Re: Ph.D.'s

Subject: Re: Ph.D.'s
From: Miles Ehrlich <mehrlich -at- COMPUTER -dot- ORG>
Date: Sun, 29 Dec 1996 23:56:51 EST

>>SCENARIO: My partner and I both have Ph.D's and do freelance
>>technical and business writing. Our degrees are in biology, which
>>may or may not relate to the content/topic of the jobs we take. How
>>often should we "flash" our titles??

I agree that this is a tricky issue, but maybe not for the reason you
are concerned about. The fact that your Ph.D. is in a subject other
than the one you are writing about may be a _plus_.

First, many people with Ph.D.'s can't write their way out of a paper
bag: I know, I edit their work all the time. Often their writing is
intelligible, if at all, only to the dozen other people in the world
who most closely follow their tiny specialty. (Of course refreshing
exceptions do exist.) Some of the more insightful customers might
legitimately see any Ph.D. as a potential hindrance in technical
writing or editing.

Second, a plus and a minus: those with Ph.D.'s, regardless of field,
can often _follow_ technical material reasonably well, so this could
be a plus. But if the product needs to be understood by a lay audience
or indeed by any group broader than the dozen cognoscenti, a Ph.D.
_in_ the subject will usually be a hindrance--you will tend to be too
close to the material and won't know what confuses a novice, unless
you are an exceptionally good writer/editor.

Of course some customers will understand the possible drawbacks of a
Ph.D.-level knowledge of a subject to a technical writer, others will
understand the advantages, and some will understand neither. It
therefore gets unpredictable how much you should emphasize the degree.

Personally, though, more often than not I am automatically skeptical
of those who attach "Ph.D." to their name. In many fields it is a
given and therefore needs no mention. You usually don't do mathematics
research without a Ph.D., for instance. The fields in which more
people do tend to ostentatiously mention their doctorates are less
technical, less scientific ones--the "fuzzy subjects"--in which many
practitioners mention the degree as an attempt to attach to themselves
an (often illegitimate) authority in a subject that often needs more
horse sense than years of academic study. It seems that "experts" in
human relationships, fad diets, and why your kids won't behave, for
instance, love to mention on their book covers that they have a Ph.D.
Such mention has thus become rightly suspect among real technical
people. Some of the business people probably get wowed by it, others
probably don't. My suggestion: don't put the Ph.D. after your name,
but do find a way to mention it somewhere else so that it's findable
but does not seem obtrusive or self-congratulatory. I wouldn't worry
at all about it being in a different subject, and might even clearly
state the subject.

>On the other hand, I understand your hesitation on putting the title
>PhD on top of an article in economics or electrical engineering when
>in fact your PhD is in biology.

NEVER put "Ph.D." after your name at the top of an electrical
engineering article! No matter what your degree is in. (The same would
go for many other fields, I'm sure.) It's just not done, and it will
look foolish, as if you have to grasp at straws to prove your
qualifications, and therefore probably don't have any. It's entirely
appropriate to mention any degrees in a short biographical note at the
_end_ of the article, however. (Again, not attached to the name as in
"Jane Doe, Ph.D.," but rather as biographical information, as in "Jane
Doe has a Ph.D. in biology (Anystate U., 1986), and ...."

I'd be interested in hearing reaction to these opinions.

Miles Ehrlich
Staff Editor
_IEEE Computational Science & Engineering_ magazine
10662 Los Vaqueros Circle
Los Alamitos, CA 90720
mehrlich -at- computer -dot- org

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