Rule Breakers

Dr. Jessie It Is

A viral op-ed on Jill Biden's "Dr." title — and the subsequent Twitter drama — made me reconsider why I don't use my own.

by Jessica Tarlov

I hate to admit it, but I love a good Twitter scandal. Blue checkmarks, a not-so-special but very self-important group of which I am a part, erupts with outrage at least once a week and I absolutely adore it. If I am also outraged, even better — and if not, I at least get a moment of feeling like I’m above it all.

Last weekend’s Twitter drama didn’t just outrage me, however; it made me reevaluate my own choices. It made me think a lot about why I haven’t been using my own PhD title — and the signal that sends to other women in academia.

In case you missed it, Joseph Epstein, a former Northwestern University teacher who has previously written homophobic commentary, wrote a highly offensive and misogynistic op-ed in the Wall Street Journal wherein he criticized incoming First Lady Jill Biden for referring to herself as Dr. Jill Biden.

You might be thinking, huh? She has a doctorate in education. Why shouldn’t she use the title one receives when they attain that degree?

The author’s rationale was along the lines of, “I taught at a good university for 30 years with only a college degree and it’s embarrassing for anyone who isn’t a medical doctor to use the term Dr.” He also referred to Dr. Biden as “kiddo,” a patronizing and insulting sentiment at best.

In response, folks on Twitter started adding Dr. to their names in a show of solidarity with Dr. Biden. A number of thoughtful threads surfaced explaining why this type of mansplaining is so harmful, and I was pleased to see smart pieces diving into the underlying sexism of the editorial. Even Northwestern University, where Epstein once taught, chimed in with a statement condemning his “misogynistic views” as well as “the diminishment of anyone's duly-earned degrees in any field, from any university.”

The ensuing discussion around the realities of academia and how much work it takes to get a PhD was very welcome, too.

We know it’s a huge boon for young people to see folks who look like them, and have achieved big things, wear their accomplishments proudly.

My PhD is in political science from the London School of Economics. Not too shabby, right? And although the physical manifestation of my degree is now a bound copy of my dissertation and the diploma itself, which lives at my parents’ apartment, the memories of the process came flooding back as I read Epstein’s op-ed. I remembered falling asleep in the library on a regular basis, the painstaking work of building a dataset of thousands individual politicians, and learning how to use statistical software programs from scratch.

But I took a different path from many PhD holders. I left academia as soon as I defended my dissertation and haven’t looked back.

With a career in research and media, I thought it might make me look like a bit of a Doogie Howser — without the MD — if I ran around calling myself Dr. Jessica Tarlov or Jessica Tarlov, PhD. No one likes a know-it-all, and as society makes strides to elevate women and BIPOC, I am acutely aware of how hard it is for white men to relinquish power generally, let alone to a young woman with a PhD.

The attack on Jill Biden, however, made me reconsider my choice. Not because I need some extra reason to feel good about myself — I have a pretty healthy ego, as my boyfriend will attest.

It made me rethink my decision because we are living in an age when representation matters, and we know it’s a huge boon for young people to see folks who look like them, and have achieved big things, wear their accomplishments proudly.

Undertaking a PhD is daunting. Ideas that are worth four years of research don’t come around every day, and when they do, the work is hard. And the bill is steep.

All this is to say: Congratulations to Dr. Biden on her accomplishment. Congratulations to me, too!

And I’m hopeful for more Twitter drama like this. It’s to the benefit of the conversation — and to my own thinking.