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Dear Dr. Jill,
I’m writing as one doctor to another. Actually, two doctors to another since I have two doctorates—a juris doctor and a Ph.D. Yes, as you probably understand, it took a fair amount of time and a lot of hard work to earn those two degrees, and I’m rather proud of them.
I got the Ph.D. because I loved what I studied. I wanted to know as much as I could and be able to pass it on to others. I admit that the Ph.D. was a necessary credential to doing the kind of work I wanted to do, but it was the knowledge and not the credential that drove me.
For a variety of reasons not relevant here, I did not become a professor but turned to the law instead. I have to say my time in law school was very rewarding intellectually. I tried to explain to my fellow students, most of whom were some years younger than I, that they should thoroughly enjoy their time in school. But most of them were there for the credential and the prospect of a high-paying job. They saw the law more as a tool than as a calling. Maybe you understand that too.
As a lawyer, nobody called me “doctor.” Not once. And no other lawyer that I came in contact with, juris doctors one and all, ever asked for that honorific. It just isn’t done.
I practiced in a law firm with others who had a Ph.D. in various disciplines, and we were all judged on our skill as lawyers. Nobody thought that a Ph.D. entitled us to special recognition, even though we used that specialized knowledge in our legal practice and had clients who valued it. My Ph.D. was not just a trophy to hang on the wall. The education made me a better lawyer than I could have been without it, but it did not make me a better lawyer than the guy in the next office.
You are of course right that having a non-medical doctorate does not diminish your accomplishment. A lot of people seem to miss the point about medical degrees versus other doctorates. We call MDs “doctor” because we all need them in their professional capacity. We called our professors “doctor” because we, in our specialized pursuit, needed them in their professional capacity. It’s not that one doctorate is a cheap imitation of the other. It’s that most of us simply don’t need what you have to offer.
So here’s some friendly advice, one doctor to another: Nobody can take your degree or your education away from you, and you can give it an honored place in your own assessment of your accomplishments. But nobody owes you any special salutation. If your degree has value to you primarily as something for others to acknowledge, then you wasted your time in school.
In short, use your education to serve others, not to ask others to serve you. If someone needs your special skills, maybe that person will call you doctor. But don’t ask for it. There are plenty of people smarter and more accomplished than you or I who happily answer to Mr. or Ms. and who know that people who demand respect rarely get it.