When you are handed a business card of a professional with letters after their name, what thought comes to mind? That of the infamous billionaire Thurston Howell III, the famous character from TV sitcom Gilligan’s Island, who was tactless, blameful, pretentious, and lazy? Or, the customer-serving, career-mind, educated professional who wants to do the job right the first time to earn your praise and your smile? Letters after names mean things. They should be a prerequisite when choosing your next professional.
The Difference is in the Details
Letters after names are officially called “post-nominal letters.” They can be earned for a number of accomplishments. Letters can be earned for academic education, accreditation, certification, designation, and / or recognition. Though the result is the same – the professional can place some letters after their name – the prestigiousness of the accomplishments are not the same. There are clear levels of accomplishments which are greater than others. Said plainly, some letters mean a lot more than others.
Academic Education – Though a student should be very proud when they earn their Certificate degree, Associate degree, or Bachelor degree, these degrees do not earn the student post-nominal letters. Earning a graduate degree, either a Master or Doctorate, is considered the highest and most prestigious level of professional accomplishment; so, not only does it come with letters, they are the most prestigious of all letters. As a rule, if someone has a Master and Doctorate in the same discipline, they only display the highest level achieved. Thus, when Mr. Makyo Feelgood earns his Bachelor degree in finance, he remains “Mr. Makyo Feelgood”. When he goes on to earn his Master of Business Administration (MBA), he becomes “Mr. Makyo Feelgood, MBA”. And, when he reaches the pinnacle of academia by earning his Doctorate of Business Administration (DBA), he not only replaces his post-nominal letters (replaces MBA with DBA); but, we refer to him as “Doctor”. Thus, “Dr. Makyo Feelgood, DBA”. Interestingly enough, when the academic disciplines are different, both are listed. Therefore, if instead of earning a DBA he earned a PhD in economics, he would have become “Dr. Makyo Feelgood, PhD, MBA”.
Accreditation and Certification – Generally speaking, these mean the same thing. Usually, a training or education program is ‘accredited’ by an outside government or accrediting agency and then those who complete the program are ‘certified’. Though not as prestigious as academic education, certified programs require the professional to have a number of years of experience in the profession, pass a comprehensive test, and complete continuous education to maintain their certification.
Designation – Though training is part of earning a designation, and sometimes, so is even passing a comprehensive test, a test is not required of designation programs nor is continuous education or experience. Therefore, it is an accomplishment worthy of letters; but, at a lower level than accreditation or certification.
Recognition – Still worthy of post-nominal letters, recognition is the least prestigious of the four categories. It may be earned through training or simply through reaching a professional career milestone that is often not reach by others in the same profession. Testing, experience, and continuous education, then, are not involved.
Order Means Everything
When a professional has earned more than one set of post-nominal letters, it is appropriate to display each set of letters after their name. This is done in descending order with the most prestigious letters being first (closest to the name) followed by a comma then the next set of letters and so on. Thus, when Snoopy earns his Doctorate degree in engineering, he becomes “Joe Cool, PhD”. When he passes his first set of exams on the way to becoming a Professional Engineer (PE), he is known as an Engineer in Training (EIT) and becomes “Joe Cool, PhD, EIT”. Finally, when Snoopy goes back to school to sharpen his design prowess and eventually earns his Master of Architecture (M Arch), he becomes “Joe Cool, PhD, M Arch, EIT”. It is important to note that post nominal letters DO NOT appear in the order in which they were chronologically earned; but, in the order of the importance of the accomplishment.
Once earned, a professional has every right to use all of the letters for each accomplishment earned as long as they maintain their license, continuous education, or other requirements of the accomplishment. That said, in common practice, it is rare to display more than three sets of letters at once. Usually, the professional drops the least prestigious accomplishment(s) to display three or less. In certain instances, it is appropriate to show all of the accomplishments (more than three) of the professional in the form of post-nominal letters; such as: when receiving an award, when instructing or teaching on relevant subject matter, or other special circumstances (for example: when writing an article on Letters After Names as found herein by the author). However, even if not used after the professional’s name, the accomplishments should always be shown on a résumé.
The Effect on You
The scammers and want to-be’s can bring down the reputation of any industry. The true professional who believes their career honorable, takes pride in their knowledge of the latest best-practices, and maintains a high-level of continuous education as represented by post-nominal letters.
Don’t become a victim. Choose a designer, contractor, real estate agent, banker, accountant, and lawyer, or any other professional who take their careers seriously by staying at the top of their professional field. A professional may cost a little more to hire up front or may ask you to wait a little longer before they can start on your project; but, in the end, will serve you better.
Letters after names mean things. Look for them. Learn about them. Only hire those who have earned them.