Don’t Mess With PhDs

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Doctorate Holder Scorned

When I saw it trending, I thought, no! Not another “Doctorgate.”

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed last weekend, essayist and former professor Joseph Epstein attempted to make a point about academic pomposity (as well as the proliferation of frivolous PhDs in some fields) by suggesting that, as first lady, Jill Biden should stop referring to herself as Dr. Biden, as she has since earning an Ed.D in Educational Leadership in 2007.

“Madame First Lady — Mrs. Biden — Jill — kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter,” wrote Epstein, who is a former editor of The American Scholar. “Any chance you might drop the ‘Dr.’ before your name? ‘Dr. Jill Biden’ sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.”

Wouldn’t you know it, the piece didn’t quite land. It crashed spectacularly, sending the 83-year-old Epstein to the Twitter stockade and generating several news articles about the outrage, including this one in The New York Times. Pretty soon, Northwestern University, where Epstein is an emeritus lecturer, had released a statement denouncing the op-ed and decrying Epstein’s “misogynist views.” A subsequent Newsweek article suggested that Northwestern had removed Epstein’s biography from its website.

Meanwhile, Epstein’s strategy to put the non-M.D. “Doctor” honorific in its place has completely backfired. In what is sure to be the next iteration of hashtaggable badassery, tee-shirts reading “Doctor. First Lady. Jill Biden” are already being sold as fundraising merchandise for the college where Biden will be teaching next semester. The mileage of this meme-in-the-making could be infinite. We may still be mourning the loss of Notorious R.B.G, but there’s a new #Doctor in the house.

As a longtime writer of op-eds, I know that you can’t hit a home run (or even make contact with the ball) every time. In Epstein’s defense, I think the charges of misogyny were misdirected, since he spends plenty of time deriding blowhard male academics who insist on being called “Dr.” It also seems a bit of a stretch for the Times to mention that Epstein had been “accused of advancing offensive views before,” only to cite just one example — from 1970.

Still, even by failed op-ed standards, this one was epic. The “kiddo” flourish was pointlessly condescending. (Some commenters noted that people of Epstein’s generation sometimes used “kiddo” in the spirit of friendly avuncular advice directed to either sex. Okay, but in that case, maybe “whippersnapper” would have been a better choice.) Epstein’s snide mockery of Biden’s dissertation title was unnecessary, as was his invocation of a “wise man [who] once said that ‘no one should call himself ‘Dr.’ unless he has delivered a child.’” Considering that midwives–not to mention the occasional taxi driver—have been delivering babies for centuries, that citation would have been best left uncited.

Nonetheless, my heart went out to Epstein ever so slightly. Not just because he apparently wasn’t afforded the luxury of an editor who might have saved him from himself but because I know what it’s like to run afoul of PhDs. Believe me, you don’t want to get on their bad side.

Last spring, after noticing that Christine Blasey Ford was trending on Twitter topic under “Dr. Ford,” I made the mistake of tweeting a silly joke about the “Doctor” honorific, specifically Jill Biden’s use of it.

Okay, maybe it didn’t quite qualify as a joke. It was more like a not-very-well-thought-out observation that wasn’t particularly funny. (A first for Twitter!) It certainly wasn’t my best tweet. Unfortunately, it remains the most retweeted and commented-upon tweet I have ever sent. It resulted in what was by far the most vehement and prolonged dragging I ever experienced on the site. PhDs from all corners came out to call me a jealous wannabe, overall garbage person and, inevitably if also irrelevantly, a “Karen.”

I would point out that several people with PhDs messaged me privately to tell me they knew exactly what I meant. They said it was tacitly acknowledged in most academic circles that people in non-scientific fields who went around calling themselves “Doctor,” at least in non-professional settings, were generally regarded as insecure and embarrassingly arriviste. Figuring that all of the PhDs who were angry with me knew deep down that this was true, I “doubled down,” as they say, sending this tweet.

Needless to say, this just kicked off another avalanche of indignation. On top of insulting PhDs, of course, I had also been perceived as being misogynistic toward both Jill Biden and Christine Blasey Ford. That had not even remotely been my intention. So after a few days of avoiding Twitter as if it were a hot stove (and also because it was the height of pandemic lockdown and I was as bored and deranged as anyone) I composed a long tweet thread in which I attempted to clarify myself and explain my admittedly convoluted thought process. Between figuring out what to say and figuring out how to do a tweet thread, it only took me around seven hours.

As you can see, practically no one read it. Meanwhile, more than eight months have gone by and the original tweet, which I saw no point in deleting, still resurfaces and now then, bobbing along like a piece of driftwood on which someone (I guess that would be me) has written “kick me” in fluorescent letters.

For the last couple of days, in wake of the Epstein fracas, the tweet has been back in mild enough rotation that I find myself peering at my notifications through my fingers. Goddamn Joseph Epstein, I think. Followed by poor Joseph Epstein. The guy is 83–years-old and, until the outrage archeologists come up with new findings, doesn’t appear to have said anything offensive in 50 years. By today’s standards, that’s almost saintly. Come to think of it, I’d like to know how he does it. If I could go 50 days without people getting mad at me, that would be an accomplishment.

Speaking of accomplishments, please, once again, understand me: earning a Doctorate — in medicine, in education, in experimental dance theory, in anything—is an accomplishment. Also please understand that I realize that universities are cut throat hierarchies in which having “Doctor” before your name affects your salary, your standing, and the respect you get from students and other faculty alike. But if there’s anything I learned from my online pummeling at the hands of thousands of PhDs and their allies, it’s that holders of doctorates are uniquely adept at defending themselves against enemy attack. No doubt it’s a skill they’ve picked up from the brutal politics of their own institutions.

“The reason that university politics is so vicious is because the stakes are so low,” said Henry Kissinger, in what is arguably the most famous quote about academia in modern history. No surprise then, that Kissinger is also famous for insisting on being called Dr. Kissinger.

Like I said, don’t mess with these folks.

Weekly blogger for Medium. Host of @TheUnspeakPod. Author of six books, including The Problem With Everything.

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