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The PhD Credential: When Should You Address Someone as "Doctor"?

written by: John Garger•edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch•updated: 8/21/2013

What are the criteria and etiquette for addressing someone with a PhD title? The rules change both in and out of the university setting, or in writing as opposed to the spoken address. Learn how to address and introduce someone with a PhD title.

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    Dr. Livingstone, I Presume...

    The PhD is a mysterious degree for many people who have never gone through the process. The term doctor is usually associated with David Livingstone someone who holds a medical degree (like scientist/missionary/explorer Dr. Livingstone) and actively practices medicine. Calling someone doctor who doesn’t have a medical degree can seem awkward or inappropriate.

    The criteria for whether it is appropriate to address or introduce someone as doctor is quite clear. Unfortunately, there are times when addressing someone as doctor can seem pretentious when taken out of context. Read on for five tips concerning the etiquette of addressing and introducing someone who holds a PhD.

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    1 - Formal and Academic Situations

    In formal or academic social situations, it is most appropriate to address someone who holds a PhD as doctor. This is true for both face-to-face and written communication. Someone with a PhD has completed extensive study and research in his or her area of expertise. In academic situations, assume that it is always appropriate to use the prefix Dr and allow the individual the opportunity to decide whether he/she prefers to be addressed in common.

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    2 - University Setting

    Most people who hold a PhD are professors in a university setting. In some universities, all titles are dispensed with and everyone addresses everyone else with a first name only. Some universities reserve this privilege to professors who hold the same rank. It isn’t uncommon for senior faculty (associate professors, full professors) to expect junior faculty (assistant professors) to address them with a formal title attached. Your best bet in these situations is to assume a formal address until you learn the particulars and norms of the culture.

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    3 - Doctoral Students

    It is never appropriate to address or introduce a doctoral student as doctor. Until someone has the degree, never address him/her as doctor or with PhD after the name. Some ABD doctoral students whose graduation is imminent will prematurely take on the prefix Dr and place PhD after their name. This is inappropriate and would not be tolerated in most academic circles.

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    4 - Written Communication

    In written communication, it is usually not necessary to use the Dr prefix and also affix the letters PhD after the last name of someone who holds a PhD; use either one or the other but not both. For situations in which you want to give the PhD holder his or her due respect, use the prefix Dr. In situations where you want to be clear which type of degree the individual has, affix PhD at the end of the person's name. However, this is for written addresses and introductions only. In speech, prefix the individual’s name with Dr but never speak the letters PhD.

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    5 - Breaking the Rules

    Although the criteria for calling someone Dr are quite clear, it is perfectly fine to break the rules based on the individual’s preferences. Some doctors I know will correct you if you call them Mr or Ms while others aren’t concerned about projecting their academic achievements to others in public. The one rule you should always remember when addressing someone who has completed the study and research necessary to be called Dr is assume a formal address unless otherwise directed by the individual.

    Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain