Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

Labels – good and bad

Tibbs-Edited-01I recently went on an enjoyable double-header seminar trip hosted by two fabulous WomenOfScience. Because I was giving two different talks, and thus staying a little extra, I was asked to chat with their women in science group over one of the lunch times. The group was a nice mix of undergraduates, grad students, and professors (I didn’t see any postdocs, but may have missed them). It also had men and women, which is very heartening. We had some good and interesting discussions. Many thoughts for this blog were generated, and I have two good ideas that I am excited to write about. This post was spurred by a brave undergrad who, toward the end of the lunch, asked a very important question: “When am I a scientist?” As she was already a science major, all the faculty and senior students piped up to tell her that she was already a scientist. She didn’t really seem to believe us, but I really think it is true. Any student studying science, learning to think like a scientist, being challenged and excited by science, is a scientist.

That night, three different friends who happen to be faculty of color sent me an interesting article about cultural taxation whereby faculty from under-represented groups are overly burdened with advising and mentoring students from under-represented groups who come to them with higher frequency. It was a fascinating article, but one thing about it really irked me: the article referred to every single professor as “Ms.” or “Mr.” but never “Dr.” or even “Prof.” I mentioned it to my friends and even left a comment, and multiple people agreed with me. Apparently, that is a journalistic style to only refer to medical doctors as “Dr.” and all others by Mr. or Ms., but what about Prof? Ironically, by following some silly, antiquated journalism rule, they undermined the point of their own article which was partially that minority professors don’t get the respect they deserve. It was so frustrating.

The next day, I was chatting with a lovely person who is compassionate and interested in diversity issues. I mentioned that the undergrad student from the day before had asked when she was a scientist. He thought it was interesting that she asked that. I told him that I typically address my students as scientists in emails to get the point across to students that they are scientists. Like a nice person, he said that when he leads, he likes to keep the hierarchy very flat.  In order to achieve this, he often leaves off people’s titles. I agree that level playing fields with little hierarchy is a really great way to lead, but to me it mentally hurt to remove people’s earned titles. When I got my Ph.D. it made me feel special and proud. That title of “Dr.” was important to my psyche to help empower me to start a postdoc and know I had significant knowledge and training to back up my ideas. It actually helped stave off imposter syndrome for about a year. The same thing happened when I got my job as an Assistant Professor and when I got tenure. Those milestones were more important to my self-esteem than as hurdles to overcome.

Anyway, what do you think? Are labels and titles important or should we remove them? I kinda think that if you are already a majority person with assumed competence and authority, it is easy to throw away your title. But, if you are an under-represented person who people automatically think is less competent or perhaps “doesn’t look like a professor,” I totally understand wanting to hold on to, hold up, and brag about your title.

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Comments on: "Labels – good and bad" (4)

  1. I have a PhD in Molecular Biology, and have spent my whole life working with scientists who are without exaggeration pioneers in their fields. It is routine for people in our field to address each other by first name, even if they are Nobel laureates. While am occasionally addressed as “Dr”, I find that overly formal. Graduate students and faculty alike address me by first name, and this is pretty normal. I guess if more than half the people you interact with have doctorates or are on their way, it seems superfluous to use titles, and as you alluded to in your article, we are all scientists, and only as good as our ideas in the end anyway, Ph.D or not.

    • Hi Bob, I think the point is that in a research lab, we all want a flat hierarchy with no formal titles. But, when a story is written about you, you meet someone new in a professional setting, or you have a website about a group, using titles is empowering to under-represented groups. As a majority-represented person, the title might not be as important to you, but if you were a black woman and were the only professor of a department, would you be OK with people calling you “Debbie” instead of “Dr. Smith” in class or in your first meeting?

  2. Interesting post. I agree, undergraduates working in a lab are scientists just as much as the PI is a scientist. We often have field trips of young kids, and as far as those kids are concerned, everybody they see in the lab is a scientist!

    Regarding titles, I guess it depends on the context — this post is making me wonder though if I’ve made mistakes in various contexts. When I send emails to students (my whole class or individual students) I sign my emails “Dr. Lastname” so that students have something obvious to call me. At one point I thought about having them call me by my first name, but then I realized I have to give them grades (sometimes bad grades) and it gives me a little bit more authority and distance if they don’t call me by my first name. When I talk to students and refer to other faculty (tenure-track or not), I call the other faculty “Prof. Theirlastname”.

    I’m trying to come up with situations when I talk about (or introduce) postdoctoral fellows. They’re rare. Maybe I should be using “Dr. Lastname” more often when I introduce them.

    When I was a postdoc, one of my close friends who was a year ahead of me on the job track commented that when he was interviewing, he called everybody he met by their first name: faculty, department chair, even the deans. He said this was because the assumption was that he was being interviewed as a potential colleague, and colleagues at universities call each other by their first name. I embraced that philosophy and even after starting my tenure-track job, I always call everybody by their first name. Fortunately the deans and university presidents all seem cool with this. But maybe this is a bit of luck, and maybe this is because I’m a white man. I don’t know.

  3. I wanted to post here because I just had a bad experience with a sales rep on this very topic. We bought an Aven Mighty Scope to take some pictures with. It came with software on a disk. We lost the disk and needed to put the software on another computer. My student called the company and got nowhere. I emailed the sales rep and got a reply that started out “Miss DofS, I need your address and the name of your department….” My email was signed Dr. DofS, and gave my department and university name. I wrote a snippy email back to that effect. The sales rep actually replied back that it wasn’t his job to read email signatures to get information from them. No apology about mis-addressing me. I am furious at being so insulted. In the end, I post this here in case any of your followers might want a USB microscope. Don’t buy an Aven. They are a-holes.

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