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Rethinking titles

You know what I’m talking about. Titles such as Dr., Engineer, we love them in Ethiopia. There are people in this country who would sulk if you by mistake forget to mention their titles before their names. Some people are not even called with their first names. PhD or medical degree, these people just go by the name ‘Dr.’ Yes, I agree that completing your PhD or earning a medical degree is a big achievement. One does not earn those degrees by just sitting around. It indeed requires a lot of stressful hard work. But the weight the title is given in this country is giving the degrees so much more than they actually deserve. In the Western world, a medical doctor can and should use the title ‘Dr.’ But it is rarely that I heard people with PhDs in areas other than medicine being addressed with the title. The funny thing in this country is that, those who have a PhD in areas other than medicine want to be addressed as ‘Dr.’ more than the ones with a medical degree. I never really understood why.

In this country, if people by any chance hear that you have a PhD or you are a medical doctor, and realize that you are a ‘Dr.’, the perception they have of you changes dramatically. You are suddenly a person who should be feared and revered. You are the Messiah of everything. You are supposed to know everything about everything. Each of your words matter. You expect to have more respect than the lay person, and the lay person will not dare deprive you of that respect.

I think people are seeing PhDs for more than they actually are. When I think about PhD research, I always remember what an acquaintance of mine who joined the university I studied in told me about what doing a PhD actually is. So at that time when I first started my own PhD study, she told me that writing a PhD thesis is the same as writing four Master Theses. As far as I know, a PhD degree is a research degree. So, you spend three to four years of your life producing three or four articles that are publishable in scientific journals. Your research will likely focus on a narrow topic of research. When one claims to have a PhD in economics, it does not mean they know everything about economics. Maybe they have studied in their PhD research the impact of some form of intervention on the livelihoods of households in selected districts of region X in country Y. Or maybe they have conducted a cost-benefit analysis of using manure as a source of energy using the case of selected districts of region X in country Y. Aside from a PhD research topic being narrow, being a PhD researcher helps one to be an expert in doing research than to be an expert in the topic of research. In other words, the way I see it, after the completion of a PhD research, one becomes more an expert in conducting a scientific research independently than on the topic being researched.   

Nowadays, I hear people being called ‘Dr. Engineer’. I find that hilarious, honestly. What’s really the need of all this? Is it to earn the respect of people? Whether a person should earn the high respect that people give to a PhDs depends on my opinion on the actual contributions they have made after the completion of their PhDs. If they manage to turn their PhD research into something that can change the lives of people, then I get why they need to be respected for their degree. Or if they have made some other grand contributions to society, I also get that. I think we the PhDs and the rest of society should rethink the majestic importance we give to PhDs. Although we should appreciate their commitments and strengths to pursue higher education, blindly revering PhDs can prevent us from looking behind the title and critically reflecting on the true capabilities and scope of knowledge of these individuals.

Contributed by Tsion Taye
Contributed by Tsion Taye