The Volokh Conspiracy

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Who Should Be Called Dr.? Probably Not Jill Biden, Just as Lawyers Like Me Aren't

The Ed.D. that Jill Biden has, like my J.D., is a professional degree that requires serious study and work [UPDATE: about 2/3 of the credit hours required for a J.D.]; but it's not the equivalent of a Ph.D.


I didn't much care for the Wall Street Journal op-ed that said Jill Biden shouldn't be referred to using the title "Dr." Certainly calling a grown stranger (and especially the soon-to-be First Lady) "kiddo," even as a joke, seems disrespectful; nor is her using the "Dr." title "fraudulent" or "comic."

Nonetheless, the view that Jill Biden should be called "Dr." because she earned her Ed.D. strikes me as unsound, too.

As best I can tell, there have been two rival customs on such matters in American life. (I speak here solely of the U.S. customs.) Under the first, only people with M.D.s (or perhaps people with any doctorate in a medical field, such as dentists) are called "Dr.," in those contexts that call for a title.

Under the second, people with Ph.D.s are called "Dr." as well (at least if they so prefer). My sense is that this is the more common approach these days, though the matter seems unclear.

Now that leaves the question: What to call people who have other non-medical degrees that are labeled "doctorates"? The most common such degree is the one my wife and I have, as lawyers: A J.D., which means Juris Doctor. (Unlike in other fields, most law professors don't have a Ph.D. or the rare specialized legal Ph.D. analogs, like a J.S.D.) And lawyers in America definitely don't get called "Dr."

Then there is the "Ed.D." To my knowledge, there isn't a fixed custom among the general public as to whether to call people with Ed.D.s "Dr.," the way there is a fixed custom as to people with J.D.s (for whom, again, the answer is "no no no"). I assume there isn't such a custom in part because Ed.D.s aren't that common. There's also the complication that Ed.D.s may differ at different institutions.

But at the University of Delaware, where Jill Biden got her Ed.D. in Educational Leadership, the Ed.D. appears much more like a J.D. (or perhaps a M.S. or M.A.) than like a Ph.D. The Ph.D. program is a full-time 4-5 year program; the Ed.D. program is a part-time 3-4 year program (though I should note that a master's degree is required for entry). Recall that a J.D. is generally 3 years full-time, though without at thesis; M.S.s and M.A.s tend to be 1½ to 2 years full-time, with a thesis.

[UPDATE: I've confirmed that, when Jill Biden was in the Ed.D. program, it required 54 credits of coursework (including 12 research credits), which means a workload corresponding to about 14 3-hour-per-week semester-long courses, plus the research time. By way of comparison, using roughly the same credit=hour-per-week during a semester calculation, the 3-year J.D.s require 83 credit hours, some of which also often correspond to research or to practicums. The Ed.D. is thus roughly comparable to a 2-year full-time professional program.]

And while the hallmark of a Ph.D. is generally a dissertation that constitutes a substantial original work of scholarship—something that adds materially to the body of the discipline's theoretical knowledge—the Delaware Ed.D. does not require that. A thesis is required, but the University of Delaware describes it as an "educational leadership portfolio" that "addresses problem of local, practical importance," as opposed to the Ph.D. requirement of a "dissertation" that "addresses problem of generalizable significance." More specifically, the thesis is an "Executive Position Paper":

The EPP identifies a problem of significance to you and your organization, analyzes the problem thoroughly, and develops a feasible plan to solve the problem. The aim of the EPP is a detailed and well-documented plan that will help your organization improve. When the paper is complete, it is presented and defended at a meeting of your thesis committee.

And indeed that's what Biden's thesis was; here's the abstract, which summarizes the rest of the paper well:

Student retention at the community college: meeting students' needs

This Executive Position Paper (EPP) studies student retention in the community college and Delaware Technical & Community College in particular. The paper focuses on four areas of students' needs: academic, psychological, social, and physical. An overview of the paper is given, and an introduction to Delaware Technical & Community College is presented. First, the nature of the pre-tech (developmental) population is discussed. Then, a literature review offers current research by experts in the field. In addition, the results from pre-tech students, faculty, and advisor surveys and interviews are analyzed. Statistical information underscores the problem of retaining students, and personal accounts from students provide insight as to why students drop out. Overall, problem areas are identified, and recommendations and solutions are offered and encouraged.

This may be a useful application of existing scholarship to a particular institution, coupled with surveys and interviews conducted at that institution. But it isn't like the substantial original work of scholarship required for a dissertation in a typical Ph.D. program, nor was it apparently intended to be the equivalent of such a dissertation.

Some people have suggested that refusing to call Jill Biden "Dr." is itself sexist (regardless of whether you also call her "kiddo"), because Ed.D.s are being devalued simply because they are apparently predominantly earned by women. As you might gather from the above, I don't think that's right.

If the Ed.D. were just a Ph.D. in education, there'd indeed be no basis for treating it differently from a Ph.D. in other fields (regardless of the gender mixes in those fields); education is an important subject for scholarly research, just as is literature or history or political science. But actually the Ed.D. seems quite far, at least at the University of Delaware, from a Ph.D., and more like a master's degree or like a J.D. And a J.D., despite its being a Juris Doctor, has never been seen as entitling the holder to a "Dr.," both in its early overwhelmingly-male years and more recently, when about equal numbers of women and men receive it.

Jill Biden doubtless worked hard for her Ed.D., as people generally work hard for their M.S.s and M.A.s (generally 1½-to-2-year full-time degrees) or for their J.D.s (again, 3-year full-time degrees). She doubtless worked hard on her thesis, as people generally work hard on their masters' theses or law review student articles (not required for a J.D., but something many students do write). But I don't see a basis for treating her Ed.D. as similar to a Ph.D. (which many people do treat as entitling the holder to the title "Dr.") rather than to a J.D.

Or if Ed.D.s from Delaware-like programs are going to be called "Dr.," it's hard to see why lawyers (at least ones who have written a substantial law review article while in law school) don't merit the label "Dr." as well.

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An aside: In many contexts, even Ph.D.s aren't called "Dr.," as this article (Hontas Farmer, Science 2.0) notes—we say "Albert Einstein" rather than "Dr. Albert Einstein"—but if there was occasion to use a title, e.g., in a greeting from a stranger, people following this norm would have called Einstein "Dr. Einstein" in preference to "Mr. Einstein." The same is true for living scientists: My UCLA colleague Andrea Ghez, for instance, just received a Nobel Prize in Physics, and the news coverage routinely talked about "Andrea Ghez," not "Dr. Andrea Ghez." On the other hand, the New York Times, which has a custom of referring to people on second mention using their titles (rather than just last names), called her "Dr. Ghez" rather than "Ms. Ghez," reflecting the custom of calling people with Ph.D.s Dr. in that context.

Note also that professors are often called "Prof." within their disciplines rather than "Dr.," even if they have Ph.D.s. Perhaps that's because in most fields it's seen as a higher honor; or perhaps it's because (to quote Miss Manners), on those faculties, "A Ph.D. is like a nose — everyone has one. It's only conspicuous if you don't have one."