Friday, 30 May 2014


From The New Republic

“Dr. Angelou,” which was repeated by many media outlets after she died, was willed by Ms. Angelou herself: Her website referred to her as “Dr. Angelou” and her Twitter handle was the unambiguous @DrMayaAngelou. Wake Forest University, where she taught for many years, colluded in this ruse, referring to her in its obituary as “civil rights activist and professor Dr. Maya Angelou.” When I called the school to ask why it went along with this misdirection, a spokesman told me, “That was her choice, to be called that.” 

Ms. Angelou did have numerous honorary doctorates, from Smith College, Mills College, Mount Holyoke College, Northeastern, Lafayette, Eastern Connecticut State—the list goes on. These degrees are given at commencements to lure big names to the ceremonies, impressing graduates and their parents. I have long thought little of this tradition; at Yale, my alma mater, honorary degree recipients pop onto campus, meet with administrators and a few students (student government presidents, that type), collect their degrees onstage, then leave. Paul Simon got an honorary doctorate in 1996, Paul McCartney in 2008—and neither graced us with a song. 

In any event, throughout academia, it is agreed that an honorary doctorate does not entitle one to call oneself “Dr.”

Actually, I think that technically speaking, an honorary doctorate does entitle you to call yourself "Dr". It's more that anyone who decides to do so is being a bit of a dick for doing it.

I only found out recently that a friend I've known for 20 years is a Dr (electronics engineering). But he rarely uses it except when doing conferences or on his CV.


A K Haart said...

In my field, "Dr" was rarely used by some but used all the time by others. Oddly enough it didn't seem to be much of a career advantage either way.

Derek said...

It's not much of an honour if you can't use it though. If they think you're good enough to be awarded it, you are surely good enough to be able to use it.

Ian Hills said...

It's when they show off about having honorary degrees from places like the University of the North Circular Road (ie Neasden Polytechnic) that gets me all hysterical.

The Stigler said...

There's almost an inverse law about non-medical people with doctorates that use them - they're generally blowhards.

The "honorary" part is really saying that you're not supposed to use it, because it's not about academic rigour. It's just a recognition of achievement. Most people who get that understand that, and feel good about getting one.

Ian Hills,
Maya Angelou has something like 50 honorary degrees. Most of which are really just about a university trying to show how hip they are to racism and sexism. She's interesting from a historical perspective, of being involved in the civil rights movement, but most of her poetry is unmemorable.

Pablo said...

Not a lot of diff. 'tween that + being knighted or made a lord afaics.

The Stigler said...


Very similar, actually.

Mark Wadsworth said...

I never did a PhD (in what?) but somebody at work called me "Dr Wadsworth" for a joke years ago, and it sort of stuck, some of the new people who join hear it and think that I did do a PhD, even though I explain to them it was a joke.

I think that honorary PhD's are a bit like that. Just a bit of fun.