How to Call In Mr. Epstein Regarding Dr. Biden, Not Call Out

A constructive response to his disparaging opinion in The Wall Street Journal.

Posted Dec 15, 2020

Dear Mr. Epstein,

I read with interest your December 11, 2020 op-ed piece about Dr. Jill Biden in The Wall Street Journal.

I’m here to gently call you in, not angrily call you out. If people only call you out, I’m so sorry, and I wouldn’t blame you for reacting with anger and digging in. "Calling out" is often bullying in disguise. And nobody does better after being made to feel worse!

So instead, I want to call you in, to encourage you to understand why there is so much outrage about your advice to Dr. Jill Biden to drop her title, “Dr.” And I hope by calling you in, you are able to ponder deeply and reflect on your position. Just so you know, it's not my job to change your mind. It is always up to you to decide on how and what you think. We can all clarify our thinking by exploring other perspectives.

For starters, I'll be honest about my bias. I have a PhD. I’m also a woman. Professionally, I go by Deborah L. Davis, PhD. But I don’t blanche, titter, or demur when someone calls me Dr. Davis. It is shorthand for recognizing my expertise. It's used to indicate my credibility to the audience. It is a way to honor me and my work. Yes, I'm proud of it. But please don’t call me “Dr. Debbie.” To me, that's a putdown akin to calling me “toots" and patting me on the head. Thank you for your consideration.

I also want you to know that I give you the benefit of the doubt. You are not a monster to be vilified. I’m certain you mean well. I wonder if you are concerned about appearances. Maybe in your mind, someone called “Dr. Biden” can’t also serve as “First Lady.” Maybe you worry that someone called “Dr. Biden” would upstage someone called “Mr. Biden.” Maybe someone who goes by “Dr. Biden” would be confusing when paired with “President Biden.” Maybe “President and Dr. Biden” doesn’t sound right to you.

I’m also certain you meant to be funny and flippant at times. Calling Dr. Biden “Dr. Jill” rhymes with “Dr. Phil,” a celebrity psychologist. Most dissertation titles are indeed giant yawns. I’ll bet mine has been read by less than a dozen people. But don’t underestimate its power! It has spawned many well-read offspring, including books, chapters, appendices, articles, and this blog.

I’m also certain change is hard for you. Never has a President’s wife kept her day job: Dr. Biden will continue being a professor at Northern Virginia Community College. Just as she did when she was “Second Lady” during Mr. Biden’s Vice Presidency. Maybe you’re worried her job will get in the way? In the way of what? I’m curious.

I’m also curious about why you challenge society and education on conferring the title “Dr.” on so many degrees. MD is Doctor of Medicine. PhD is Doctor of Philosophy. EdD is Doctor of Education. PsyD is Doctor of Psychology. Why not call them all “Dr.?"

Do you worry about insulting the MD? Yes, medical training requires four years of medical school, often followed by a three-year residency. It is a long and arduous journey that entails much sleep deprivation, in spite of vast scientific evidence on the dangers of said sleep deprivation, particularly when you give someone the task of saving lives.

Although lives aren't usually on the line, earning other doctorates has challenges too, requiring at least six years of post-graduate schooling in a chosen specialty. Depending on the program, students tackle course work, have clinical supervision, do research, teach undergraduate classes, get a Master’s Degree along the way, take comprehensive exams, and write a dissertation on an original research project.

After the title “Dr.” is conferred, most go on to post-doctoral training before embarking on their careers. Whether a post-doc, residency, fellowship, or clinical internship, whatever kind of doctor we are, most of us continue learning and honing our skills before setting out to practice or teach or write or research or invent or create or lead. And yes, having an alphabet soup behind my name has opened many doors, because it gives me credibility. But a degree by itself means nothing. I’m the one responsible for my educational and professional integrity.

I also wonder about your observation that graduate education isn’t what it used to be. Yes, it sounds like a “terror” (your word), what with fainting during exams, aloof faculty, students trudging to school in deep snow, going uphill both ways, etc. But research by PhDs and EdDs shows that students learn way more when they aren’t stressed out. They also learn more with project-based, hands-on, experiential learning with authoritative, collaborative teachers than by sitting for hours on end, listening to lectures, filling out worksheets, memorizing facts and formulas, taking tests, and other punishing demands. “Those who went before you have suffered, therefore you should too” is never a justification.

In some ways, I get where you’re coming from. Many people put MDs on a pedestal while PhDs are more mysterious figures. Everyone consults a medical doctor at some point. When was the last time you consulted a PhD? Even if you see a therapist, not all of them have doctorates. We also love to put MDs on TV. We are fascinated by the drama and mystery of medical practice. Millions of people have tuned into Grey’s Anatomy, ER, Scrubs, MASH, House, and more. Shows that feature PhDs and their work? Does Big Bang Theory count? Or perhaps Dr. Ross Geller on Friends? On both shows, the PhD was largely a vehicle for comedy.

And I do get it about overdoing the credentials. It bugs me too when people go by “Dr. Name Here, PhD.” One allusion will suffice, already! But if that floats their boats, bless their hearts! Who am I to judge? And who are you?

In fact, I’m curious about your need to advise Dr. Biden to stow her title, “at least in public, at least for now.” And I’m curious about your strategy to insult Dr. Biden at every turn. Do you believe that will win her over? Or intimidate? You call her title “fraudulent” in spite of her having earned it. You call it “a touch comic,” as if it’s an invitation to ridicule. (See “vehicle for comedy” above?) And you insult her dissertation, calling its title “unpromising” without even considering how it might have advanced thought and practice in her field.

Finally, I’m curious why you are compelled to advise Dr. Biden to “forget the small thrill of being Dr. Jill.” Let’s unpack this: First, for me, being called “Dr.” is neither small, nor a thrill. It is an honorable title, but only used professionally. It is a conventional formality employed by schools, institutes, professional organizations, publishers, and media outlets. Plus, a PhD is simply something I did, not who I am. I brag far more about my prowess as a setter on the volleyball court. Now that’s a small thrill! 

Second, I wonder if you’re projecting your fears onto Mr. Biden. Can you imagine that he could feel proud of her accomplishments, or do you imagine he’s secretly embarrassed that she has more formal education than he does? Perhaps embarrassed like you are? It's okay. Feel all the feels.

Finally, I wonder if you carry some deep shame on this issue. Do you wish you’d persevered in your studies? Do you feel “less than” because you didn’t? Do you only equate an MD with true success? Have you been shamed by a parent or teacher who didn’t truly see you or appreciate your gifts?

For that, if true, I’m so sorry. They were wrong. And yet, my friend, all the accolades in the world will not make you feel good about yourself if you don’t practice self-compassion, especially in this viral moment.

Self-compassion is granting yourself permission to mess up and fail, and seeing it as an opportunity for growth. Self-compassion is not taking a scolding to heart. Just because someone calls you a terrible person doesn’t mean that you are. It just means that they are mad about what you did, and you can soothe yourself knowing that in every moment you’re doing the best you can, and every misstep is a chance to learn something new. Self-compassion is also granting yourself permission to follow the beat of your own drummer, rather than conforming to your family's expectations or society’s ideals. Self-compassion is about you honoring yourself as a human being. You’re not meant to be a “human doing.”

Best of all, by practicing self-compassion, you can practice compassion for others. This entails not judging their decisions or their journey, but just observing with a curious mind. “I wonder what it will be like for Dr. Biden to hold down a job while being First Lady?” I wonder how she’ll balance her job and her position? I wonder how Mr. Biden has navigated having a professionally accomplishing wife? I wonder if we, the people, are ready to acknowledge, “President and Dr. Biden?"

Practicing compassion also entails listening to the blowback you’re getting on this opinion piece, and not being afraid to examine how you think about education and women.

I truly wish you well.

With respect for your journey,

Debbie

References

Hobson, N. Why Your Brain On Stress Fails to Learn Properly. Psychology Today, April 2, 2018.