09 June 2010

Academic titles as lubrication

I hate formality.

It’s one of the many deep flaws in my character. This may seem strange for someone who actively puts his title in the name of his main website and uses it as part of his Twitter name, but I realize that many people like formalities much more than I do. Robert Heinlein, so often good for a quote, wrote:

Moving parts in rubbing contact require lubrication to avoid excessive wear. Honorifics and formal politeness provide lubrication where people rub together. Often the very young, the untraveled, the naive, the unsophisticated deplore these formalities as “empty,” “meaningless,” or “dishonest,” and scorn to use them. No matter how “pure” their motives, they thereby throw sand into machinery that does not work too well at best.

A little note on academic formalities, then, for students, particularly those applying to a program or a grad school.

If you don’t know if a person should be addressed as “Doctor” or not, you haven’t done your homework.

It used to be easy to claim ignorance of someone’s academic credentials, but now, it’s hard to do so. You can usually uncover people’s academic credentials with a little Google stalking, particularly for people running programs.

Not everyone insists on being addressed by their title. I don’t (see above). But still, correct use of titles can be a signpost for several things.

One of my colleagues, who had a doctorate, told me that students – almost invariably male students – would refer to her as “Miss” or “Ma’am,” but would then turn around and refer to a male instructor as, “Doctor.” Even after this was pointed out to them. These were cases of macho bullshit, as far as we could tell.

And another thing, students: Never use “Dear Sir or Madame” in your email to your potential supervisor. If you can’t even figure out whether I’m a man or a woman, I sure as hell don’t want you in my lab.

As a gleeful thrower of sand, I never insist on formality. As a scientist, though, I almost always insist on accuracy.

Photo by russelljsmith on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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