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How to address professors properly as you continue as a PhD student?

  1. Jul 29, 2014 #1
    Hello all, I've heard various opinions on this topic, so I thought I would open it up to a wider audience:

    I am entering a PhD program this fall, and am just curious about proper etiquette. As an undergrad, I always referred to my mentors and professors as Dr. So-and-so, or Professor So-and-so. Typically, if corresponding via email, I would simply address them however they signed their emails.

    Once, however, my QM professor signed it with just her first name. She later wanted to clarify that she meant to sign "Professor" and not just her first name. I honestly hadn't even noticed, but wondered if that was some widely accepted method of showing acceptance of being on a first-name basis.

    I am especially curious because as I email my new mentors and professors, they nearly always sign their first name only. I do not want to use improper etiquette, but I also don't want to appear like I do not pay attention to detail, or ignore invitations to address them differently.

    What is common practice, or your opinions?

  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 29, 2014 #2
    If they don't want to be just called by their first name, they should honestly sign what they want you to call them. If they don't like that you called them what they signed as just put "Dear sir or madam" in the next email as your opener. Or you could say that a name is just a reference, what's the big deal? Or you could say if you don't want to be on a first name basis, why are you calling me by my first name? I usually just say Professor (insert last name) unless they tell me to call them something else.
  4. Jul 29, 2014 #3
    All grad students here are on a first-name basis with the faculty. I can't really imagine it being different anywhere else. Imagine having to call your advisor "professor".
  5. Jul 29, 2014 #4


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    I am doing a project with a professor this summer and, up until a few weeks ago, I always wrote 'Dear Prof. [last name]'. However, recently (i.e about 6 weeks into working with him), I now just write 'Dear [first name].'

    As micromass implied, I found it a bit strange and tiring after a while having to always type the formal title Prof in my emails when I see him about twice a week for meetings which means we know each other quite well by now. Our meetings are very relaxed and sometimes when I was doing something on the board, he would just sit back and put his feet up. This is besides the fact that he lectured a course last semester of mine.

    I am not sure if there is a well-defined cut off point on the mode of addressal of the faculty. Of course, I always start off in emails like 'Hi [first name]' for my university personal director and for lecturers who I have participated in extra curricular activities with, e.g helping with tutoring freshman students etc.. because after a while you just get to really know them.
  6. Jul 29, 2014 #5


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    When formally addressing professors you should use title (either "Professor" or "Doctor") and last name. As an undergraduate student, most interactions occur on a formal level. Situations where this applies:
    - interviews
    - emailing a professor you don't know to inquire about opportunities
    - introducing a speaker at a conference
    - approaching someone you do not work with on a regular basis
    - talking about a co-worker in a professional or academic context
    - when in doubt

    As a graduate student though, you will work with certain professors and post-docs on a regular basis and so formality is no longer necessary (or desirable, depending on the person you work with). Generally people interact on a first name basis in this regard.

    Sometimes people seem to act as if there is something wrong with maintaining formality - as if the student is somehow accepting a lower position within a social hiearchy. I tend to see it more as maintaining a level of respect and professionalism.
  7. Jul 29, 2014 #6

    George Jones

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    Some folks make a big deal about titles. Others don't. When I was an undergrad, I wanted to take a course for which I didn't have all the prerequisites, so I want to see the Chair. I said "I want to take a course that Professor X is teaching next semester." Chair's response "You mean Dr. X". X was an associate professor, and Chair couldn't let my comment pass uncorrected.
  8. Jul 29, 2014 #7


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    As an undergraduate student I would hope most interactions occur in class (for small classes), asking questions after class, and going to office hours. All of these are relatively informal. I'd use "Professor XXX" until asked to do otherwise.

    Undergrads who aren't interacting with their professors in any of these ways are not making effective use of the resources for which they are paying.
  9. Jul 29, 2014 #8
    It is both culture and person dependent. I would maintain formality until "explicitly" asked otherwise. No need to "infer" from signatures.
  10. Jul 29, 2014 #9

    Vanadium 50

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    It is always better to err on the side of being too formal. Also, different places have different traditions - at the University of Virginia, for example, faculty don't use "Doctor" or "Professor", because the university was founded by Mister Jefferson.
  11. Jul 29, 2014 #10


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    Yes, it is very dependent on the professor. Some take great pride in their title.

    I was once in a chemistry class (at a community college) and the professor, with a Master's degree, was addressed as Dr. XXX by a student asking a question in the lab. There was another chemistry professor in the lab having a conversation with the professor running the lab, who happens to be very proud of his title, was quick to correct the student that she is not a doctor, right in front of both of them.

    On the contrary, I watched a video lecture by Lawrence Krauss, and his comment about having a PhD was that ''Once you have a PhD, all it means is that you have a PhD''. I am loosely paraphrasing. So yes, it depends.
  12. Jul 30, 2014 #11


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    I think the signature method is the most reliable. On a first contact, the formal address should always be chosen (Dr X, Prof X.[1]). If they then answer with "Dear (First Name)" and sign with their first name, they probably want to be called by their first name. If they sign with their full name, always address them by the last name.

    Addressing someone as Dr X/Prof X when you hold a doctorate yourself is seen as very formal and/or respectful and, at least in my opinion, is still the right choice when first writing to someone with whom you are not very familiar or if writing to someone in a professional matter in an official letter (e.g., to a editor of a journal, even if you know that person well yourself, and would normally call them on first name basis in real life).

    Take care when addressing people not socialized in America, in particular if they are just visitors and have not adapted to the American style. The first name basis is uncommon in many regions in Europe and Asia, and people from those regions might find it *very* uncomfortable to address others or to be addressed by others on first name basis in a professional context.

    Take care not to address someone as Prof if she/he is not actually some sort of professor (e.g., a postdoc, staff scientist, lab instructor, etc). This can be seen as showing a lack of interest.

    [1] Note that "Dr" is also okay for professors, at least technically (as one is a job title, the other is an academic degree). However, some people prefer the "Prof"... while others prefer "Dr", even if they hold chairs as distinguished professors. There is really no way to do this right.
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