I 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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