24 October 2012

On using a title

Years ago, I was asked for my name for some National Health Service form, by a receptionist whose first language was not English. After she struggled with the spelling of my surname, I just passed over a credit card so she could copy it. It showed my title as "Dr", and I lost my mini-campaign to be treated as normal by the NHS. Not that I am discriminated against in my thankfully so far limited contact with them, it is just that using my academic title confuses the system, wastes time as I have to explain I'm not a medic., and has medical staff "explaining" things to me in technical language which means nothing... All--admittedly rather desultory--efforts to get it changed have so far had no effect, despite assurances.

But I do remember one wise doctor on a course who greeted me with, "Are you one of us, or a proper one?" In the UK, strangely enough, the medical "Dr" is a courtesy title, because the MD is rare; most medics are "MB, BS" (or "MB, ChB"--two unclassified bachelor's degrees, in any case) and of course to the disconcertion of foreigners taken ill in the UK, surgeons are "Mr" or "Miss"*. By "proper one" he meant an academic doctorate, although of course there was no telling what its private connotations were ...

It came up again last week, in an out-patients' waiting room--and everyone looked up as I responded to the call for "Dr Atherton". I'm probably being hyper-sensitive and it's all trivial but I mention it because...

I've just been watching a Newsnight piece on the postponement of the badger cull. The two interviewees were a representative of the National Farmers' Union, and Dr Brian May speaking for "Team Badger". The title appeared in his on-screen label, as well as in Paxman's introduction. There is no doubt as to his entitlement to the title: PhD, Imperial College London, 2007**. In astrophysics. How does that--or indeed the reason which probably actually got him onto the programme--his previous association with some popular musical group called "Queen"--relate to his credibility as a badger advocate? (I'm with him on the badgers, as a cause, so I feel let down by his apparent need to appeal to false -OK, irrelevant--credentials.)

*  this is entirely a matter of convention, and as far as I know, the standard and equivalence of UK medical qualifications is globally acknowledged.

**  and all credit to him for completing it thirty years after starting it--lucky he did not fall foul of the pernicious "Levinsky rules".

1 comment:

  1. I have the opposite problem. Many of my students call me "Doctor" or "Professor" when I am neither. For the first year full-time I corrected them every time, but it felt like either making a big deal about something which doesn't matter in industry, or apologising for not having a PhD or a Chair.

    I tried insisting on "Mister" like a surgeon, telling the to call me "Engineer", but stopped short of "Call me Master" after my highest degree. That's the sort of thing which is readily misunderstood.

    I've gone with not giving a toss.


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