Leslie Berlowitz, who is the head of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is stepping aside temporarily after (apparently) claiming on some federal grants that she had a doctorate when in fact she did not. An inquiry will follow. The AAAS is not a household name but within academia it’s a big deal – selection as a fellow of the AAAS is restricted to a small fraction of scholars in a particular field, and the presidential salary is nearly $600,000 annually, plus perks. Ms. Berlowitz was a doctoral student at NYU from 1967 to 1978, so presumably was relatively close to completion and was an ABD (all but dissertation) student. But that was 30 years ago. Apparently the claim being made is that some anonymous staffer wrongly put the information on some grants, which is plausible but suggests a serious administrative failure.
I don’t know the details of this case beyond what’s been reported in the news, though, so we obviously need to let the inquiry take its course. I will say that I’ve seen similar situations with senior PhD students describing themselves on their CV or cards or grant applications as John Doe, PhD (ABD) or John Doe, PhD(c) – c for ‘candidate’, or even, on a CV or biosketch, with a PhD in hand but with a date of the current year, in cases where they expect to defend in that year. I don’t like any of these practices, for the simple reason that they are potentially ambiguous or deceptive even when there is no ill intent. Simply the fact that there are such different practices in different disciplines and countries – I, for one, had never heard of PhD(c) until a couple years ago, and if asked might have thought it stood for ‘clinical’ or something else. I don’t think it’s an ethical lapse, but it could lead someone else to wrongly think that you do have the PhD, and this is never to your advantage, and potentially to your detriment. I understand how, after six or eight or eleven years of work, it’s tempting to want to claim *something* on your business card beyond an MA or whatever other degree you earned, but putting those three letters after your name means something (out there in the world) that you don’t want to falsely claim, even innocuously. It is fair, of course, on your CV to put under your dissertation title, something like ‘defense expected August 2013’ or some such thing. I have no idea whether anything like this happened in the Berlowitz case, or something more pernicious, or something more innocuous. But let’s all just exercise some common sense and use ‘PhD’ only when it’s earned.