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Rules about addressing professors by their first name?


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I've heard that a good rule of thumb is to initially address professors by last name, prefixed by either Dr. or Professor. If, at that point, they say it's fine to address them by first name, then, well, it's fine to address them by first name.

That's a rather straightforward example. But what if a professor introduces himself or herself by first name to a large group of students, as recently happened on an interview weekend I went to? Is there then a tacit understanding that it's fine to address that professor by first name from that point on?

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18 minutes ago, magnetite said:

I've heard that a good rule of thumb is to initially address professors by last name, prefixed by either Dr. or Professor. If, at that point, they say it's fine to address them by first name, then, well, it's fine to address them by first name.

That's a rather straightforward example. But what if a professor introduces himself or herself by first name to a large group of students, as recently happened on an interview weekend I went to? Is there then a tacit understanding that it's fine to address that professor by first name from that point on?

Always call them Professor LastName. Unless they specifically tell you not to. 

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2 hours ago, StamfordCat said:

Always call them Professor LastName. Unless they specifically tell you not to. 

This is definitely the right call. When I was at my first undergrad school, it was school policy that professors be called by their first names (I think it was something administration did to try to create community since it was a school built on odd circumstances). However, there were certain professors that I still called Dr. LastName because they preferred it. They just couldn't officially say to call them Dr. LastName, which kind of sucked for them. Long story short, if they insist that you call them by their first name, do so, otherwise just say Dr. LastName.

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On 3/3/2019 at 7:02 AM, magnetite said:

I've heard that a good rule of thumb is to initially address professors by last name, prefixed by either Dr. or Professor. If, at that point, they say it's fine to address them by first name, then, well, it's fine to address them by first name.

That's a rather straightforward example. But what if a professor introduces himself or herself by first name to a large group of students, as recently happened on an interview weekend I went to? Is there then a tacit understanding that it's fine to address that professor by first name from that point on?

You know, I don't think I've paid much mind to this sort of thing as I should have. I'm curious about your undergrad experience with this, since we both come from earth science backgrounds.

In my department, unless you were addressing them in class or speaking with them for the first few times outside of class, everyone seemed to be on a first name basis. I was pretty involved with some of my classwork and research interests, so I would talk to my professors quite a bit, and as a result I quickly became more comfortable with them outside of the classroom setting and thus referred to them by first name. In addition, I would be around their grad students a lot, who would always refer to them by their first name. I don't think I've ever consciously made that decision, though. It just seemed natural.

Regarding your last point, I think that if someone introduced themselves to you as a certain name, it would be fine to call them as such. I'd also find it weird that if a professor signs their emails with their first name, they would expect to be called anything but. 

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2 hours ago, goosejuice said:

You know, I don't think I've paid much mind to this sort of thing as I should have. I'm curious about your undergrad experience with this, since we both come from earth science backgrounds.

In my department, unless you were addressing them in class or speaking with them for the first few times outside of class, everyone seemed to be on a first name basis. I was pretty involved with some of my classwork and research interests, so I would talk to my professors quite a bit, and as a result I quickly became more comfortable with them outside of the classroom setting and thus referred to them by first name. In addition, I would be around their grad students a lot, who would always refer to them by their first name. I don't think I've ever consciously made that decision, though. It just seemed natural.

Regarding your last point, I think that if someone introduced themselves to you as a certain name, it would be fine to call them as such. I'd also find it weird that if a professor signs their emails with their first name, they would expect to be called anything but. 

Well, I only just applied to earth science departments. My degree is in physics, where every professor definitely wants to be addressed as Dr., even by their graduate students.

It did seem very relaxed in the department I just visited the week before last. I only heard one prospective student address any of the professors by something other than their first name. All the professors I met individually for the first time introduced themselves by their first names, too. 

For the professors I had been in contact with previously, I managed to not address them by any name at all. Simply a "Hello" or something of that sort. So there's a lot of ambiguity for me now (as well as some potential awkwardness), but I won't address them by first name until they explicitly tell me to.

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17 hours ago, juicetin said:

Y'all have very different experiences from me, in my departments it's very common for all grad students to address faculty directly by their first name 

This!

I also suspect it can be related to field & department. Other grad students did mention how this is different from their undergrad uni etc.

 

 

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15 hours ago, magnetite said:

Well, I only just applied to earth science departments. My degree is in physics, where every professor definitely wants to be addressed as Dr., even by their graduate students.

It did seem very relaxed in the department I just visited the week before last. I only heard one prospective student address any of the professors by something other than their first name. All the professors I met individually for the first time introduced themselves by their first names, too. 

For the professors I had been in contact with previously, I managed to not address them by any name at all. Simply a "Hello" or something of that sort. So there's a lot of ambiguity for me now (as well as some potential awkwardness), but I won't address them by first name until they explicitly tell me to.

Ah, sorry I assumed otherwise. Not uncommon. Earth science departments, in my experience, tend to be pretty laid back. Maybe it has to do with the beer stereotype....

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  • 3 weeks later...

Let's say, if the professor signs their email with first name, and then you keep calling them Dr. xyz or Professor xyz for a long time, you might come across as too distant (happened to me before). but I also don't really know what's the protocol: should I switch to first name? should I ask? Asking is a little too awkward for me -- in that case i'd rather be too distant than asking. Switching to first name might offend people, but then if they introduce themselves by their first name or sign their email by first name, and then I call them as how they refer themselves, can they really blame me??? 

If a prof signs their full name, of course you should be formal. 

Ugh this is such a hot potato question

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Using everyone's first names seemed to be the norm for this department when I was visiting, but I'm still addressing the professor as Dr. in all correspondence so far. Even though when asked on the visit who I was wanting to work with, I'd use her first name. I even had a conversation about how to address professors with a current grad student in the program; he thought it was very odd that my physics professors didn't go by their first names.

The next time I see her in person I think I'm going to end up asking. This is only because on the visit, there was another student who wanted to work with the same professor. When leaving for home, he addressed her as Dr. in front of a few other professors and students, which seemed very out of place. 

With the professor I'll be working with, I met her a few years ago and was introduced by her first name. So, maybe I should have been using it this entire time.

I feel like the new thing where people add their pronouns (he/him/his, etc) to their twitter profiles should extend to how professors prefer to be addressed!

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I think it really depends on the program. In my undergrad experience, all of the faculty and staff in the art or film department all introduced themselves by their first name and encouraged the students to call them as such. I would assume it would be the same in graduate school - any MFA type programs are probably more lenient on what students are allowed to call them. However, I would think it's more common to address your graduate professors in an "informal" manner (ie. first name basis) rather than their last name. If someone is a Dr. though, I think it would be wise to err on the side of caution until they tell you otherwise. 

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  • 3 weeks later...
On 3/3/2019 at 3:26 PM, MarineBluePsy said:

I refuse to call professors by their first name, even if they allow it.  We have a professional relationship and the formality is a reminder of that.

IME, this approach has earned the respect and eventually friendship of professors. It has also helped me to avoid some departmental drama.

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On 3/3/2019 at 4:26 PM, MarineBluePsy said:

I refuse to call professors by their first name, even if they allow it.  We have a professional relationship and the formality is a reminder of that.

If you did this in certain departments (for example, earth sciences or physics - the ones I know about!), both the professors and the graduate students would think you were very odd, and you would likely distance yourself from the faculty in a way which would be bad for your career. Yes, I'm completely serious. This is entirely department and/or program-dependent.

In e-mails, it's best to just use "Professor X" until and unless they send you an e-mail signed "Kathy" or "Brett" or "L" or something like that. If they do sign with their first name, I would strongly recommend just using the same address they gave you with their first name in place of yours. If they list both names, it's a judgment call - if you know that first names are common in the department, might as well use that, and otherwise err on the side of formality. In person, you will figure out very clearly what is and is not acceptable by observing how grad students talk about and to the faculty, both the ones who are advising them and others.

Edited by kronotsky
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On 4/16/2019 at 9:14 PM, kronotsky said:

In e-mails, it's best to just use "Professor X" until and unless they send you an e-mail signed "Kathy" or "Brett" or "L" or something like that. If they do sign with their first name, I would strongly recommend just using the same address they gave you with their first name in place of yours. 

This is what I do. 

follow-up emails I sent post-interview were addressed to Dr. Suchandsuch, even though most introduced themselves at the interviews by first name. However, if they then replied and signed with their first name, as many do, I address follow up emails to their first name.

I agree its very department-dependent, but most places I interviewed at it definitely seems like grad students are on a first name basis with PIs, even if they weren't in that person's lab, and that kind of collegiality seemed to make for a better environment for the grad students I spoke with.

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FWIW, as it was explained to me by a professor: in some circles, calling professors "doctor" can be taken as an insult because the usage implies that some professors are not qualified for their jobs. Sometimes the logic of the explanation works better for me than at other times (like right now). Still, the takeaway was clear -- one is safer using "professor" than "doctor".

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