A short guide to academic titles

Posted on February 25, 2016 by Tommy McGuire
Labels: notation, random

A recent post on /r/fountainpens made me realize that many people are confused by the bizarre labyrinthine morass of academic titles. Since this is a vitally important topic in today's world, I decided it was my duty, indeed my honour, to explain it in detail.

As it turns out, I am only able to address titles here in the United States. This subject has a long and complex history, and is riddled with tradition and woodworms. Mostly woodworms. For one example, I am given to understand that in some dank backwaters of Europe, it is traditional to call high school-ish teachers 'professor'. I suspect some sort of title envy.

In any case, around here, roughly in order by the amount of grovelling required:

As an aside, these titles matter. Calling a lecturer or teaching assistant (see below) "professor" will immediately induce a sly grin and possibly a glazed expression, as if the recipient is getting away with something or having a pleasant daydream (or possibly a sexual fantasy). Obversely, doing so in the presence of a full professor will likely produce what is as close to paroxysms of rage as is possible in the academic environment. Never do this! (I admit I do it myself, for roughly the same reason I'll poke a sleeping dog in the rump: they're so cute when they glare at you. Take my experiences as an example! Do not do as I do!)

There are a few other terms which may be confused with academic titles.

A graduate student is a form of indentured labor required of larval faculty members while they learn to produce gibberish with adequate fluency. They are fed only on stale cookies left after assorted meetings. The formal term of address for these is "Idiot". What follows is a typical conversation:

Graduate Student: Herr Professor Doctor Jerkface, please sir, I just need this one signature so that I can graduate! Will you not please sign my dissertation, I beg of you! I have a family now and need to support them, and little Timmy cries so piteously!

Professor Jerkface: Fine. Here. Now close my office door. With you on the other side.

They are generally irrelevant, except when comparing the empire of one faculty member with the empire of another. More is better, although no one knows why.

A teaching assistant is a graduate student who is assigned to pick up laundry for and mow the lawn of a specific faculty member.

A research assistant and a postdoc are very similar things, roughly akin to a pet or a domesticated animal. Respectively, they have and have not been trained to perform some useful function. Or vice-versa, I always forget.

An undergraduate student is a whinging time-sink. Avoid at all cost.

Now, the term doctor in academia is short for 'Phony Doctor', another example of title envy. Although a real, medical doctor is some sort of trade school thing. The title doctor is used to refer to someone who has a Ph.D., an acronym which expands to 'piled higher and deeper'. What is piled is left as an exercise for the reader.

As an aside, for anyone reading this in the Academy or anyone who has had too much exposure to the harmful effects associated with those involved with universities, outside of academia, having a Ph.D. is not widely regarded as a good thing, with generally good reason. It is (rightly) seen as like having smeared capsaicin cream all over ones body, something only impressive to others who have slathered themselves with capsaicin cream. And really, who wants to hang out with those nutters?

P.S. Oh, yeah, the master's degree is a consolation prize given to them as couldn't finish a PhD. Like everyone else, I keep forgetting about them.


Grad students don't feel pain like normal people.

Kay Nettle

A good point that I completely forgot to mention.

Tommy McGuire
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