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Dictionary showing the word definition
Dictionary showing the word definition

Jill Biden: Who Should, and Shouldn’t, Be Called “Doctor”?

The controversy around Jill Biden’s title, “Dr.,” could use some clarification from the dictionary

There is a controversy about whether Joe Biden’s wife should be referred to as “Doctor” Jill Biden. Isn’t “Doctor” a title for physicians only?
The question is resolved easily by consulting a dictionary. Two of the definitions in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary are:

1.a person skilled or specializing in healing arts especially : one (such as a physician, dentist, or veterinarian) who holds an advanced degree and is licensed to practice

2.a person who has earned one of the highest academic degrees (such as a PhD) conferred by a university

Jill Biden has a doctorate (an EdD) from the University of Delaware.

Independent of one’s politics (I’m not a Biden fan), Jill Biden can be accurately referred to as Dr. Jill Biden. Martin Luther King was not a medical doctor but he did earn a PhD. Fox News’s Chris Wallace noted recently that no one has yet objected to King being called Dr. Martin Luther King.

EdD stands for “Doctor of Education” for Pete’s sake.

Who has the privilege of calling themselves “Doctor”? Medical doctors often introduce themselves to patients as Dr. So-and-So in order to establish their credentials for a doctor-patient relationship. Otherwise, those introducing themselves as Dr. So-and-So are, in my view, largely pompous and suffer from an inferiority complex or an inflated ego.

The prefix “Doctor” is used largely as an indication of respect. I have a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) in engineering and am a Professor. My students have addressed me as Dr. Marks for my entire career. When meeting with students and my colleague Charles Baylis, I refer to Charlie as Dr. Baylis. When there are no students around, he’s just “Charlie.”

The confusion about who should be addressed as “Doctor” and who shouldn’t is not new. In the old days, groceries were paid for by writing a check. A driver’s license was shown to verify your identity. I expected that “Dr. Robert J. Marks II,” printed on my checks, would expedite checkout. When I used these checks, the requirement of showing ID was often waived. It worked.

But after looking at my check, the checkout clerks often asked what kind of doctor I was. My stock answer was “I am not a real doctor. I have a PhD.” Then I was asked about the area of my PhD. I told them I am an Electrical Engineer and specialize in artificial intelligence.

But then I was often asked a question about artificial intelligence that stemmed from a hyperbolic media story or a recent sci-fi movie. This Q&A lasted longer than it would have if I did not put “Dr.” on my checks and, instead, simply whipped out my driver’s license as identification.

Rather than getting a new batch of checks printed without the prefix “Dr,” I began to stretch the truth. When asked what kind of doctor I was, I gave a short answer: “I specialize in the brain.” Since my work in artificial intelligence dealt with simulating neural networks on the computer, my response was not as far from the truth as if I had responded, “I’m a brain surgeon.”

So, as with the untutored grocery clerks of decades past, confusion continues about the title of “Doctor.”

But you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to resolve the matter. Just look in the dictionary.


Robert J. Marks II

Director, Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Besides serving as Director, Robert J. Marks Ph.D. hosts the Mind Matters podcast for the Bradley Center. He is Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Baylor University. Marks is a Fellow of both the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and the Optical Society of America. He was Charter President of the IEEE Neural Networks Council and served as Editor-in-Chief of the IEEE Transactions on Neural Networks. He is coauthor of the books Neural Smithing: Supervised Learning in Feedforward Artificial Neural Networks (MIT Press) and Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics (World Scientific). For more information, see Dr. Marks’s expanded bio.

Jill Biden: Who Should, and Shouldn’t, Be Called “Doctor”?