Science, surnames and marriage

black and silver ring
Photo by Heiner on

I got married during my PhD, after I had published my first paper and presented at conferences. I deliberated for years about what to do about my surname but still wasn’t sure the week before (or after!) the wedding. Here I’ll share some of my thoughts and experiences.

A name is highly personal. First of all, I want to emphasise that a choice of name is a very personal decision so please keep this in mind if you talk about this with someone who is making that decision.

In the UK, it has been normal for a long time for children to inherit their father’s surname and for women to take their husband’s name upon marriage. Other cultures have other naming traditions, of course, but as a British person I write from a British perspective. In addition, there are reasons other than marriage for changing a name and I hope that this article may be useful for those circumstances too. In the UK there is technically no such concept of a “legal name”. However, the name printed on your passport and driving licence is effectively a legal name and I will refer to it as such. 

The first thing I did was Google search “changing surname in academia”. That produced some chatroom threads, mainly from the USA, which weren’t much help. It seemed like many women didn’t know what to do. Next, I posted in a Facebook group for women in academia asking specifically if anyone was using a “professional” name that was different from their legal name. No one actually answered that question but many women were eager to tell me proudly that they kept their names, implying that to take one’s husband’s name would be unfeminist. Again, it is a personal choice.

What are the options?

1) keep your birth name (maybe your partner will change his name)

2) change everything to your husband’s name

3) change your name “legally” (i.e. passport etc.) and continue with your birth name at work

4) change to a new name (e.g. double—barrelled) and change everything to that.

Each of these has pros and cons. You might consider whether it means a lot to you and your partner to share a surname; whether you might have children and what their name will be; what will be less confusing for colleagues; whether you have an unusual and distinctive name; or even just which name sounds better. 

I wasted a lot of time trying to get information out of my university to help me decide. I got passed around from department to department and it was incredibly difficult to get any answers. Equality & Diversity even referred me to the Women in Physics committee, which at the time was actually me (and others).

To save you the time, these are the questions I asked and some answers:

1) Should I be registered under my legal name at university?

The answer is almost certainly yes if you are an international student, for visa reasons. My university’s website said I should but I was later told that is just a “recommendation” (although see Q3).

2) Can I change the display name on my email address to be different from the registration name?

No, not where I studied. You could only put a preferred first name. Many universities automatically set email addresses and display names from their records and will not do otherwise, despite many women asking to have their professional name used instead. My current university lets staff choose an email address as well as holding preferred first names and surnames. I hope other institutions will follow suit!

3) What name goes on my degree certificate?

My university said that this is the name held in the registration records and cannot be different from that. This name should obviously be one you can prove belongs to you when you apply for jobs. If it’s on your birth certificate then there should be no problem.

4) What name goes on my thesis?

More tricky. It’s a publication, so I wanted it to match the name on my papers. While you can publish journal papers under any name you like, this name has to be the same as registered with the university, including middle name(s), it turned out.

5) What if I’m also employed by the university?

This is a problem if you don’t register under your legal name and the payroll database blindly takes your data from the student registration database because payroll needs your legal name for tax reasons. It was not trivial to figure out which databases fed into each other and few admin staff seemed to know.


It is worth checking the details with your own institution if it concerns you but bear in mind there may be a lack of training among staff and you may need to push for an answer. I chose to change my name legally and keep my birth name professionally. The university I now work at collects preferred first AND surnames for their database, thus demonstrating that it can be done. This means everything has been set up with my professional name (except the payroll). It confused my colleagues a little at first but they have got used to it and I can get travel booked with the correct name, no problem.

With all this hassle you may be wondering why some women bother to change their names or why others complicate things by using two names in parallel. In science, a name is a brand. We can reel off author-year citations and re-branding may be tricky, although not impossible. For me, marriage is about a new family (children or not) and a shared name symbolises that. Others may view this differently; it is a personal decision. Do what feels right and hopefully the administration systems will allow you your decision.


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