What do students call you? Professor, Ms., Mrs., Mr., Dr., Sir?

Standard

Should you always go by Dr. when you’re dealing with undergraduates on campus?

The answer to that one is easy: you follow prevailing departmental and university culture. If you don’t do this, then you’ll just look weird, in a way that distracts from things that matter.

I’ll always remember that one guy from college who always had students call him by his first name. He also hung out at the stoner fraternity parties, too. That was creepy. I don’t want to be that creepy guy who forces overfamiliarity. But if that kind of thing is normal on your campus, or if you’re in the university founded by Thomas Jefferson and use Mr. or Ms. in an egalitarian spirit, then by all means follow along.

If your campus culture does involve the use of your title, then do you say anything when students when they don’t say Dr. or Professor? I do.

Here’s why I interrupt the conversation with students to talk about titles. I find it unprofessional when some students refer to some of my colleagues as “Mrs.” or “Ms.” instead of Professor or Dr. I also think it often indicates structural sexism that needs to be addressed, especially if students are making assumptions about marital status. (The truth is that students who choose to use “Mrs.” probably are not aware that this requires an assumption about marital status, which is a whole lesson in itself.) It does seem to me that men are more likely to be called Dr. than women.

If I correct students about not using the right title for women, then I think I should do it for men. I get “Mr.” all of the time from students. I typically suggest that they call me “Dr.” Most students probably think I’m overbearing about it, but the optimistic side of me thinks that the majority of them appreciate the advice.

I also tell the former military students that “Sir” makes me uncomfortable, which it does. I don’t get bothered when they continue to use it, though, because it’s so engrained that I realize it’s hard for them to change.

I have all of my research students, who have worked with me closely, call me by my first name. There isn’t much any other option, considering we work so closely together in the field, and at the field station, that’s what everyone else calls me. The students would be at a strategic disadvantage if they called me Dr. McGlynn while all of the other students on site had a more casual relationship with their mentors. (Also, I want to be as approachable as possible, because open communication is so important while doing international field research. I stay professional but also get to know my students as individuals.)

Of course, in the context of working with my research students on campus with other students, such as if they were to take a class with me, they call me what all the other students call me.

Do you follow campus convention? Do you like your campus convention? Do you treat your research students differently than other students, with respect to what you are called?

Note: I was thinking about this after reading a post by the Thesis Whisperer about the choice to use Dr. in one’s non-academic life. That’s a different issue, but it made me think of this.

47 thoughts on “What do students call you? Professor, Ms., Mrs., Mr., Dr., Sir?

  1. The campus convention at Calgary is for students to call their profs “Dr.” Very rarely, I’ve heard students who’ve worked in a prof’s lab for several years call the prof by his or her first name. But that’s very unusual. I’ve never succeeded in getting an undergrad to call me by my first name, not even ones who knew me well and had worked in my lab for a long time. So I’ve given up trying. Never heard anyone use “Mr.” or “Mrs.” here, or heard any prof here complain about being addressed that way, but I suppose it may happen. So I’ve never had occasion to correct a student’s usage–the usage is almost completely unvarying.

    I’d actually prefer if the convention was “Professor”, because that’s what I am, and it’s the convention I “grew up with” (it was the convention at my undergrad college). The only people I’ve ever called “Dr.” are medical doctors, and so it will probably always feel a little odd to me to have other people calling me “Dr.”.

  2. Meanwhile, ’round my parts, the stray new student who comes in for advising is more like than not to call me Mr. McGlynn. I’m not offended in any way, but it’s not healthy for the student who might seriously annoy the next professor with whom they interact. This happened less frequently, though on occasion, at private universities with students coming from backgrounds with family members who went to college. And on our campus, oddly enough the term “professor” is typically reserved for adjuncts who don’t have a Ph.D.

    The cultural experience of being in college is so foreign to some of our students, who don’t have much of an idea about how they should be behaving. (This includes how much they should be studying or how much work to expect from a class.)

  3. I’ve always referred to my professors as Dr. or Professor, rather interchangeably. Once I’ve worked in their labs for a while, the professors have nearly all asked me to call them by their first names. Even as a grad student, I certainly would not address anyone with a PhD as anything other than Dr. or Professor without being told to do so, even if they sign emails informally. It’s been interesting to adjust to calling (fellow) adults by their first names as I’ve gone through college. Most professional staff around here, for example, are fine with students addressing them by their first names.

  4. When I first got here, fresh out of grad school, I expected and was rather excited to be called Dr. OR professor. I didn’t care which. Turns out that students call everyone in the department, and most across campus, by their first names. I like the collegiality that this implies, but there are definitely some problems with this approach also. For example, freshman have a VERY hard time recognizing the fine line that exists between me as their professor and me as “hey you”. I’ve had students address me as “dude” in emails. I generally start the semester by telling all of my classes to call me Katie and that if I ask them to start calling me Dr., they know that they’ve done something wrong and have gotten on my bad side. But even older students struggle with knowing what is, what I call too honest.

    Interestingly, I think I’ve struggled with the same “fine line” as well. I’m still relatively young, so when I teach upper division classes, especially field based classes where we are in a cramped van for several hours at a time, it can be tempting to cross that line into the too familiar territory.

  5. From what I’ve seen and heard I suspect that UK universities are more informal than those in North America and certainly those in other parts of Europe. First names are commonly used, particularly after students have completed their first year. I’m comfortable with it and I’d go as far as saying I encourage it for a particular reason. Many of our students are the first members of their family to attend university, as was I. For someone from that background it can be very intimidating to interact with “Professors” or “Drs” with multiple degrees, strings of research papers, etc. I’d like to think (though have no proof) that a less formal campus structure might encourage these students to see that their tutors are not special, super-human individuals and that they too can excel in their studies if they work hard and engage with the topic. That may be wishful thinking of course!

    The other thing I’d add if that, of course, the UK academic system is structured rather differently to that elsewhere and the use of “professor” as a title is reserved for those promoted to a chair**. I’m only just getting used to being referred to as “professor” or “prof.” by students, whereas for colleagues in other countries it’s the norm. Differences in how higher education is structured across the world is a fascinating topic, it’s so variable. However some universities have recently brought in the grade of Associate Professor which is intended to replace “Reader”. Time will tell if this spreads more widely.

    **Don’t get me started on Hogwarts school though……! :-)

  6. While many of my students use “Dr,” a fair number of students just address me by my last name. I’ve found it puzzling and have tried to figure out why for several years. I think that it’s because when their professors aren’t around, they are using our last names to refer to all of us. When they get comfortable around some of us, they slip into that habit. Oddly, I tell my students that I prefer to be called either “Dr” or by my first name, and they are much less comfortable using my first name than my last name.

  7. I forgot about that one! There are also those students that just call me McGlynn. Like, “Hey, McGlynn, how do I use this microscope?” I tell those students that they should choose their words in the future more carefully because other people might view that as a form of disrespect. In their cases, no disrespect was intended, but no respect was intended either.

  8. I’ve also had this exact conversation several times:
    “This might seem weird, but I’d prefer it if you don’t call me ‘sir,’ if that’s okay”
    “Yes, sir.”

  9. I am considering covering how to address professors at the beginning of Intro Bio the next time I teach it. I think that a lot of freshman just don’t realize that I have a doctorate, and that Dr. Duffy is the appropriate way to address me. So, I mostly view it as just that they don’t know better, but it does bother me that students seem more likely to call male faculty “Dr”.

    When I accept new undergrads to do research in my lab, I include in an email (usually the one welcoming them to the lab) that most people in the lab call me Meg or Meghan, but that some undergrads feel more comfortable calling me Dr. Duffy or Professor Duffy, and I leave it up to them. At Georgia Tech, roughly half of them called me by my first name. It’s too early to know if it will be different here at Michigan.

  10. Do you get called “Mrs.” more often at Michigan than when you were at Georgia Tech? And if so, why do you think that is? Just because at Michigan you’re teaching freshmen who don’t yet know the appropriate conventions?

  11. I also got called “Mrs” at Georgia Tech, but I probably get called “Mrs” more often here at Michigan. I think your guess for why is correct: here, I teach a lot more students who are in their first semester in college.

    I definitely got called “ma’am” more at Georgia Tech. That was definitely a Southern thing!

  12. Yup. If I write back with my cell phone (which I don’t do often), I need to delete the autosignature in there that says Terry and replace it with Dr McGlynn.

    This is entirely standard practice on my campus. If I didn’t do this, then it would make some faculty think that I’m not professional.

    If I’m going for informality, which isn’t often, I use dr mcglynn.

    Faculty at my university also, on average, dress far more formally than I’ve ever been used to at a university. So on days when I teach, I kick it up a notch. Not only a shirt with a collar, but a nice one.

    When I’m mailing the undergrads researching in my own lab, I use Terry.

  13. As another professor at the school where Terry teaches, I have no problem looking unprofessional. I commonly (scratch that — virtually exclusively!) wear jeans to work every day. I do wear a shirt with a collar (and buttons), but not one you would wear with a tie.

    As for the question of titles, a colleague at another university told me the following, which I use myself when the need arises: at the so-called “second-tier” institutions, faculty call each other “Dr.”, because not everyone is a doctor (not having that title, for instance). At the “first-tier” institutions, they call each other “Professor”, because not everyone is a professor (some are associate professors, and some are assistant professors). At the truly elite institutions, they just call each other by their first names. I’m John.

  14. Ok, having consulted with a couple of female colleagues who’ve taught large intro courses (which I haven’t yet), I’ve realized my comments above were an overgeneralization. At Calgary, freshmen sometimes call female profs “Mrs.” (and perhaps call male profs “Mr.”; I don’t know). And sometimes various other inappropriate forms of address. But by sophmore year they’ve pretty much learned to call everyone “Dr.”

  15. On a semi-related note, as a grad student I was kind of surprised, and a little flattered, when I got correspondence from journals about my mss, addressing me as “Dr. Fox”. But then I realized that this was just journals erring on the side of caution. The majority of corresponding authors do have Ph.D.s., and so the journals were just assuming everyone does, figuring that anyone who doesn’t won’t mind the mistake. I adopted this practice myself as a handling editor.

  16. It’s great to read about how title culture differs between institutions and countries. While I have visited science colleagues in the States several times I had no idea things are so formal when it comes to faculty-student interactions. In Sweden, where I live and work, titles are hardly ever used. Everybody is approached by first-name only (or sometimes when students talk about faculty in third person by full name). If students would call me, or my colleagues, Dr. or Professor we would mostly feel very uncomfortable. This does not depend on which institution you work at.

    My view is of course biased, but dropping all titles just seems as the easiest and most relaxed way. Then we don’t need to bother with e.g. Mrs vs Ms. And why should people respect me more if they approach me with Professor or Dr? This is of course a cultural thing, and I can see if the standard is to use Professor, then if you’re not approached with that title it may seem weird.

    Anyways, please don’t feel offended if you ever come to Sweden to give a seminar and students call you just by your first name.

    Thanks for a great post!

  17. Thanks! I would really like to drop the titles, too. But if I chose to do it unilaterally I’d just be a weirdo. Still waiting for a chance to give a seminar in Sweden!

  18. It’s mighty fascinating things like this. If I would START using titles, I’d be the weirdo over here.

  19. Hi Lars,

    My experience at Calgary is the same as Terry. I’d be fine with Calgary students calling me by my first name, and I’ve tried to get them to do so, without success. Even the ones who’ve worked in my lab for years, and are perfectly comfortable and friendly chatting with me, call me Dr. Fox.

    It’s not that way everywhere in the US and Canada. At my undergrad college (a small [2500 students] place in the US), it was common for students to call profs they knew by their first names, and many profs encouraged this.

  20. In Brazil, most students call any faculty ‘professor’ or ‘professora’ (not followed by a first or last name, just ‘professor’ – the same word is used for ‘teacher’ and ‘professor’). If they need to get someone’s attention, then they will use first names, unless the faculty in question is older and/or ‘famous’. I co-supervised a student that would call me ‘Thiago’, but call the other supervisor (older and an established reference in the field) ‘Dr. Evlyn’, even if we were all in the same conversation. To be honest, it doesn’t bother me in the least, and while teaching in Canada, I was actually startled the first time I was called ‘Professor Silva’. (Prof. Who? Oh, right…me), and I usually told students to call me Thiago during the first day of classes.

    On a related note, I chaired a thesis defense recently, and introduced the committee as “Dr. X, Dr. Y, Dr. Z, and me, Thiago Silva” (a colleague questioned me about it later). Well, sorry, but I just can’t refer to myself, when directly speaking to others, as ‘Dr. Silva’. It sounds like those people who always refer to themselves using third person (Thiago, are you coming tonight? Yes, Thiago will be there :-D ).

  21. Interesting, the intercontinental differences.

    What also feels awkward, is when referring to another professor among students we use Dr So-and-so even though we never address them that way.

  22. I did my undergrad at a UC, and most professors preferred to be called by their first name (I remember one explicitly stating not to call him Dr. although he was one). When I moved to the Northeast for my masters, everyone went by Professor (to undergrads), which seemed so formal to me. And the university I am at now is a mix of Professor, Dr., or first name.

  23. I’m an undergrad at the University of Oregon. Most profs tend to go by their first name once you know them, and I’d say it’s mostly an even split between first name and Dr./Professor X in class situations.

    I began referring to my advisors by their first name after ~9 months working in the lab, though it was a gradual shift. I make an effort to refer to them as Dr. X and Dr. Y in conversation with other students who are not part of the lab.

    In general, I go with Dr. X (in conversation and in email) until the professor indicates otherwise by informing me or signing an email with his/her first name.

  24. I’ve been hungrily reading every one of your posts for a bit more than a month as I prepare for my new position as Assistant Professor at a regional public university. Of all the posts so far, this question has actually been one of my greatest puzzles.

    Until now, as a GA, adjunct, and postdoc, I have always asked my students to address me by my first name because it fits with my teaching philosophy: in comparison with my students, I see myself as an equal who happens to be the most experienced in the subject being discussed. I am primarily a facilitator and guide; although I certainly have to fill an authoritarian role occasionally, such as when submitting grades, it is almost never in the classroom. Perhaps this philosophy could set me up for failure on teaching evaluations as a woman professor—which, if I understand correctly, seems to demand a stronger presence of authority—but so far it’s been OK. To me, the first name suggests equality, which is what I want to promote, and a title suggests hierarchical authority, which I don’t.

    But now I’ve started to worry about fitting into the culture of my new workplace, given that I’d really like to keep this job for a long time and I realistically could be able to. First-name familiarity would certainly be unusual among my peers. I cringe a bit at “Professor,” flatly refuse “Dr” and its connotation with medical expertise by 95% of the population, and so I am a bit stuck. I’ve been thinking about “Professor Denise” … hah.

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughts on this, the useful discussion that followed, and all the other incredibly helpful posts!

  25. Thanks for reading, and commenting!

    I don’t know if you’ve taught your own full lecture course yet. Here’s a little something to consider. The classroom, at least in a US public university, is not an equal environment. It is, inherently, a power relationship. Pretending that the power relationship doesn’t exist makes for an awkward environment. To the students, you’re the expert with the knowledge, and you’re the one who is assigning the grades. You are merely recording the outcome of what the student does and doesn’t do, but you are the arbiter. If you promote an environment in which you are equal to the students, then that means they’ll think that they are equally qualified to evaluate their own performance. It’s a lot harder to earn their respect if you promote yourself on the same par as them. And, when you make decisions that they do not like, even though they are transparent and fair, some students might feel betrayed. If you get a few of those in a class, it could taint the whole environment and tank your evals. Think about meeting student expectations. They want a professor who is experienced, authoritative, fair, and in charge. In my experience, they don’t want to be equal to their professors. They want me to treat the students in the class as equal to one another, and they appreciate that I respect their time, concerns and priorities as seriously as I would expect to be treated by others.

    Also, and this is huge – If you go by your first name and the other faculty in the department don’t use this practice – who vote on your tenure – could perceive this as a signal that you’re not fitting in. It means that you’re directly choosing against something that they, your experienced senior colleagues, are not doing. A name is really a minor thing, but to some people the title is really important because it’s obvious.

    Being casual is fine, though. You could go by Dr. B.

    Of course, once you have tenure, you could do whatever the heck you want. I

  26. I completely agree, especially the tenure part. I have indeed developed and led a number of lecture classes, and I suspect that my presence in the classroom is reasonably similar to the one you describe: “experienced, authoritative*, fair, and in charge,” which has presumably resulted in the overall very good to excellent evals that I’ve received. Yes, without question, I am the leader of the class: I set the rules, tone, and expectations, I provide grades, and I have absolute dictatorial power as long as my decisions fall within the college’s policy and my syllabus. Leadership, however, does not necessarily mean superiority: ultimately, I lead the class in order to best serve my students.

    I think that your description of how you treat your students—“I respect their time, concerns and priorities as seriously as I would expect to be treated by others”—is indicative of the “equality” that I’m referring to. I also try, to the best of my ability, to provide them with something worth their investment of money and time. In other words, we are not in the same role, but we are equally important.

    Anyway, I like Dr B. Maybe that’s it! Thanks.

    * authoritative: “Able to be trusted as being accurate or true; reliable: ‘clear, authoritative information’ “

  27. Hah! You’ll have to call me Dr B. And write more cool papers about ants. And teach me how you can be so darned prolific while being a fine teacher as well. Do you sleep? Please school me on this, Dr. McGlynn.

  28. Well, I never claimed to be a fine teacher, and that label hasn’t been applied to me that often. I think about how to do it well, but execution is something else. (My chair asks me if I sleep, too.) There is something to be said about maintaining the appearance of constant busyness. There was a Seinfeld about that, though I forget how it worked out for George.

  29. A useful strategy is to introduce yourself in the first lecture with some educational background — something like: “I got my doctorate at University of X; my area of specialization is Y,” etc. They should then pick up on the proper form of address without you having to insist on being called “Dr.” Or you could simply write your name on the syllabus in the way you want to be addressed.

  30. I teach (part time) in a Masters program at a nationally known college, in a professional program for video game artists/programmers/level designers/producers. It’s something like a film school. Most of the instructors are from industry, and their titles are officially Lecturer. They are generally addressed as Professor so-and-so. I have a PhD, so I ask them to call me Professor or Dr., or Bill, whatever they are comfortable with, other than Mr., because that would just be inappropriate. The issue I have is what to call the other instructors, because it depends so much on context.

  31. I tell my student they can call me Dr. Klawinski or Paul. Either is acceptable. When I graduated with my Masters degree, my major professor, who I had called Dr. Rainwater, suddenly insisted that I call him Fred and it never felt natural. As if something had fundamentally changed in the two hours i was presenting and getting grilled by my committee. I explain this to the students and impress upon them that I consider them junior colleagues in our field and that, in my mind, I have to believe that they are all capable of achieving anything I have. The primary difference is years in the business. If they still feel more comfortable calling me Dr., then that is their choice and I will answer.

  32. I wonder if it is more laid back in general over here in Australia. I can’t recall ever hearing a student address a Professor as Professor so and so.

  33. I don’t think that there are institutional or national norms as much as personal preferences. Perhaps there is some level of ingrained culture in more established institutions though. At UNBC, some professors like it more formal while others like it casual. I have always felt equally comfortable with Staffan or Dr. Lindgren. Having said that, I try to make students comfortable when interacting with me, and if they are comfortable calling me by my first name, they are easier to communicate with or at least more likely to feel at ease asking me for help. I have not had issues with lack of respect because of it.

  34. This was a really interesting read. In Finland, we have a similar habit as in Sweden: no titles whatsoever, except in formal introductions etc. This might also due to habit of not really using people’s name in normal speak. (As compared to English, when people repeat each other names or titles.) In good old times, there was actively used T–V distinction (as I guess in Swedish too) but that’s pretty much dropped out of use. I use it in only highly formal situations.

    Referring to people not present can take many forms. I think normally full or only last names are used, except in a setting where first names can be used without confusion. And some also have established nicknames (which especially is the case with Swedish-speaking faculty).

    It’s not like dropping titles would make things easy – the level of familiarity can be expressed in so many different small nuances in speech (or in text, like e-mail messages) but rather it works (or at least I assume it works) with a similar rules than in all the other places in society. I just follow the small cues, and the more senior person is normally the one who has to take the initiative in increasing the familiarity. Though normally there’s ample opportunities to get easily familiar, like department’s christmas party or saunas in field courses.

    Dropping of the titles also make it more difficult from authority and respect point of view. The only automatic position you get is that you have been selected to give certain course (so the students can expect a certain level). But it’s up to you to earn that authority and respect. I really like it, as it emphasizes the point of scientific community and the students being part of it.

    Then again, universities are not in vacuum. They have to deal with secondary education has given them and they’re workplaces for people as any workplace.

  35. Love the comment string!!!! I like everyone to call me Dawn, but I explain to my students that they need to be very careful about extending this informality to everyone, and to be aware of the hierarchies. Good manners and courtesy are an important soft skill, and not being taught nearly explicitly enough – as I say to students, your manners could lose you a job, so learn to mind your ps and qs, even if I don;t care what you call me…. (on the other hand, I can, when required wield formality like a weapon)

  36. I am sorry it feels creepy. I just started my first week of teaching and I told students to call me by my first name. Is it really that creepy?

  37. I haven’t called any of my professors “professor”. Oh, OK, maybe the first a couple of times. Is it a culture in teaching oriented university? But again, I have never been to undergraduate college in the US. In graduate school, no one calls professor by “professor”. Is it a undergraduate specific culture ?

  38. Interesting topic. I recently ran into an odd situation. The culture at my college is more casual, and aren’t stuck up on “titles.” I find it rather asinine when an instructor interrupts another to make a political correction of “dr, or professor. Yes, we know you went to graduate school, but recognize you are just another individual. If you think you are above anyone who is getting an education, you are out of touch.

  39. It varies from institution to institution. There aren’t too many schools in which students regularly call all of their professors by their first names in the US, but there are some. I’m far more often called Dr. McGlynn than Professor McGlynn. The latter is a mouthful, surely.

  40. personally i had an opportunity to contact my professor that i found on the internet after 30 years. i found an article online and they were approaching their 90th birthday. she remembered me and was able to name some of my classmates and we reminisced about many of her colleagues. i gladly called her dr. throughout the call and out of respect would have had it no other way.

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