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I'm applying to PhD programs and I've gotten in touch with a couple of prospective faculty. If they sign their emails with their first name, is it good to assume that they're okay with being called by their first name? Or should I play it safe and wait until they invite me to do so? Or should I simply ask? I don't want to come off as disrespectful, but I don't want to be regarded as not being able to take a hint either. I have a master's degree and know at a LOT of, if not most, grad students call their professors by their first name. I've never been able to really do so, and half the time I actually end up avoiding their names altogether, which I know is the worst of the worst of ideas because it comes off as more disrespectful than simply using their first names, but I for some reason can't get over the mental barrier of not being able to call them anything unless they tell me on the first day what they want to be called. Any advice?

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Most professors will not tell you outright to call them by their first name. So, I wouldn't use that criteria to use their first name, because you will end up awkwardly using their formal titles much longer than both of you would want. 

If they sign with their title and last name, then definitely keep using that. If they sign with their first name, it's a good sign but not a sure thing (many email software automatically append names at the end, so they might not have even known they signed it with their first name).

My advice is to use your knowledge of the field and the tone of the conversation. I always start with Prof. X or Dr. X if I am emailing a professor that I have not spoken to before for the very first time. Then, based on the email exchange, judge the formality of your conversation based on how conversations in your field goes. If you think there is enough familiarity, then go for the first name address. If you are wrong, the worst that could happen is that they gently correct you and you move on. If you aren't sure still, then use their title again for the 2nd or 3rd email. By that time, you should have a clear picture of how to address them. I would use the "preponderance of evidence" criteria for choosing first names. That is, you don't have to be sure beyond all doubt, just that you're more likely to be right than wrong.

And don't stress out if you get it wrong. You will learn from making mistakes, and it will help you calibrate what kind of conversations are going to lead to first name use and which aren't. Like you said, every grad student in your field uses first names, so that's a good sign. In my field, we often use first names even in undergrad.

It's easier to list things/situations where you should not use first names:

1. If it's your very first interaction with the professor.

2. If they address you by your title in your reply.

3. If this is a formal email, e.g. you are submitting an application, you are referring to a professor in your SOP or other application materials, you are submitting a paper or request for collaboration etc.

4. If the professor is at a University with different academic cultures (e.g. if you're at a US school and emailing a European school), then you may want to play it a bit safer and stick to formality longer.

5. If you are emailing someone in a different field than yours, you may not know their academic culture as well, so you may also want to play it safe.

 

If you absolutely want to play it safe, you can call everyone by their title and last name forever (or until they ask you to use their first names). My own approach/advice is to take a little bit more risk. I think overly formal communication makes it harder for you to form good professional relationships with these faculty members, especially in North America, so I personally think you have a lot more to gain by taking a risk with first names than you potentially have to lose (even if they didn't want to be called by their first name, it's not such a huge faux pas that you can never recover from).

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On 11/1/2016 at 8:57 AM, TakeruK said:

If you absolutely want to play it safe, you can call everyone by their title and last name forever (or until they ask you to use their first names). 

This has pretty much been my approach so far, but it's starting to feel awkward sometimes, especially now that I'm a grad student so I'll probably just switch to first names soon...

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I ended up sort of playing it safe in that I kept using last names/titles even when PIs signed with their first names. However, this eventually resulted in one PI ending an email with "you can call me [first name] by the way". The rule of thumb I used before applying to grad school was to use titles until meeting them in person in the context of doing research with them or having them as an adviser. 

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