Nice to meet you. I know another Grace Lee! In fact, I know 8, and I'm married to one.
July 25, 2010 1:22 AM   Subscribe

I've been fantasizing about changing my very common last name for several years. Now that I am a fledgling academic professional, the time has come to make a decision. Should I do it?

Think of a very common East Asian last name. Now, think of a popular Asian-American female first name. About 5-10% of you have probably guessed my name. I would like to legally change my last name to make it more unique.

My name wasn't such a big deal during and before undergrad, other than fleeting moments of being annoyed when I encountered others with the same name. I spent parts of my life in two other countries using my other (ethnic) first name, which is very unique, so having a common name in the U.S. has always felt quite strange to me. (I do recognize that the recognizability conferred by a unique name can be a double-edged sword. However, being told every few weeks by complete strangers that my name is terrifically common is also no fun.)

Personal reasons aside, I am now at the point where I must come to a decision about changing my name for professional reasons. I am a graduate student and an academic-in-training with a few publications under my belt, but nothing major yet. If all goes well, I will someday be working as a research scientist. From what I've seen, I've come to believe that having a unique/memorable last name generally helps you as you try to build a reputation in your field. It would be nice to not get confused with the oodles of other people in my research subfield with the same last name (or even first name, too) as me.

To complicate matters a bit more, I am also planning to be a physician someday. Since doctors rely on their last names heavily for identification purposes, I imagine that it would be pretty frustrating to be one of multiple Dr. Lastnames in the same department. The last time I went to my university eye clinic, I noticed that 4 out of the 10 or so ophthalmologists listed on the directory board had the same last name... mine.

OK, enough. My plan is to take my current last name (which is my father's last name) and add my mother's last name after it, separated by a hyphen, e.g. Li-Chang. This new last name is not aesthetically optimal, nor is it ethnically authentic, but it is very unique and I believe the advantages would outweigh the negatives.

Other potentially relevant points: I am late-twenties, single (and thus bracing myself for the flurry of "What! You! MARRIED?!" emails). Parents/siblings are generally supportive of the idea.

My questions are:
1) Have you changed your last name for mainly professional reasons, and if so, what was your experience like?
2) If someone you know did this, would you consider it reasonable, or silly/narcissistic/unnecessary? Would I be better off fabricating a different reason to give to people?
3) Should I announce this change publicly to coworkers and friends (e.g. by mass email), or do a stealth introduction (e.g. quietly changing my email name and signature)?

All advice will be greatly appreciated, even more so if specific to careers in academia/medicine. Thanks!
posted by nemutdero to Human Relations (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If you think that having a more distinctive last name will help you to distinguish yourself from your peers professionally, I see zero downside to this. My concern is that the new plan may not accomplish your goal. People have a tendency to discard one half or the other of hyphenated names. I could not begin to tell you why, but that doesn't change the fact that it is so.

My sister is Jane Watkins-Smith. This is her name. It is her legal name. It has been her name her entire life. It is the name she uses for everything. Despite this, people shorten it routinely and she is most often *known* as Jane Watkins. So that sort of covers #1.

#2: What it mostly is is none of my business. People change their names all of the time, due to marriage, religious conversion, feminism, whim, family disassociation, whatever - none of those reasons are any of my business either. All I need to know is what you want me to call you.

#3: Go with "quietly" and see how it takes; specifically tell people who make lists your name appears on, etc, but I wouldn't make a specific announcement unless you're changing your email address as well.

People will assume you've gotten married, so you may want a stock response to that. The simpler the better - "I changed my name to incorporate both my parents' names" is probably better than "I change my name to increase my special snowflakeiness."
posted by DarlingBri at 1:49 AM on July 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

I was given a unique name. I love that people in my community can refer to me by my first name and others will know who they mean. My experience sounds similar to the experience you would like to be able to have with your full name. I say go for it. It sounds like it will be a worthwhile change for you. Now is the time to do it, and later all the paperwork and social hassle will be a distant memory.
posted by lover at 1:53 AM on July 25, 2010

One thing to consider is that I've often been told to always publish with the same name - that you don't want to be publishing sometimes as John Smith, then Jack Smith, and at other times J.B. Smith. This is probably outdated advice -- that's what C.V.'s are for, right? -- but it is something to think about: the stuff you've already published will not be easily linked to your future publications.
posted by one_bean at 2:06 AM on July 25, 2010

Thanks for the replies so far. Re-reading my post, I realize the special snowflakeiness index (SSI) is high, so I'm grateful for your gentle responses. DarlingBri's comment reminds me that I forgot to mention I once tried out the PaternalLastname-MaternalLastname combo before (casually, not legally), as a teenager exploring feminism in some patriarchal country. I feel sort of bad that I now want to co-opt my mother's name because of careerism more than ideology, but it is what it is.

I would also like to mention that I realize this isn't just my problem, but one shared by lots of academics who happen to have unique first names and common last names and have to make do in a system that is last-name-centric. So I do wonder whether my solution of changing my name is rather daft. If everyone in my predicament did this, there would be a whole bunch of identical Lastname1-Lastname2 combos. One of my professors cleverly switched the order of her last name and first name for publications, so her "last name" was actually her unique first name. Sigh. Academics, unite! Researcher IDs for all!
posted by nemutdero at 2:29 AM on July 25, 2010

I legally changed my surname when I was sixteen. I didn't make a mass announcement, but whenever my name came up in my day-to-day life I'd simply say, "I've changed my name to Georgina Newname." Nobody cared and most didn't even ask why. I think if you present it in a low-key, no-big-deal kind of way, people will take their cue from you and do the same.

One thing to be aware of is that it will make your life slightly more complicated. Every few years I have to produce my change of name document for some Government body or other. I consider it to be a small price to pay for having the surname I prefer.

If it will make you happier (and it sounds like it will), I can't see a reason not to do it. It's been twenty years for me and I've not regretted it once.
posted by Georgina at 3:18 AM on July 25, 2010

one_bean: not outdated advice. I am an academic and use literature searches on authors a lot. a name change breaks the continuity of the record. researcher IDs only work on some databases.

in response to the original question: I know several Li's and Wang's in my field that nobody confuses, because their work is so distinctive. They do, however, use their Chinese given names for easy identification.
posted by gijsvs at 3:27 AM on July 25, 2010

I changed my name, though not for professional reasons, 30 years ago. Zero down-side. Even getting my first passport was a breeze. As far as telling people you know about the change, my experience was the same as Georgina's. Nobody cared why.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 4:07 AM on July 25, 2010

How about Lichang instead of Li-Chang? Less likely then to run into the problem DarlingBri mentions. After all there are lots of Sima's and Ouyang's who don't use the hypen....
posted by mono blanco at 4:26 AM on July 25, 2010

I spent parts of my life in two other countries using my other (ethnic) first name, which is very unique

Can you do this again? This seems like it might be easier personally and professionally than changing a last name, yet still set you apart a bit.

I have a very common first name and an extremely unique last name. One thing I dislike about the latter is that it's very easy to find any personal or professional information about me that lurks online.Though for an academic that may be a big plus.
posted by unannihilated at 5:15 AM on July 25, 2010

See Robert Smith?.
posted by Nematoda at 6:44 AM on July 25, 2010

The simplest solution and one that works for most publishing academics is to always use you middle initial for publications.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:53 AM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if you don't have a middle name, use x or z.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:54 AM on July 25, 2010

I know a couple of people who have done this. Hyphenating your last name will not likely raise people's eyebrows, especially if your name is so common. An email to friends and immediate contacts might be helpful so that they know that you are THAT Susan Chang. No need to fabricate reasons - you have perfectly good real ones. Nothing narcissistic about "professional reasons."
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:03 AM on July 25, 2010

Oh, and if you don't have a middle name, use x or z.

Or 8.
posted by grouse at 7:22 AM on July 25, 2010 [6 favorites]

Your not planning on changing your name in a big way. You're not going from, say, Lee to Pumpkin or something. Everyone knows that there are a ton of politics and personal reasons why one might go from just one's father's last name to a hyphenation of both. It happens! It's not as big a deal as you'd expect.

The one thing to worry about is your comment that the new name you're thinking of taking isn't aesthetically pleasing. Please do not discount how important it is to like your name. Do you like it? Do you feel proud or happy when you think of that name being yours? If yes, awesome! If no, consider whether it will rub at you and annoy you several years down the line.
posted by meese at 8:21 AM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I made a similar change to my name - I took my mother's surname - and I have never needed more than that simple explanation. I feel more comfortable having taken a name that is already in my family, and I've never gotten the impression that anyone sees it as silly or unnecessary. (I do know of one or two people who have changed their names more dramatically - to something very flowery and unlike their original names - and that gets some raised eyebrows from people who knew them before.)

I made the change before grad school so that all my school records and professional contacts would be consistent, and I've really had no problems. It helps that its very common for women to change their last names anyway, so most people don't even think to question it.

Your idea of a simple email to communicate the change is good - no need to make a big deal out of it, and it will save you the trouble of having to explain over and over. I wouldn't bat an eyelash at that from someone else, and I agree that "for professional reasons" should be all the explanation necessary for all but your inner circle.
posted by ella wren at 8:40 AM on July 25, 2010

I know several people who have changed their last, first, or entire name for career or personal reasons, including two who changed their very standard-sounding caucasian American names to a single made-up and fairly ridiculous sounding word. Without exception, all it took was a very short period where people reacted with a "what?" and then everyone had totally accepted the change. And people have accepted the change so easily and to such an extent that it is really, really weird when someone mentions their former name.

So don't be afraid of changing your name.

But I would add one very small but important bit of advice. Really think about what name you want to go with, because you're going to want to stick with whatever you pick. My one friend who changed his name to a single made-up word has changed the one-word name like 5 times now because he didn't think through the initial ones first. For example, the first one he picked was one that he liked when it was spelled out, but he didn't think about the fact that people would pronounce it different from what he wanted, and that the most logical pronunciation was that of a common word that sounded stupid as a name. The second one he picked turned out to be the name of a well-known (but apparently not to him) medication for an embarrassing health condition. And on and on until he has now settled on one that has stuck for over 10 years. But the good news is that his current moniker is well-known around the world in the professional circle in which he works, and it has so thoroughly replaced his given name that the Wikipedia page about him gives as his "real" name another totally made up name. (And, although the made up "real" name on the Wikipedia page has a first, middle, and last name, it is on its face pretty obviously made-up.)
posted by The World Famous at 9:41 AM on July 25, 2010

I was saving this for one day when I have a daughter. (I, too, have this last name).
But here you go.

How about adding "Love" as your middle name?

Then you would be Dr. Love Lee - Lovely!

(And for my son I shall name him Brock)
posted by jstarlee at 10:00 AM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

My friend did the exact same thing for similar reasons (he's also a scientist). For his ethnic background, both his first name and last name were extremely common (basically the equivalent of John Smith), but his last name had been shortened a couple generations before, so he just changed it back to the extended previous (and harder to pronounce) form.

Also, plenty of people with Anglicized first names will, on adulthood, revert back to their original ethnic first names, because that may well be a lot more differentiable. Add a middle initial, too.

This is going to be less of an issue as a physician. Research publications are read internationally across a very wide audience and the authors, outside of their actual names, are not usually known in person. By contrast, a physician is known to his or her patients and local referring physicians. The geographical sphere in which you will deal with colleagues and the dependence on unique identification within the entire field is much smaller.
posted by deanc at 11:05 AM on July 25, 2010

I chose to go by a hyphenated last name for academic purposes (after I married), but never officially changed it to this. The added benefit is that I feel like I have a totally different work vs. home persona that is easily separated.
posted by bizzyb at 6:17 PM on July 25, 2010

What if you translated your name into english?

Even if your name doesn't mean anything in chinese now, maybe it did once, maybe if you can find out what that is, you could a good english word to be your new english surname.

so Grace Lee could become Grace Plum
posted by compound eye at 11:39 PM on July 25, 2010

I changed my name. Get ready for people to accuse you of hiding something, hating your family, or being generally shady. Once you get that out of the way, it's easy.

After I did the paperwork, I quietly told my workplace HR, changed my name on my license, cards, etc, and would tell my friends as it came up. I signed emails with Erin [new name], formerly Erin [old name], and RSVPd to events in the same manner. I didn't bring it up unless it came up. I did have a lot of "OMG you got married and didn't tell me?!" and even a few "You got divorced? I didn't even know you were married." I just gently said that I was never married, my old name didn't fit, and I'm much happier now with my new name. It's hard for a lot of people to understand why someone would change their name without an external prompt, like a marriage or divorce, when people ask I just tell them I wanted to. If they accept it, great, if not, it's not their name anyway and you didn't ask for their opinion on it.

In the event that I ever get married, I might use his last name privately, and my last name professionally. Or I'd just keep my name altogether. Cause it is awesome and mine.
posted by sephira at 10:04 AM on July 26, 2010

I went with the middle name. A common-in-my-generation first name and a common-in-every-generation surname meant that I got e-mails from the friends (and, once, undergraduate thesis supervisor) of a student at the university where I was doing my PhD; that the same university gave me someone else's PhD certificate (!), in Australian constitutional law (er--not my field); that an undergrad at the university where I currently work has the same name as me; that two close friends and one former boss (!) have written to me asking if [book by journalist with same name as me working in similar area] was by me. ("Er, boss, I think I'd have mentioned to you if I'd written a book--it's what I'm meant to do, right?") Bringing my equally common middle name into all bibliographical and other work-related references since I submitted the library copy of my dissertation seems to have done the trick, however. It even enabled me to get, when the closest suggestions involving first and last name were along the lines of lastname_firstname[randomly-generated-64-bit-ASCII-password]

My mother's maiden name is not at all common, and I suppose I could have gone with that. However, as my uncle and his family can attest, it is mispronounced by every telesales caller, client helpline operator, policeman, teacher, and priest who attempts it.

All this by way of anecdata. Your decision sounds perfectly well-thought-out and sensible. Personally I wouldn't hyphenate the two, but (i) that's purely an aesthetic preference and (ii) I guess that not all databases contain a 'middle name' author field, so.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 2:07 PM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

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