Itching for That Title

Brian Taylor

August 05, 2013

My journey toward the doctorate was particularly convoluted. At some point before I earned my Ph.D., I'm certain that most of my relatives gossiped behind my back that I had fallen into the shameful status of "professional student."

I had drifted from degrees or programs in anthropology to creative writing to education to a seminary and finally to literature before I really had a bead on my endgame. I worked like a maniac during these years, trying to avoid student loans where possible. I sold shoes, gave tennis lessons, taught high school, taught adjunct courses at multiple institutions, and stumbled into a bit of freelance writing and consulting along the way. Every move I made was calculated in the direction of that day when I would complete the Ph.D., and, I hoped, join the ranks of the academic world.

Friends who went to medical and dental school passed me along the way. Once they had added the title "Dr." to their names, they went into practice and bought houses and nice cars while I continued to slog my way through sonnets and stacks of term papers. In polite conversation, they would admit me into their social club, teasing that one day I, too, would be a "doctor—just not the kind who could actually help anyone." Back in the days of beepers, two of my medical-school friends would lament the tyranny of their devices. One of them noted, "Ah, you will never have to wear one of these, you know. Grammar emergencies are quite rare, I understand." Yes, yes, very funny.

By the time I completed my doctorate, I was itching for that title to be added to my name, just as I was craving a bit of respect for the hard work that had gone into earning it and becoming an academic. I had landed a tenure-track position for the following fall, so my plan was falling into place nicely. After a decade as a full-time graduate student, I was awarded my doctorate in a summer commencement, the crowd being relatively small and the speaker being Robert Pittman, one of the founders of MTV. My dissertation supervisor had been a marvel of encouragement. If memory serves, I was her first student to be hooded, and she gave me an enthusiastic hug after she dropped the hood over my head. I could hear my mom whoop (she is a semiprofessional whooper), and the university's president said, "Now we can call you Dr. Fant" as he shook my hand and slipped the diploma case to me.

"Dr. Fant."

I liked the sound of that.

From that point, I was infected by the "Dr." virus that I have since seen many, many folks endure. At the intimate graduation party my wife arranged, people gave me lots of gifts that included the initials "Ph.D." or that said "Dr. Fant." A very nice leather briefcase, a silver business-card carrier, and several lovely desktop nameplates. My father-in-law made a comment that he'd always thought it would be nice for his daughter to marry a doctor.

For the next couple of weeks, most of my friends went out of the way to call me "Dr." I even picked up a nice benefit some time later as my dentist announced to me that he was a retired dental-school professor and he considered academics to be worthy of the discounts he extended to other professionals. Finally, I thought, some respect!

The pinnacle of my postdoctoral haughtiness came at a local bank. Without telling my wife, I placed an order to have our checks reworked so that the title "Dr." was prefixed to my name. When they came in the mail, she gave me one of those looks that only a spouse can offer but made no further comment.

The first time the teller at the bank window greeted me with "Dr. Fant" after a glance at my deposit slip, I knew I had arrived.

The fifth time or so it happened, I started to realize that I was being obnoxious. When the cashier at the home-improvement center called me "Dr. Fant," I decided that I was just being ridiculous and placed an order for new checks—without the title.

I started to pare away the other trappings, too. In hindsight, I am thankful that I didn't start to wear a monocle and speak with an affected English accent. Why is it that newly minted Ph.D.'s have a desire to turn into Mr. Peanut? Or rather Dr. Peanut? I seem to recall seeing a cartoon many years ago that included such a figure pontificating, "Of course you should do what I say: I have a Ph.D." For a season, I was that figure.

As my career has unfolded, I've watched other recent graduates wrestle with the same sorts of doctoral pride. Suddenly every memo from the staff member with a new degree awkwardly includes "Dr." at every turn, which is sort of the academic version of asserting "Academy Award (TM)-winning actor" that comes every year following the Oscars.

People carrying the Dr. virus use committee meetings to keep mentioning their degree. And some academics never recover: One of my friends noted that you could make a drinking game out of the frequency with which some people with Ph.D.'s from particularly prestigious institutions will mention their alma mater in passing: "Well, back when I was taking my doctorate at Frou-Frou U. ... "

Fortunately, for most academics, the virus is only a 48-hour bug, passing relatively quickly. Thankfully, my friends were forgiving and my family has a short memory of such failures. Then again, most of my lifelong friends still giggle when they hear someone call me "Dr." They knew me back when I was just "Geno."

Now that I am a chief academic officer, one of my great pleasures includes taking part in the hooding of doctoral candidates at graduation. I share the platform with the student's dissertation director, and after we drop the hood over the newly minted graduate, I always extend my hand and say, "Congratulations, Dr. So-and-so." I remember that moment in my graduation as being incredibly special. I beam when I say it. It's a proud moment.

I just wonder if they have ordered their new checks from the bank yet.

Gene C. Fant Jr. serves as the executive vice president for academic administration at Union University, in Jackson, Tenn.