On Twitter/blog handles and the inferiority complex of Penn

September 24, 2014

APS has a News bit on a new paper.

People and institutions who are marginal members of a high-status or well-esteemed group tend to emphasize their group membership more than those who are squarely entrenched members of the group, according to new research published in Psychological Science,

The full cite:
Rozin P, Scott SE, Zickgraf HF, Ahn F, Jiang H. Asymmetrical Social Mach Bands: Exaggeration of Social Identities on the More Esteemed Side of Group Borders. Psychol Sci. 2014 Aug 20. pii: 0956797614545131. [Epub ahead of print] [PubMed, Publisher]

A few key results:

Universities at the border of the university category emphasized their university identity more than archetypal universities did. On average, master’s universities used the word university in 62.2% of self-references (SD = 31.6%, n = 151), whereas the corresponding mean for national universities was 46.4% (SD = 31.0%, n = 55), t(204) = 3.19, p = .002, 95% confidence interval (CI) for the difference = [6.0%, 25.5%], d = 0.50.


Small (n = 34) airports were more likely to emphasize their status as an international airport than large airports were (n = 20). On average, small airports used the word international in 68.2% (SD = 30.3%) of self-references, whereas the corresponding mean for large airports was 31.4% (SD = 29.1%), t(52) = 4.38, p < .001, 95% CI for the difference = [20.0%, 53.8%], d = 1.24.


Penn students were more likely to mention “Ivy League” or “Ivy” in describing their university than Harvard students were, but directing individuals to answer in a public context, if anything, decreased “Ivy” mentions. In the public condition, none of 30 Harvard students mentioned “Ivy,” whereas 9 of 33 Penn students (27.3%) did. In the private condition, 4 of 24 Harvard students (16.7%) mentioned “Ivy,” whereas 7 of 20 Penn students (35%) did.

I was recently expressing how dealing with the local public school system was the one place in my nonprofessional life that induced me to deploy my doctoral credentials. Part of this is by seeing how consistently the public school people use “Doctor” for anyone in their system who happens to have obtained a doctoral degree. I guess I know a little more about why those people do that.

Ever since joining social media I’ve been bemusedly struck by those people who choose to put “Doctor” or “PhD” or even “Professor” in their handles and blog titles- whether they go by a pseudonym or not. Now, of course, I am thinking about whether they were in a boundary condition when they came up with those identifiers.

It also makes me think about women and minorities in the sciences. Do people flagrantly underrepresented in a profession feel permanently on the group border? Does this influence their deployment of their credentials?

Those of us who do not feel as though we are on the border, and have a sort of lazy, comfortable ambivalence to deploying our credentials, should probably think about this a little more.

h/t: @amyjccuddy

40 Responses to “On Twitter/blog handles and the inferiority complex of Penn”

  1. Dr24hours Says:

    I decidedly feel like a marginal member of the phd/research/academic group. And yes. I overemphasize my membership in order to try to convince people I belong. It’s embarrassing.


  2. mytchondria Says:

    For hilarities… ask UPenn people how they are dealing with their school’s Sandusky debacle. “WE AREN’T PENN STATE!!” hee hee….


  3. Dr24hours Says:

    I’ve also heard that privileged people SHOULD use their “Dr.” credentials specifically so that marginalized people with PhDs and MDs don’t have to insist, and be disparaged for doing so.


  4. Established PI Says:

    I think the Penn part of the study is flawed. If there is one Ivy league school virtually everyone recognizes, it’s Harvard, whereas many people still confuse “University of Pennsylvania” with “Pennsylvania State University.” The Harvard student knows s/he can just say “I go to school in the Boston area” and have the listener visualize the leafy ivy walls, whereas the Penn student can’t count on that.

    I still don’t like being called “ma’am” or “miss” by staff who clearly do not think I am a professor and treat me accordingly. And waiters who call me “young lady” get knocked out cold (just kidding – only in my dreams).


  5. drugmonkey Says:

    Well that’s the thing Dr24Hours. It shouldn’t be “embarrassing” and those of secure membership shouldn’t continue to make it this way. I recognize entirely that there is a sort of humble-brag preciousness to the whole raggedy-dressed, “call me FirstName”, “oooh, I hate being called Doctor at the dentists office” routine. I…..um….embody this nonsense far too much in my real self. And I may possibly look down on people who feel compelled to assert their credentials. Okay, I do. A bit.

    I am going to have to think on this.


  6. Jonathan Says:

    I added it to my online username (back when it was something else) when I got my PhD, because lets face it the real reason I spent three years in grad school instead of finding a real job was because I got to call myself Doctor. Was I on the border? I don’t think so, I went to a pretty good school and at the time had pretty bright prospects in science, had I wished to pursue them properly (I didn’t).


  7. Duke of Neural Says:

    I have to admit: I’m not really a neurobiologist. I just happen to study cells that eventually become neural tissue.


  8. Dr24hours Says:

    Right, DM. When I say I work at MECMC, people assume I’m an MD (and I’m not!). But I know lots of women for whom the default assumption is RN or staff. If I use my credentials correctly, then maybe women won’t be seen negatively for asserting theirs.


  9. ericbgonzales Says:

    Honestly, it has taken some getting use to being called “Dr.” As a postdoc, no one went around calling each of us “Dr. _____”. If they called you anything resembling your name, that was a good day! (Just kidding).

    I emphasize the title when speaking with elementary students about STEM careers. Otherwise, they will think all scientists are like Dr. Doofenshmirtz from “Phineas and Ferb” (some say this is their only experience with a scientist).


  10. drugmonkey Says:

    Doofenshmirtz’s placement of the self-destruct button for his robot army has to be one of the funniest things to ever be on the teevee.


  11. anonymous postdoc Says:

    I don’t think the Penn part of the study is flawed at all. Insecurity and feelings of inferiority are totally real and people react to these things by highlighting their status. The problem is that highlighting status happens not only by emphasizing your good qualities but by enhancing the negative qualities of those you see as possible comparisons. Like the Penn undergrads badmouthing Brown to each other (overheard at the cryostat), ivy league administrators badmouthing faculty job offers from “state schools” (overheard someplace far from the cryostat), or PIs badmouthing the opinions and aspirations of postdocs (can’t remember right now where I overheard that, someplace online…).


  12. Dr Becca Says:

    My handle is “Dr Becca” because early on in my postdoc I got much pleasure from jokingly saying “that’s Dr Becca to you!” to basically everyone I knew, and eventually it caught on, especially within a particular non-science/non-academic group of friends. In retrospect, a totally boring nickname, but maybe that retrospect comes with my advanced position, as you suggest.

    The other thing one must be careful of is not to “uptalk” when the answer to “where did you go to school?” is somewhere fancy and well-known. That pause-for-recognition is utterly obnoxious when you just said “Princeton?”


  13. @Established PI
    That’s the whole point. There’s isn’t any point for Harvard people to stress their Ivy connections because everybody knows it’s Ivy — it’s the schools like Penn and Cornell that like to claim Ivy status somewhat dubiously that stress the connection.


  14. odyssey Says:

    Doofenshmirtz’s placement of the self-destruct button for his robot army has to be one of the funniest things to ever be on the teevee.



  15. PSBROOKES Says:

    The phenomenon could originate from both ends… either the peripheral crowd are deliberately up-talking to seem cool, OR the in-crowd are downplaying their credentials because they can. The latter would be yet another example of speaking from privilege, which I believe you’ve covered extensively in other posts.

    One look at my Twitter handle (“Amateur Scientist, Rochester NY”) should give a good idea how I roll on this subject. BUT, maybe that’s just me speaking from privilege? As a white male Cambridge educated NIH funded peep, I don’t feel the need to shove it in people’s faces at every opportunity. Others with less privilege may feel the need to shout from the rooftops. Who cares? So long as they’re not being a dick about it, live and let live. In the UK, students at Anglia Polytechnic University (in Cambridge) were famous for telling everyone they were “educated at Cambridge”. If you wanted to be an insufferable cock you could ask “oh really which college?” but life’s too short for that kind of bitchiness.


  16. PSBROOKES Says:

    Sde convo… on the origins of the Ivy league, I’ve heard two stories….

    (i) It’s because there’s ivy on the walls in places like Princeton, Harvard etc. No really official list of who’s in and who’s out, unless you count the athletic conference which is a different thing altogether.

    (ii) It’s a play on the roman numeral 4 (IV) and there were only ever four IV league colleges (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Schenectady College of Pharmacy). All the rest are pretenders.


  17. Dr Becca Says:

    schools like Penn and Cornell that like to claim Ivy status somewhat dubiously

    Let’s be clear, there is nothing dubious about Penn and Cornell’s Ivy status. It was, IIRC, a sports division delineation that morphed into an abstract prestige thing, and so they’ll always be “Ivy League” regardless of their ranking in the US News & World Report. Whether or not their names on your CV carry quite the cachet that Harvard and Yale do is another question.


  18. Established PI Says:

    @JB – there is nothing dubious about Penn and Cornell’s ivy status. It is a factual designation – they are two of the eight schools in the athletic conference known as the Ivy League. see http://www.ivyleague.com


  19. drugmonkey Says:

    HPY. All others are pretenders.


  20. Noncoding Arenay Says:

    I dropped the Dr. from my pseudonym on this blog a while back because I one day realized that I had put in in there for no particular reason. Like ‘Facebook’ instead of ‘The Facebook’. I do not feel insecure or that I’m trailing along the margins. Maybe because I have been affiliated with excellent institutions thus far. However, coming to think about it, if I am faced with a situation that makes me feel insecure I’ll probably flash my credentials too.

    I wonder what Dartmouth’s percentages are…


  21. Noncoding Arenay Says:

    “And I may possibly look down on people who feel compelled to assert their credentials. Okay, I do. A bit.”

    @DM – your local public school system now looks down on you.

    I am unimpressed by people from Ivy or other perceived prestigious institutions that assert their credentials.


  22. dr24hours Says:

    Leaving Columbia out of any prestige-based grouping of Ivy League universities is absurd. HPCY.


  23. dr24hours Says:

    Dartmouth, Brown, Cornell, and Penn are the light-ivies. Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and Yale are the heavies. There will be no more discussion of this.


  24. Established PI Says:

    I always thought that advertising these connections was like walking around wearing a sandwich board that says “I am massively insecure.” Then again, it’s nice to be too old for anyone to care where you trained, except perhaps for the stories you can tell about science in the stone age.


  25. Can we assume that Drugmonkey is in fact a pygmy marmoset, sometimes mistaken for a rodent? He seems to be stressing his monkey status in his handle pretty obviously.


  26. drugmonkey Says:


    then DB as Ivy-lite for RWNJ and DirtyHippies, respectively.

    All others are pretenders.


  27. AcademicLurker Says:

    In the U.S. I thought it was universally established that PhDs reserve “doctor” for academic environments only. The only people I know of who ignore this rule and insist on being called doctor everywhere they go are are people with doctorates of Education, and everyone laughs at them for it.


  28. Arlenna Says:

    I’m trying to remember if I’ve EVER had anyone assume I had a PhD and/or was faculty upon first meeting (even in contexts in which it might make sense to assume this). I’m pretty sure the answer is no. So, yes, I usually do add the Ph.D. in any situation for which it might be relevant for work or assignment to the correct group.


  29. E-roock Says:

    This is one reason I grew out my beard. It is mostly because I’m insecure but I have noticed people treat me with more respect and are more likely to call me Dr Roock. Something extremely embarrassing to a candidate happened in an interview. Candidate was interviewed separately by me and one of our Assistant Deans (a female person of color), Candidate was super respectful to me but a total jerk to Assistant Dean. Our process is blinded so Candidate didn’t know who was doing the interviewing. This sort of behavior only comes to light under intentionally controlled situations.


  30. becca Says:

    With respect to undergraduates:
    Harvard is for the smart and well connected.
    Yale is for the well connected but not smart.
    Princeton is for fizzycysts who are smart, or others who are well connected, but doesn’t even have a med school so we roll our collective eyes at them.
    Dartmouth is for the well connected, but not smart, but good at sport.
    Brown is for excellent sheep who wish they were goats.
    Colombia is for the well connected folks with more money than sense.
    U Penn is for undergrads who weren’t clever enough to figure out they should’ve waited till grad school to go there, but who aren’t as dumb as Y or D.
    Cornell is for the brightest people in the world… Who really love cows.


  31. IGrrrl Says:

    I don’t use Dr. For my on line handle because I’ve used iGrrrl (3 Rs) since the mid 90s, and just stuck with it. I do use the credential in other places. The Girl Scouts call me Dr. Peg because I wanted them to see some one they knew who was a scientist. Turns out it amuses them greatly. Most correspondence about me in the company refers to me as Dr. with clients, because the credential matters. (Also, I am somewhat likely to get ‘demoted’ if we don’t use the title.)

    With the kids’ school, I put up with Mrs. Hisname, and it doesn’t bother me much, unless they piss me off. Then I’m Dr. Myname.


  32. gingerest Says:

    I put “Dr” on my bank cards in the vain hope that airlines would treat me better. Instead I have uncomfortable conversations with pharmacists about what kind of doctor I am. Serves me right.

    My husband introduces me as Doctor Gingerest MyLastName partly to brag (and why shouldn’t he? he suffered through my grad school experiences too) and partly to clarify that we have different last names so that I’m not called “Mrs MyLastName”, who is my deceased mother.

    I may overclaim to be a scientist because as a desk-based epidemiologist I feel insecure about it. Probably because I hang around with so many Real Medical Scientists, i.e. people who use machines that go “Ping!” or poke animals or treat illness. I may even overclaim “epidemiologist” because I’m not the type that goes into the field to ask people whether they ate the shrimp.


  33. @gingerest
    Oh, please. No need to feel awkward in front of pharmacists. Ph.D.’ s are awesome. Much better than fake doctorates like MDs and JDs that don’t require dissertations.


  34. Idiot postdoc Says:

    My mom and dad called me Dr. once after I defended, as a joke. That’s about it. Otherwise, I’m just another dummy who knows his way around a Trader Joe’s.


  35. Kate Says:

    I use “Dr.” in my (pseud) Twitter handle because I am a woman, I work at an “Ivy-lite”, and, well, because I earned the title. So yes, I believe part of me chose the handle because I’m on the “border”.

    Also this back and forth about Ivy-heavy/lite, while in jest, is getting to be a wee bit nauseating.


  36. @IsisTheScientist had too many characters, thereby limiting my hilarious tweeting and @ISIS has been co-opted by many. @DrIsis is boring but short, so whatareyagonnado?


  37. iGrrrl Says:

    …and today someone who had been to a seminar wrote a lovely note to the sponsor to thank them for bringing “Ms. Myname” in…. /sigh/


  38. Spiny Norman Says:

    I miss hanging out with DR. Gingerest in realspace because DR. Gingerest is the bestest but now is on a continent where everything is UPSIDE-DOWN1!11!!!!elEvENtY111!


  39. SidVic Says:

    Guys!- Harvard is for lawyers ; the soft sciences and the ruling class. In the upper echelons of science upenn (quakers? really what the hell); the ivyies don’t figure. MIT is still up there, but the center of mass has long since moved to texas and out west. This may just be my field but I haven’t read anything interesting coming out of a ivy in years. dumbest graduate student I ever knew was from Cornell.
    My handle is sociopathic 80 punk rocker- so what’s that say about me?

    [Edited. While I understand certain words may have different valence in Britlandish, I’m of American sensibilities -DM]


  40. I always thought it seemed a little insecure and strange that UgMonkey always made sure to precede his nick with “Dr”. I’m rethinking this now.


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