Only PhD holders should use doctor’s title


By Abdulrazaq O Hamzat

Doctor is basically a title for teachers or scholars. It was derived from the Latin word doceō (I teach).

Ironically, it has been observed that the use of Doctor’s title is confusing in today’s world.

For example, if someone is addressed as doctor today, no one can properly predict their profession or qualification. This is so because in a general sense, there are three (3) majorly recognized bearer of the Doctor’s title in Nigeria.

We have the Medical Doctors, Academic doctors (PhD) and honorary Doctors. Although, there are other bearers of Doctors title, but in Nigeria, these are the 3 mostly recognized and used in public space.

From the laymen point of view, the only people mostly recognized as doctors are medical practitioners. As a matter of fact, some laymen do not know there are other kind of doctors.

Recently, I heard of a story in which a man is called doctor in his area. One day, a child suddenly fell sick early in the morning, but rather than rush the child to the hospital, the mother ran to the apartment of the doctor hoping for a quick intervention, only for the man to inform her that he is not a medical doctor, but an academic doctor (PhD).

The woman was said to be very disappointed, as she could not understand what an academic doctor is all about.

Later that day, she was reported to have said, if you can’t treat an ordinary child, you shouldn’t be answering doctor. Funny, isn’t it?

To her, a doctor is simply a medical practitioner.

In political circle however, especially among Nigerian governors and business community, most of those addressed as doctors are merely honorary doctorate degree holders.

While i have nothing against people being honoured for their efforts, I am of the view that the title of doctor should be limited to those who rightly deserve to bear the title, while other bearer should seize to use it henceforth.

This brings us to the real question, who is a doctor?

As earlier noted, the word “doctor” originally (circa 1300) meant “religious teacher,” “adviser,” “scholar,” or just “teacher.”

In retrospect , it was discovered that Doctor is an academic title that originates from the Latin word of the same spelling and meaning. The word is originally a noun of the Latin verb docēre ‘to teach’. It has been used as an honored academic title for over a century in Europe, where it dates back to the rise of the first Universities, the earliest of which was the University of Bologna. This use spread to the “Americas”, through its former European “Colonies”, and is now prevalent in most of the world.

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The roots of Doctorate can be traced to the “Early church” when the term “doctor” referred to the “Apostles”, “Church fathers” and other “Christianity” authorities who taught and interpreted the “Bible”. The right to grant a licentia docendi was originally reserved to the “Catholic church” which required the applicant to pass a test, take an Oath of allegiance” and pay a fee. The right to use the title remained a bone of contention between the church authorities and the slowly emancipating universities, but was granted by the “Pope” to the University of Paris” in 1179 where it became a universal license to teach (licentia ubiquie docendi).

Here, it is important to point out that, the earlier contention between the church authorities and universities over who should use the title was put to rest when Pope granted University of Paris the right in 1179 and ever since, it is known exclusively as a title conferred by the Universities.

The Ph.D was originally “Academic degree” granted by “University” to learned individuals, who had achieved the approval of their peers and who had demonstrated a long and productive career in the field of philosophy (in the broad sense of the term, meaning the pursuit of knowledge).

The appellation of “Doctor” (from Latin: teacher) was usually awarded only when the individual was in middle age. It indicated a life dedicated to learning, knowledge, and the spread of knowledge.

The Ph.D entered widespread use in the 19th century at “Humboldt University of Berlin” in Berlin as a degree to be granted to someone who had undertaken original research in the sciences or humanities.

From there, it spread to the United States, arriving at “Yale University in 1861, and then to the “United Kingdom” in 1921.

This displaced the existing Doctor of Philosophy degree in some universities; for instance, the D.Phil. (higher doctorate in the faculty of philosophy) at the “University of St Andrews” was discontinued and replaced with the Ph.D. (research doctorate).

However, some UK universities such as “Oxford University” and “Sussex University”(and, until recently, “University of York” retain the D.Phil. appellation for their research degrees, as, until recently, did the “University of Waikato” in “New Zealand”.

Going back to history, lawyers in most European countries were addressed with the title of doctor, and countries outside Europe have generally followed the practice of the European country which had policy influence through modernization or colonialization. The first university degrees, starting with the law school of the University of Bologna (or glossators) in the 11th century, were law degrees and doctorates. Degrees in other fields were not granted until the 13th century, but the doctorate continued to be the only degree offered at many of the old universities up until the 20th century. As a result, in many of the southern European countries, including Portugal, Spain and Italy, lawyers have traditionally been addressed as “doctor,”(as well as Macau in China).

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Furthermore, the doctor’s title was not known to be a title for medical practitioner, until in 1703, when the “University of Glasgow”‘s first medical graduate, Samuel Benion, was issued with the “Academic degree” of Doctor of Medicine. That marked the beginning of medical practitioners using the Doctor’s title.

In recent time however, laymen had associated the doctor’s title only to medical practitioners.

Apart from the laymen, some doctors even feel it is unworthy for none medical practitioners to use the title.

Reports of medical doctors feeling dismayed that there are so many academics these days who insist upon being addressed as “doctor,” when that title properly belongs to physicians abound. These medical practitioners do not know that from Roman times through the middle Ages until well into the 18th century, the honorific doctor applied only to eminent scholars – e.g., the Four Doctors of the Western Church in the 5th and 6th centuries (Saints Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, Jerome, and Gregory).

History has it that, jealous of the respect shown to scholars by the title doctor, medical schools in the 18th century (particularly Edinburgh in Scotland) began the practice of addressing their graduates as “doctor.”

The schools argued that since their graduates generally earned bachelor’s degrees before admission to medical studies, they were entitled to the honorific in the same manner as university scholars.

However,In one of life’s great ironies, many uninformed laymen now perceive the medical degree to be more prestigious than the PhD, declaring that people who have earned the latter are “not real doctors”.

“Doctor” signifies that an individual has not only gained enough competencies to practice in a teaching field, but has developed enough expertise to instruct others.

Incidentally, most UK surgeons drop their title of “Dr” and revert to “Mr” after joining the Royal College of Surgeons. I’ve read through an online medium of at least one surgeon who reacted quite angrily at being addressed as a mere “Dr”, which in such circles, due to a collision between traditional titles and modern medical training, could be unkindly translated as “trainee”.

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Additionally, the confusion in the use of Doctor’s title is not only in Nigeria, it existed all over the world. In France for example, only medical practitioners can use the Doctor’s title. The mention of Doctor for none medical PhD holders is forbidden, especially in hospitals –even when the type of doctorate is precisely stated. More shocking is the fact that, in some health departments or hospitals in France, PhD holders are not authorized to sign/co-author any article, even if they did all the work and wrote the manuscript; they are mostly retained as ghost writers, whose intellectual work goes to others. But in Poland, doctor is a common degree of education. It is not reserved for medicine.

By convention in most countries, recipients of honorary doctorates do not use the title “Dr” in general correspondence, although in formal correspondence from the university issuing the honorary degree it is normal to address the recipient by the title. However, this social convention, especially in Nigeria is not always scrupulously observed. Notable people often defy social convention and use the honorary prefix.

It has been argued that, using the title “Dr.” based on an honorary doctorate is unethical, but still, the use is still prevalent in Nigeria.

However, let me state that, Doctor’s title isn’t an honorary title; it’s a title earned after much academic efforts and rigor. It is a title for scholars or teachers, who have acquired enough competence to pass down knowledge.

Others have equally argued that, whatever one thinks of the merits of an Honorary doctorate, it is not something “claimed” but rather something “awarded” for good reasons or bad.

Irrespective of what we all believe, it should be emphasize that, neither Medical Doctor’s nor Phd holders are the original “Doctors”. The original doctors are Doctor of Divinity (DD’s).

However, since Pope granted the right of usage to the University, the right of usage has been transferred to educators, particularly the holders of PhD, which is the highest academic qualification for teachers.

For this reason, I believe only PhD holders should use the Dr’s title to put an end to the confusion once and for all.

Abdulrazaq O Hamzat is the President of Foundation For Peace Professionals. He resides in Abuja, Nigeria and can be reached on


  1. I don’t understand you.
    Why do Nigerians spend time dragging trivial issues such as ‘title’?

    1. A medical doctor spends extremely long hours acquiring knowledge and therefore has “acquired knowledge” and competency, even enough to teach and instruct others.

    2. In clinical medicine, the medical degree is the highest academic degree. The lecturers and clinicians in clinical medicine teach and instruct others without an additional academic degree. They are instructors without a Ph.D.

    3. An academic doctor being able to “pass down knowledge” or “instruct” others is not justifiable. In what way exactly?

    4. What do you want patients to call medical doctors when they come to the hospital? Who will you say you want to see when you go to the hospital?

    5. If the laypersons do not know that there are academic doctors, removing the title from medical doctors would further worsen the confusion.

    All these medieval explanations will not work.
    How many people know that doctor used to mean teacher?
    The definition has changed now…in recent times when there is westernization and regulation in such a way that before you can be allowed to pass down knowledge, there must have been evidence of acquisition of knowledge.

    A doctor now is simply either a medical doctor or one who holds a doctorate degree. That’s what the laypersons should be informed about and we’re getting there gradually.

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