I work in local government (law enforcement) in the US, where titles are pretty important. I am a civilian supervisor with a doctorate degree. No one else there has this degree. I completed it two years ago. Is it unreasonable to be referred to as Dr. in a professional setting? Don’t know if it makes a difference but I am a female in a highly male industry.

For example, we had an awards ceremony that certain supervisors spoke at. The Chief of Police referred to them with their title, such as Lieutenant Camp, Major Short, but I was referred to as Jen Smith (my name is Jennifer). Even in the email previously about it, the Chief called everyone by their title and me as Supervisor Smith.

The year before he called me Dr. Smith. Even other emails that come to me refer to people’s titles except for me.

I know typically only people in academic settings are called Dr. except for where titles are used, and they are used pretty strongly at my place of employment. I am five years from retirement and have been with the organization for over 20 years. Originally, I got the doctorate because I thought I could make a difference, but now I don’t even care because I do not think I am taken seriously. Almost everything I do is questioned. I have the doctorate designation in my work e-mail signature.

Thanks for any insight.

  • 20
    I understand you're frustrated here, but we need to understand what your goal is to be able to help you - do you want advice on how to approach people to get them to use your title? Do you want a reality check as to whether you're making a mountain out of a molehill? Do you want something else? Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 19:23
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    Clearly you should be given the same amount of respect as everyone else, that's basic decency. But will things actually be any different if people call you "Doctor"... and keep on questioning what you do? Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 19:53
  • 3
    Have you spoken to the Chief and asked them why they did not refer to you as Dr.?
    – sf02
    Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 19:55
  • 14
    It's not clear to me if this person has never called you Dr. Smith, or if they actually did a year ago but now they stopped doing it.
    – DarkCygnus
    Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 20:08
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    What do you hope to achieve by posting this here?
    – solarflare
    Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 22:13

5 Answers 5


"Dr." in a civilian setting tends to refer to medical doctors (MD, not PhD). Of the people I know who have PhDs (and there are quite a few, both male and female), I don't think once have I ever heard any of them referred to as Dr. except ironically. The reason primarily being that if you are a Dr. then people believe you have medical expertise, because that's how most people interact with people titled "doctor".

The exception to this being if you are working directly in a field where your doctorate is important. Academia being the major one; if you're a PhD in a field, that means something when you are doing work or research in that field, as opposed to if you are not a PhD. In that case, it's important to be called Dr.

From your question, it seems like you are working in law enforcement. The other titles you mentioned are law enforcement rank titles, like Lieutenant and Major; Dr. is not a law enforcement rank and is thus not the same.

As you are not (don't seem to be) a medical doctor, it is, in my opinion, unusual if people were to call you Dr. outside of academia. My suggestion is to not make a huge issue out of this, unless your work domain is academic.

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    That's perhaps why OP was called "Supervisor Jennifer" as that is a title relevant to mention in law enforcement.
    – DarkCygnus
    Commented Mar 15, 2023 at 0:35
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    I upvoted because I agree with the intent of this answer, but I disagree with the facts. I have many friends who have a PhD, and academia is actually the only professional place where their name is never prefixed with "Dr.".
    – Stef
    Commented Mar 15, 2023 at 9:42
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    Not everyone works in the United States - and norms are very different in different cultures. Referring to the OP as Frau Doktor Schmidt would absolutely be the norm in Germany; failing to do so would be rude. Commented Mar 15, 2023 at 9:59
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    I think this answer would be more helpful with an indication of the cultural/geographic context – you write "in a civilian setting" but a civilian setting in the USA is different in this regard to a civilian setting in the UK, in India, in Germany, etc..
    – dbmag9
    Commented Mar 15, 2023 at 10:01
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    I had always understood that the USA was one of the few places where the "Dr." title was used. Also, I was never called "Dr" in academia, nor was anyone else (when working in Academia, most people in a given room will likely be PhDs, we don't make a big deal out of it) and now that I work in industry, it is only American colleagues who call me so. Admittedly, they only do so when introducing me to clients and my PhD is indeed relevant to what I do, so it could just be a way of making me sound more important to impress the clients, but still.
    – terdon
    Commented Mar 15, 2023 at 11:33

I think it varies by the field you work in. Using that title is usually to reflect you position in the organizational hierarchy. In some job types, having a doctorate is important to that hierarchy and others it is not.

Is there a place in your hierarchy that Dr. fits? I'm not sure where I would place it in the Chief, Major, Lieutenant hierarchy and Supervisor would seem to fit in better.

I work with a number of people who have a Ph.D. We don't refer to any of them as Dr., because it doesn't mean anything in our hierarchy. In fact most of them are at the lowest rung of the hierarchy.


There's only two situations in which it is typically considered appropriate to call someone "Doctor" when speaking verbally.

The first is a medical doctor who is acting at the time in a professional medical capacity, or being referred to in that capacity.

The other is an academic doctor when they are acting or speaking in an academic capacity (which might extend as far as theologians speaking publicly on behalf of the church, for example).

Other than these settings, it tends to sound somewhat pompous to refer to such people as doctors.

I would dare say academic qualifications tend to count for little in the ethos of the policing hierarchy, and senior policemen may know that (regardless even of your own wishes) referring to you publicly as "doctor" would make you sound pompous amongst the rank and file, to the detriment of your status rather than its enhancement.

The title that would be most appropriate to use would be your title in the policing hierarchy.


I think there are two slightly conflicting usages of titles here:

We've got rank titles such as "Cheif", "Lieutenant" etc that are conferred to the holder of a job.

And we've got personal titles/honorifics "Mr.", "Ms.", "Dr." that are conferred to a person based on their circumstances/achievements.

Now, if people are only ever referred to as the former, it's not unreasonable that someone might be called by their first name if they don't hold a rank title.

However, if anyone is referred to as "Mr." or "Ms." then it's perfectly reasonable to expect to be called "Dr.". As that is your title.

Furthermore, in a professional setting, it's generally perfectly acceptable to request to be referred to by any combination of your title, first, and last names regardless of what people generally do. Some people might choose to be judgy about it, but that's their prerogative and I wouldn't lose any sleep over it, you've earned that title, use it.

It might also be that people refer to you differently based on their perceived closeness. I certainly know some people who refer to their friends by their first-names but if they don't know someone go with their full title just to play it safe. I'm not saying this is the case, but it's something to bare in mind. Again, you're well within your rights to ask to be referred to with your title.

I also think that the answers referring to "most people think Drs have medical experience" are laughable. Outside of a hospital setting, nobody in a professional environment is going to assume that Dr X is a medical doctor. I think your average person is more than aware that other doctorates exist. Even if they do assume that you are a medical doctor, it doesn't actually matter if you're not working somewhere where that misunderstanding would cause a problem.

  • 3
    "if anyone is referred to as "Mr." or "Ms." then it's perfectly reasonable to expect to be called "Dr." - I'd disagree on that. Social titles are not in the same category as academic titles. Is a random cashier supposed to know that I'm not just a mister for them, I'm a doctor? That's clearly pompous nonsense.
    – Davor
    Commented Mar 15, 2023 at 19:22
  • @Davor - I wouldn't expect a random cashier to call me anything other than my first name. That being said, there's a reason you're often asked for your title when registering with shops/hotels etc. and that's so that they can use your correct title. Having a PhD confers a significant social status and it's well earned. You have the title and you're entitled to ask people to use it. It's no different to a married woman correcting people who call her "Ms.". The same can't necessarily be said for titles you have just because of your job. Commented Mar 15, 2023 at 19:48

Referring to women by their first name is typical casual sexism.

Just shoot him a short note saying you'd prefer to be Dr. Jennifer Smith in the future.

  • 3
    Or Ms. Smith, which may be more appropriate for the context and get less pushback.
    – keshlam
    Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 21:20
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    I'll think twice before jumping and saying this is sexism. Check the other answers and the context. Being called Dr. in a Law Enforcement environment makes few to no sense, and thus why OP was called Supervisor (as that is a relevant title in the field).
    – DarkCygnus
    Commented Mar 15, 2023 at 0:36
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    Implying that calling a women by their first name is sexism, but it isn't when calling men by their first name .... is textbook definition sexism.
    – Opifex
    Commented Mar 15, 2023 at 9:12
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    I dont know about the casual sexism. That said, you worked hard for that PhD and it should be reflected in your title. I agree with the second half, that whenever someone uses the wrong prefix in an hyper-professional setting (like an awards ceremony) they should be notified of their mistake. Commented Mar 15, 2023 at 11:01
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    Referring to women by their first name when men with equivalent qualifications are referred to by title is typical casual sexism. Commented Mar 15, 2023 at 14:24

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