What’s in a Degree?

For my fiction writing, I use specialized search engines — Duotrope (paid) and The Submission Grinder (free) — where you can look up different magazines, acceptance rates, and all sorts of cool stats. The engines rely on user-reported information on acceptances and rejections (dates, whether personal or not, whether preceded by a hold, etc.). Each magazine entry has a list of recent responses (e.g., 21-day personalized rejection; 43-day acceptance). People with acceptances have the option to have their name listed (e.g., 43-day acceptance. Congratulations, Peggy!). Many people opt not to have anything listed; some have a nickname (squirrel), their first, or their full name. But there are a few who list their title (Dr Perry Mason). This practice strikes me as odd.

I chatted about it with one of my writer friends, who saw nothing wrong with it, as in “If you’ve got it, flaunt it” and asked if I listed PhD after my name in my faculty email. I said no, because everyone had one. (If anything, listing one’s endowed professorship or a high administrative position is what we academic nerds do as a show of force.)

Then it hit me: In my professional world, everyone does have a PhD, so much so that a PhD seems like not a big deal, almost a triviality, only the beginning point of a career and achievement. But it’s not trivial. It denotes an already remarkable level of achievement in one’s field of inquiry. A vast majority of people don’t have a PhD, nor do they know anyone who does. A PhD is a big deal. We should be proud of it. We shouldn’t hide it. But I always hide it, because people are weird around intellectuals. When people ask what I do, I say I work at the university. If they don’t probe further, I don’t volunteer. If they do, I say I am a professor or that I teach, and I see a shock and immediate re-classification of me from wherever I was to wherever university professors get mentally placed. I don’t have to say I have a PhD; I assume it’s implied, and its unspoken existence does make for an awkward dynamics for a moment, or a dozen.

In my fiction bio (it’s a 2–3-sentence blurb that follows a published piece), I make a vague reference to being a writer and a scientist, then list three places where I’ve published fiction, followed by website and social media links. I also publish a smattering of poetry, and in those bios I don’t even mention being a scientist at all, because, honestly, I’m a bit intimidated. So many poetry journals have mastheads filled with serious writers who hold MFAs, so I don’t want to draw attention to my decidedly non-MFA-holding impostor self. The MFA is fairly common among editors of literary short fiction, but not quite as prevalent as in poetry. In genre fiction, however, many (most?) writers and editors have another non-writerly vocation and associated degrees. English PhDs do show up in all three types of mastheads (poetry, short literary fiction, short genre fiction) but with a much lower frequency than MFAs. Among writers, I do know a handful (probably under ten) people who hold an MFA in addition to a doctorate of one kind or another (PhD or JD or MD). There are some highly accomplished people out there who make me feel like a complete slacker!

The writer friend from above said I should be flaunting my PhD and my theoretical and mathy background in my bios for genre fiction. I’m not so sure. I may have science cred, but that doesn’t mean my fiction doesn’t suck donkey balls. It feels like the more I flaunt my science credentials, the more I might antagonize the readers and editors with my layperson scribbling intrusion. Is this crazy?

It can be exhausting to feel like you’re always intruding. On the one hand, I choose to branch out into activities in which I am a total newbie. On the other hand, can I still be a newbie years into an activity, and, if not, how do I turn off this annoying impostor syndrome? (LOL That’s a trick question. I can’t.)

But I should at least be a little kinder toward the people who do list their credentials in their bios and publication announcement, unrelated to the writing pursuit as these credentials may be. Perhaps all they’re trying to do is raise their stock, give themselves some credibility, battle a crushing impostor syndrome.

In the meantime, it’s good to remember that having a PhD is great, that one should be proud of it as PhDs are not common in the general population, but that one’s title and expertise should be wielded with kindness and humility, because while it does means a high level of achievement in a small subfield, the world is vast and full of capable, talented people, and, in more areas than not, we’re all clueless newbs with plenty to learn.


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  1. I would never dream of including a Ph.D. after my name if I were submitting fiction, though I would consider it for nonfiction, opinion pieces etc. Fiction and poetry stand on their own merits, but there’s a role for qualifications and expertise in nonfiction. But by that logic, why would people with MFAs ever include their titles?

  2. People with an MFA in theater would include it on their theater resume or cover letter, and maybe in the brief blurbs that appear in playbills—it indicates that they have been serious about learning their art, even if they have not yet appeared in enough professional productions to be allowed into Actors Equity and get the * after their name in the cast list.

  3. I’d definitely consider including your PhD in your bio [not after your name though!] if you were writing genre fiction. This is my particular quirk, but I’ve really enjoyed most of the books I’ve read written by PhD scientists, and tend to search them out simply because writing novels and finishing PhDs both require particular weirdnesses and stubbornnesses that aren’t 100% correlated – and I think those that do both might have something interesting to say. This is true even if there isn’t a strong correlation between the field and the genre. This is part of why I bought The Quantum Thief, A Memory Called Empire (historian, not scientist, but similar logic), Weave the Lightning, Primary Inversion, Revelation Space, and probably a few others I can’t think of right now.

  4. Oops, super late. One thing I’ve noticed while on sabbatical in New Zealand (another story; it’s been great to have relatively normal life & not teaching & I am very privileged) is that in the media a lot of people with PhDs are referred to as Dr. X (in addition to medical doctors), which is the opposite of the NY Times style guide.

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