What do you call your instructor?

My post a few days ago has set people debating what the conventions are for addressing faculty at different universities. It seems that the form of address is highly dependent on where in the world you go to university.

Let me explain where I’m coming from in insisting that my students call me Dr. Woman rather Mrs. Woman. And then I’m going to ask for suggestions for next semester.

In my UG at an old-guard American university, everyone was Dr. lastname, except the really ancient and honorable profs who were Prof. lastname. In grad school, faculty were firstname or first + lastname.

The class that I am teaching right now is mostly freshmen meeting a general education requirement. Many are straight out of high school and may not realize that Dr. is the traditional form of address for university faculty in the U.S.. As new students, they are testing what they can get away with in college (you should see some of their assignments), so I didn’t want them to feel like they should push the limits of respect with me (a young-looking, female professor). Thus, I asked that they call me Dr. Woman. Not Mrs. Woman, because my marital status really isn’t the relevant item.

I’m also trying to get the graduate students call me Firstname, although I am meeting some resistance on that part. I feel like grad students are on their way to becoming peers, so we should be addressing each other as equals.

But how should I ask a class of mixed upper-level undergraduates and graduates to address me?


  1. #1 Coturnix
    November 24, 2007

    I spent so much time in grad-school that I developed a habit of calling faculty Dr.Lastname if they were hired before I came in, and Firstname if they were hired after I came in (and often calendrically younger than me as well).

  2. #2 PhysioProf
    November 24, 2007

    I just tell them all to call me FirstName.

  3. #3 Scott Belyea
    November 24, 2007

    …insisting that my students call me Dr. Woman rather Mrs. Woman.

    What’s the penalty if they don’t toe the line? Or will you just continue to mention your preference?

  4. #4 Jennie
    November 24, 2007

    I don’t have a lot to add here except for the fact that it confuses me too. I’m having foggy memories as to what I did as an undergraduate but I tend to remember it was a mixed bag, using Prof. in the beginning of the semester and then first names towards the end. I also don’t think I used names very often. When I’d go to office hours I’d say “Hi I need your help.” I ran into one of my former undergrad professors at a meeting not too long ago and address him as Dr. Lastname. He didn’t really remember me so I think the formality was good. He also said it was nice to see past students so I didn’t feel bad that he didn’t remember me.
    But as a grad student I tend to use first names, especially with the two professors I interact with the most. This was really something I never gave a second thought to until I went to another university to use equipment in their lab, they were in another state, and the grad students call their adviser Dr. Lastname. So now I always get all chocked up and call him Dr. or Prof. lastname when I first greet him and then use his firstname as the conversation moves along. I also tend to e-mail him using his firstname.
    I’ve never been one for a Mrs. and prefer Ms. and I was never one for formalities either. My cousins all address our aunts and uncles as Aunt/Uncle Firstname, where I always said Firstname.
    Long story short, use what you prefer but def. correct them if they are calling you something you don’t prefer.

  5. #5 ScienceWoman
    November 24, 2007

    I just continue to sign everything Dr. Woman and correct assignments that are handed in addressed to Mrs. Woman. I’m trying the subtle approach this semester, but it doesn’t seem to be sinking in for some of the students. When I teach freshmen again, I think I’ll directly broach the subject on the first day of class. But I’d never penalize them for that breach of etiquette.

  6. #6 Ewan
    November 24, 2007

    I(‘d) accept either FirstName or Dr. LastName, with preference stated for the former. Anyone calling me Mr. LastName would not honestly even get my attention, so it’s not really an issue :-) [although I might if I noticed wonder where my father was and why he was there!], but I suppose if I noticed it happening, I’d note that it’s not appropriate academically. [Exception for UVa!]

  7. #7 Scott Belyea
    November 24, 2007

    I’m curious about another aspect of this rank-oriented form of address. If I addressed you as Dr. Woman, would you call me Mr. Man in return, or would you use my first name?

  8. #8 LM
    November 24, 2007

    IMO, undergrads should refer to you as Dr. or Prof. Woman and grad students as Firstname. Of course, when I (a grad student) first correspond with a faculty member whom I don’t personally know, I always call them Dr. Usually they will respond to my message with their first name, and thereafter I feel comfortable calling them by their name.

  9. #9 Nadine
    November 24, 2007

    As an undergrad, I called all of my professors by Dr. Lastname. As a first semester grad student I find myself more comfortable still addressing two of my professors in that fashion. The third is younger and also my advisor, so I have much more contact with him and feel that Firstname is appropriate in this situation.

  10. #10 Christina
    November 24, 2007

    I think you should go by Dr. Your students are not your peers nor your friends. Calling you Dr. Women reminds the students that you are their teacher and deserve respect. IMO, some of the generation in college now has lost the idea of respect. They expect all sort of concessions to their schedules and their whims (i.e. expecting you (me) to return e-mails sent at 10 pm the night before an assignment was due). Most of them can use a reminder that you and your time are worth their respect.

    I always called my professors by Prof. Last Name. Though I was friendly with many during my graduate career (and my advisor and I chatted a lot), this sign of respect was important to me. Though I do like the previous comment about if hired after, first name, if before, dr. last name.

  11. #11 Acer
    November 24, 2007

    I call all my profs Dr. Lastname until I’ve had the chance to hear what the other students call them, and after my first semester, I have yet to meet a professor who does not use her or his first name with grad students. As an undergrad, all the professors in my department went by Dr. Lastname. I get the impression that the sciences tend to be a little more formal until you’re a grad student– all the profs in my undergrad English department went by their first names. I would NEVER have thought of using Mr. or Mrs. for a professor; if they didn’t have a doctorate I called them Professor or Professor Lastname. None of them ever called me Ms. Acer, but I would have been kind of unnerved if they had.

  12. #12 J
    November 24, 2007

    In both undergrad and grad school I called all my professors Dr. Lastname if they had their PhD. If not it was Mr. or Ms. Lastname. If I go on to further graduate work to obtain a PhD. I would presume that I would do the same until I was far enough along in the course work to feel like more of a peer than a student.

    I think it is important for students to respect their professors (who have put years of hardwork into learning things and are being paid very little to pass on that knowledge); particularly now that the younger generations (of which I am a part) seem to be getting more and more disrespectful of everything as time goes on.

  13. #13 Scott Belyea
    November 24, 2007

    Calling you Dr. Women reminds the students that you are their teacher and deserve respect.

    I wonder. You may be right; I just don’t know.

    Do most students relate the formal address to respect?

  14. #14 Dancingfish
    November 24, 2007

    I had trouble with this as I am lecturing but am not yet a Dr. It was never explicitly stated what they should call me (but is well known that I am a grad student) so most call me Prof or Ms. Fish in class. Those that do resreach and see me regularly outside of class call me Dancing.
    Dr. Lastname has been common at all my schools but someone did tell me once that Professor Lastname is more appropriate as ‘anyone can be a Dr. but not everyone has earned the rank of Professor.’ As a grad student, I have never had a faculty member tell me to call them anything but Firstname. Despite this, I always used Dr. Lastname in a class like yours that also had undergrads in it.

  15. #15 Janne
    November 24, 2007

    We’d always call lecturers either “lecturer” (in Swedish, of course: “föreläsaren”) or whatever they said they’d prefer at the start of the first lecture. Which in almost all cases (all I can remember, certainly) was the first name. They’d go something like “Hi and welcome to CourseName. My name is FirstName LastName and you can call me FirstName.” On assignments you’d write their first and last name. I’ve never heard anyone address someone as “doktor” in a class or lecture setting. I guess “magister” as a title would be technically correct, but it’d feel really old-fashioned.

  16. #16 justapie
    November 24, 2007

    I did my undergraduate studies in Europe and I always addressed my instructors as Professor or Professor Lastname. In fact when my undergraduate thesis advisor insisted that I called him by first name I was really embarrassed and I never really managed to do it until after my graduation. (I would never use Dr. Lastname though, because it would sound as a reminder that the instructor hasn’t made to the professor status yet.) I understand that the undergraduate university setting is much more informal in North America though, so I wouldn’t feel offended if a student addressed me by first name. I see why you don’t like Mrs. Sciencewoman though, it sounds like the way you would address a primary school teacher.

    For a class with advanced undergrads and grad students I would ask them to call you by first name if the class is small enough that you can also get to know (and remember) their names. Does it make sense?

  17. #17 Kim
    November 24, 2007

    What do the tenured male professors in your department do? I would follow their example, because levels of formality vary between disciplines, between types of institutions, and between regions of the country.

    I’ve always gone by my first name with undergraduates, whether they were freshmen or seniors. (I’ve only taught at private and public liberal arts colleges.) I was following the example of my undergrad profs – but I’m not sure that it was a wise thing to do.

  18. #18 agnostic
    November 24, 2007

    Since there’s so much confusion over which title to use, we should just invent a new one and stick with it. Something straightforward… like All-knowing Badass.

  19. #19 pelf
    November 24, 2007

    When I was doing my post-grad studies, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a couple of visiting researchers from Canada, USA and Australia, and they insisted that we (grad students) call them Firstname. We were actually asked to do away with the Prof. or Dr.

    Here in Malaysia (or Asia, I suppose), we call our professors Prof. Lastname, and our lecturers Dr. Lastname. If the lecturer doesn’t have a Ph.D., we call him Mr. Lastname, or Ms. Lastname.

    NEVER try calling them by firstnames. Ahh, the different cultures :D

  20. #20 Andrea Grant
    November 25, 2007

    As an undergrad I called everyone ‘Professor’ (with NO name, because I couldn’t always remember it!!). It just seemed like a good, generic, respectful way to address them (and I needed something to drill into my head to replace the ‘teacher’ I had used generically in high school). Not all the profs at my school had PhDs, so it was also safer than doctor. All the profs in my own major I addressed by their first name (it was a very small physics department).

    In grad school (masters) I addressed my own advisor and the profs I knew well by their first name, and the others I avoided using addresses at all because I couldn’t figure out the protocol. You can get a surpisingly far way never actually saying someone’s name or title if you need to.

    I am now in Switzerland for a PhD and a even more confused about the protocol, as there is a very strict system of formal and informal addressing (extending to the word used for ‘you’ which affects the entire sentence construction), and its quite rude to use someone’s first name before you’ve explicitly moved to a firstname basis. I address my own advisor with his first name, as well as my colleagues, and, unfortunately, I simply never speak to anyone else in the department, which at least gets me out of deciding how to address them.

  21. #21 j
    November 25, 2007

    My institution has an irritating tradition – male professors are listed as Mr. Name and female as Ms. Name in the catalog. (Apparently this was not some sort of egalitarian desire to not point out the degree, or to not make it apparent who had the doctorate or not, but was rather to indicate that we were not medical doctors – that is, superior to them! Bizarre.) Anyway, this means that while many students address me as Professor Name, a lot of them call me Ms. Name. Which isn’t so bad, except they pronounce it Miss. I think many of them don’t understand the point or history of Ms. I got the damned doctorate and shouldn’t have to deal with the whole Miss/Mrs/Ms crap anymore! Heh. Anyway, I try to indicate a preference for Dr, and I do correct student emails when they address me as Mrs, indicating that they should be particularly sure that Mrs is the preferred form of address when contacting female professors, and defaulting to Dr or Professor is the much safer route.

    I invite senior students and research assistants (no grad students here) to use my first name, but I vastly prefer a title with general undergrads to signal some distance and professionalism. It is definitely hard to get as much respect from students automatically when you are young/young-looking and female.

  22. #22 Brother
    November 25, 2007

    In my college experience everyone that had a PhD was Dr. and if they didn’t have a PhD then they were Firstname. But to be on the safe side everyone was Dr. unless I specifically knew otherwise. Even the very informal professor I worked for was Dr. Lastname. This is at a 25,000+ person public university. Besides respect, it sure seems easier not to have to memorize the marital status of my professors!

  23. #23 Kate
    November 25, 2007

    I’m with the general consensus here: Dr. (or Prof. depending on the university) for undergrads, Firstname for grads and beyond. I think as a young female PhD I should work to maintain some authority in large groups — like undergrad survey courses or lecture courses — but otherwise don’t find that labeling of authority useful.

    In my current position, where I teach two freshman seminars, I start the students off with Firstname from the beginning, because there are only fifteen students in each class and it doesn’t make sense to create that particular kind of authority. I try to create authority in other ways, by demonstrating knowledge, dressing professionally (I only “dress up” on teaching days), being excessively prepared, etc. These are all ways I try to express my authority that I feel are necessary because of sexism and adultism (because I look — and am — so young), and because these are ways I have judged my professors when I was in college, and these are ways I have been judged when I have taught in the past. I don’t think these are rational judgments, but in my particular untenured situation I have decided that I should be aware of and try to counteract irrational judgments.

  24. #24 Lu
    November 25, 2007

    As a first term PhD student this is something I have had some trouble with recently. It seems to be fairly standard here (UK) to address people as Dr. or Professor as an undergraduate. As a postgrad I now find it quite difficult to work out how to address e-mails, in speech it’s obviously not such a problem as addressing them by name can be avoided.

    When the rest of the postgraduate students here refer to Doctors or Professors they use first names. I suspect this is something I will get used to in time. I do find it strange that it is actually so ingrained to address people by their title I now find it very awkward to break the habit.

    When addressing a mixed group I would probably use Dr. lastname. The graduate students will probably understand that this is due to the undergraduates present. I guess this is dependent on your institution however.

  25. #25 Gary Carson
    November 25, 2007

    When I was an undergrad, a graduate student, a faculty member, I never had much respect for faculty that cared.

  26. #26 RM
    November 25, 2007

    In my undergrad/grad school days I had the habit of using “Professor” for those people whom I knew through being an instructor of a class, and “Doctor” for Ph.D. bearers met in other contexts. (This is USA, BTW.) This usually resulted in an awkward transition period after my grad classes were completed, where “Professors” I knew only from classes became “Doctors” I got to know in other capacities. If I got to know them very well (advisers, collaborators, post-docs, etc.) I eventually transitioned to first name address.

    This is in their presence, or in mixed company. Talking informally, with others in the lab, we usually used first names or nicknames (or epithets) when referring to Ph.D. bearers. (This can get confusing when there is more than one Steve in the department, or someone doesn’t know Dr. Smith’s first name. “Bob who?” You can get that problem with formal address too, I guess. “Which Dr. Johnson was this? – The worm one or the heart one?”)

    I’m toward the formal end of the scale, though. When I was, I was conscious to refer to the main Professor as “Prof. Lecturer” or “Dr. Lecturer” in the undergrad’s presence. I noticed the other T.A.s were a bit more relaxed, and usually referred to them as “Firstname” to the students. (The professor never specified a preference as far as I could tell – in retrospect, I probably should have asked.)

    One thing I did notice is that it’s usually the default in correspondence when you don’t know the particulars, to refer to someone as “Dr. Lastname”. I have gotten numerous letters from sales reps addressed to “Dr. MyLastName”, even prior to getting my Ph.D. I guess it is less of a faux pas to assume someone has gotten a Ph.D. when they haven’t, than to unwittingly ignore the achievement, and use Mr./Ms. for a Ph.D. bearer.

  27. #27 PhysioProf
    November 25, 2007

    This discussion has just reminded me of something funny.

    I was a post-doc in a department with very few post-docs and no administrative infrastructure for dealing with us. The department decided to buy everyone lab coats with our names embroidered on them. The faculty lab coats all said “Firstname Lastname, Ph.D.” (or “M.D., Ph.D.”, as appropriate), and the grad student coats all said “Firstname Lastname”. I requested that mine say “Firstname Lastname, Ph.D.”, and the administrator refused because “that is only for faculty”. The idea that mine should include “Ph.D.”, because I had earned a Ph.D. was just not comprehensible.

    I said, screw it, and bought my own lab coat, embroidered “Firstname Lastname, Ph.D.”. And I had the last laugh, because the lab coats bought by the department were ill-fitting cheezy polyester numbers with snap closures and nearly illegible embroidery, while mine was luxurious 100% cotton with cotton knot buttons and gorgeous embroidery.

  28. #28 catswym
    November 25, 2007

    at my undergrad, we all called the faculty “dr/prof”. i also used “professor” just as a generic (with no name following it) to address faculty.

    i’m in my phd program now and generally call faculty by their first name unless they are very old, and then use “prof” as a sign of respect (unless they have told me not to).

    BUT! all the professors are listed as “mr./ms.” in the course catalog for this university, which i found very strange, and still do.

  29. #29 Hugh
    November 25, 2007

    I strngly suggest that all undergrad call you by Dr. lastname. It is a sign of respect and you worked hard to earn the title. As far as grad students go, that is up to the mentor. I have a good friend who lets his grad students address him by first name, but I’m always Dr.lastname.. Just feels better that way.


  30. #30 fruchtzwerg
    November 26, 2007

    things are really different where i did my undergrad… a fairly young university in germany, a very young institute, and nobody would ever think of addressing the profs as prof. xyz! it was always only mr/ms xyz. and dr. xyz? no way… apart from profs, most people were called by their first name almost automatically.
    however, that’s different in other parts of the university and i can think of quite a few chemistry (…) profs who wanted to be called prof. xyz. they were all older generation and of course male.

  31. #31 Mike
    November 26, 2007

    I have a PhD and throughout all of college and grad school, I addressed professors as Dr. soandso. It seemed the most appropriate way to go. I was not an equal. They had power over me. I think that first name useage allows for a false sense of equality that does not exist.

  32. #32 Mitch P.
    November 26, 2007

    When I was trying to get my PhD at a small university (35-50 grad students), it was a weird political dance. When out in social situations (e.g. drinking beer at the campus watering hole) is was almost always Firstname. In the hallways it was usual some function of age, context, familiarity and current standing. When in classes or more formal contexts it was usually Dr. Lastname, especially if people outside the dept. were present. (Colloquia, seminars, conferences and such.)

    The movie “Real Genius” has a great sub-plot about the politics of address. “I finished your lecture notes Jerry”, “I’ve told you before Kent, you don’t get to use my first name.”

    When I got my MS in Comp Sci it was almost universally Dr Lastname, or Prof. Lastname for lecturers without a PhD, but that program was much larger (200+ grad students) and the faculty was much less chummy with the students.

  33. #33 B
    November 27, 2007

    As an undergrad I said Dr. As a grad student the default is Dr., unless I know them well then first name. I can’t believe that they write Mrs. on their assignments though, this isn’t highschool!

  34. #34 KevinD
    November 28, 2007

    I was an undergrad in a fairly small university in Canada. After you were a student for a couple of years you basically knew everybody in the department. Some of the faculty were on a first name basis with everyone but most were Dr. Lastname.

    As a grad student in the US almost all faculty were universally referred to by their first name. The exceptions were all over 50. At my PhD institution the use of Dr. to address PhDs (as opposed to MDs) was officially frowned upon – Mr or Ms were used instead.

    From ages 10-13 (in the early 1970s) I spent four years at an alternative school in which the teachers and students co-operated in running the school. Everyone was on a first name basis. I have only recently realized how profoundly this (very positive) experience has shaped many of my attitudes.

    When I first started teaching (as a TA) I had some students that were uncomfortable using my first name. I wasn’t confrontational about it but I did encourage everyone to use my first name and not call me Mr. Lastname.

    Now I work as a course coordinator and lecturer at a large state school. I usually just introduce myself as Firstname Lastname and let the students decide what form to use even when it is technically incorrect (e.g. Professor). I do recognize that younger/female instructors can have difficulties with authority so I always refer to my co-instructors as Dr. Lastname or Prof. Lastname when communicating with students. One of my colleagues, an outstanding, experienced, teacher has her students call her Dr. LastInitial which seems to me to be a good compromise between authority and informality.

    Other than for the purely practical reason of maintaining the proper level of authority in certain situations (an unfortunate reality) I have never understood the showing respect argument – respect is something every human deserves. I would much rather my students appreciate and value whatever assistance I have had in their education than make obeisance to my professional accomplishments.

  35. #35 Mel
    November 28, 2007

    I don’t think there’s any simple solution…in fact, I had an eerie sense that I had read this post before, except from an English professor…and before that, from someone else, and….

    Personally, I do not think titles in and of themselves indicate respect or lack thereof (deliberately calling a woman “Miss” or “Mrs” when you know she has a PhD…yes, perhaps).

    I respect many people I call by their first names (presumably we all respect our friends, and hopefully our relatives and spouses/partners, right?), and don’t particularly respect many people I refer to formally (in fact, I’m more likely to be formal than informal with people I dislike, on account of it being acceptable to call people Mr. X and not “You [obscenity],” and also because I don’t feel that people I dislike deserve my friendliness, which is what I think of a first-name basis as being.

    I attended two undergraduate colleges where professors were almost all on a first-name basis with students; certainly all the professors (and non-PhDed instructors) in my graduate program are, and my advisor has specifically remarked that she feels “pretentious” when people call her “Doctor” (and to most non-academics, Dr. = medical doctor/dentist/etc., not “PhD in Academic Field Y,” so I think there’s actually something to this). I don’t think any of this indicates a lack of respect between students and faculty at the institutions I’ve attended. In fact, I think it helps–when everyone’s comfortable with it, which not all professors or students are–to foster an environment where students feel safe and comfortable speaking with professors about both academic and personal problems. I imagine old-fashioned academics think this is bad, but I think it’s great, especially since some students don’t have any other stable adult source of advice and support in their lives.

    Anyway, I’m always puzzled by people who think that students (or teenagers, or some other low status group of people) using a title means they respect you. I can assure them, that’s not how it works (and I doubt bowing and scraping Victorian servants all respected their employers, any more than those polite McDonald’s employees respect most of their customers). Maybe they haven’t ever worked in customer service, where politeness so often disguises a desire to scream at unreasonable customers. A title is a word. It has only as much meaning as its speaker grants it…which often isn’t very much. If students are respectfully calling the professor by the professor’s chosen form of address–whether that be first name or Professor X or Dr. Y or Marina Ivanovna (a perfectly formal way to refer to an instructor in Russia), why does it matter?

  36. #36 Myriadstars
    January 18, 2012

    I never tell students how they should address me, and I am fine with whatever names they call me by, unless they mistake me for someone else, of course.