss, deployment in active war zones, and pretty much any other experience of the human condition. They had an internal drive that kept them going on the notoriously labor-intensive process of designing, conducting, and writing up doctoral research.

Most of the Ph.D. students I supervised had not come from backgrounds that allowed them to interact with people with doctoral degrees. I took being a role model as a great personal responsibility, and talked with them about what I was doing with my research and writing projects, engagement with professional societies in our field, and so on. I wanted them to gain some sense that having a doctorate is more than having some letters behind your name, or opportunities for career advancement.

I wanted students to see the ways — at least for me — the study begun in my doctoral program continued to evolve as I learned more, ways the Ph.D. changed how I look at the world, and ways it motivates me to make whatever contribution I can. Time and again I discussed the doctoral journey as one that would take them from being my students, to being my colleagues. Yes, I’m Dr. Salmons, and you’ll be Dr. too, so how can you think about that future? Successful degree completion could, should be a meaningful inflection point in their lives.

Now what?

Drs. Jill Biden and Janet Salmons
Thank you, Dr. Biden, for reminding us that teaching as a noble profession!

Which brings me to this month’s MethodSpace focus. The anti-intellectualism we see today, combined with the difficulties in academia (made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic), mean many of us are feeling a bit dejected. I hope we can use this time to find better ways to explain the transformative power of higher education, the value of empirical research, and the ways scholarly work can inform practice. What does research impact really mean?

I welcome your thoughts, experiences, and stories about your own doctoral journey and how it has changed how you operate in the world. Post in the comment area, send me an email to jsalmons[at], or message me on Linked In or Twitter @einterview.

Relevant MethodSpace Posts

Leave a Reply