There are a few ways to earn the title of Dr. The most common path is by earning a doctoral degree such as a PhD, MD, DO, DDS, DVM, JD, or DD. However, honorary doctorates can also be awarded as an honor in recognition of outstanding contributions to a field. The requirements vary depending on the specific degree or honor being pursued. Regardless of the path taken, earning the title of Dr takes years of hard work, intense study, and dedication to a field.
Earn a Doctoral Degree
The most direct path to becoming a Dr is by earning a doctoral degree. These are the minimum requirements for common doctoral degrees:
A PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy, is a research degree that typically takes 4-6 years of full-time study to complete after a bachelor’s degree. It culminates in a dissertation that makes an original contribution to the field. Key steps include:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree – A bachelor’s degree in a related field is required to apply to PhD programs.
- Take entrance exams – Most programs require GRE or GMAT scores.
- Complete coursework/qualifying exams – Students take advanced courses and take exams to demonstrate comprehension.
- Conduct original research – Students work on research projects and fieldwork.
- Write a dissertation – The dissertation presents new conclusions and knowledge.
- Defend the dissertation – Orally present and defend research conclusions.
After successfully defending a dissertation, students are granted a PhD and can use the title of Dr.
An MD, or Doctor of Medicine, is a professional doctorate for physicians and surgeons:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree – While not absolutely required, most applicants earn a bachelor’s degree.
- Take the MCAT exam – Medical College Admission Test scores are required.
- Complete medical school – MD programs last 4 years and include coursework and clinical rotations.
- Complete a residency – New MDs complete 3-7 years of specialized training.
- Obtain a medical license – Must pass licensing exams to practice medicine.
After graduating from medical school, physicians are granted an MD and can use the Dr title.
A DO, or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, is another medical doctorate:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree – A bachelor’s is required, often with scientific coursework.
- Take the MCAT exam – DO applicants also take this test.
- Complete medical school – Similar to an MD, takes 4 years.
- Complete a residency – 2+ years of training in a medical specialty.
- Obtain a medical license – Must pass licensing exams.
After medical school, osteopathic physicians earn the DO title and can use Dr.
These are the requirements to earn a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD):
- Earn a bachelor’s degree – A bachelor’s is required, often with science prerequisites.
- Take the DAT exam – Dental schools require the Dental Admission Test.
- Complete dental school – DDS and DMD programs take 4 years.
- Obtain a dental license – Must pass licensing exams to practice.
With a degree from an accredited dental school, dentists can use the Dr prefix.
A DVM, or Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, is required to be a veterinarian:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree – A bachelor’s is required, with science, math, and English courses.
- Take the GRE – Most schools require Graduate Record Examinations scores.
- Complete veterinary school – DVM programs take 4 years.
- Obtain a veterinary license – Must pass national and state exam.
Veterinarians who complete the DVM requirements can use the Dr title.
A JD, or Juris Doctor, is required to practice law in the United States:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree – No specific major is required.
- Take the LSAT – Law School Admission Test scores are required.
- Complete law school – JD programs take 3 years.
- Pass the bar exam – Must be licensed by each state to practice.
With a JD, graduates can use the title Dr but not all choose to do so.
A Doctor of Divinity (DD) is an advanced religious degree:
- Earn a bachelor’s – Many applicants first earn a bachelor’s in religious studies.
- Complete a graduate degree – Most schools require a master’s degree first.
- Fulfill residency requirements – Programs may require 1-3 years of full-time study.
- Pass comprehensive exams – Must demonstrate advanced knowledge.
- Complete a project or dissertation – Programs culminate in original research.
Graduates of accredited DD programs can use the Dr prefix.
Earn an Honorary Doctorate
Honorary doctoral degrees are given to recognize exceptional accomplishments or contributions to a field. Requirements may include:
- Achieve eminence in a field – Recipients are leaders who demonstrate expertise.
- Make significant contributions – Advance knowledge, improve society, or expand culture.
- Exhibit good character – Recipients should model integrity and civic responsibility.
- Be nominated – Peers or institutions nominate worthy candidates.
- Be approved – A review committee votes to award the honorary degree.
- Accept the honor – The recipient accepts the honorary doctorate.
Honorary degrees are symbolic. Recipients may use the title Dr as an honorific but honorary degrees do not entitle people to practice medicine or law. Famous honorary degree recipients include Nelson Mandela, Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Malala Yousafzai.
Use the Title
Once earned through an accredited program or bestowed as an honor, individuals with doctoral degrees may use the title Dr. Those with multiple doctorates can list them all. However, the title should only be used in appropriate settings to denote education or expertise, not to demand special treatment. Some considerations include:
- Introductions – New acquaintances can be introduced as Dr Lastname.
- Name badges – Wearing Dr on a conference or work name badge is common.
- Correspondence – Formal letters, papers, and email can include Dr before one’s name.
- Speaking engagements – Use Dr when being introduced as a speaker.
- Books/articles – Authors with doctorates can list their title.
- Business cards – PhDs, MDs, JDs etc can include Dr on cards.
- Avoid misrepresentation – Do not use Dr in a misleading way.
It is inappropriate to insist friends and family refer to you as Dr outside of professional situations. While earned doctorates deserve recognition, demanding others address you by your title in informal settings seems pretentious. As with other titles like Mr or Ms, using Dr is context-specific.
Earning the right to use the title Dr requires years of intensive study, culminating in a dissertation, thesis, or graduation from a professional program like medical school. Honorary degrees recognize outstanding contributions without the same educational requirements. The Dr prefix denotes expertise and achievement in a field. It commands respect and reflects tremendous dedication and effort to earn. However, once attained, the title should be applied judiciously.