How to address an academic

From PhD Comics

Dear Scholars. Academics are difficult. They have too many names. In this international world of academia, we don’t even know if the name is a male or female, so no idea if it is Mr. or Ms. (not to mention Mrs., Miss. – but it is Ms., when in doubt between these options, for adults it is always Ms.). Plus, academics have many titles. This can be hard. To add insult to injury names in Hungarian are backwards so you don’t even know if you are looking at a given name or a family name. (Just ask my colleague Judit Sándor who is female: Judit, and not male Sándor which is a common Hungarian male first name.) But it could be worse. You could be in Spain where people poses both their mother’s and father’s family name, or you could just be dealing with my friend and co-author Bruno de Paula Castanho e Silva who, himself could not tell you which one of these to use when you alphabetize the papers in your filing cabinet (and he does not even use these consistently himself).

So how should you address someone, say, in an email? Here are a few tips.

On initial contact use something formal. But beware (common mistake), academics don’t like to be called Mr., Ms., Mrs., etc. They worked hard for that PhD and/or Professor title. So, use those. It spares you the gender guessing, the Ms., Mrs., Miss. misery. Total gain. Dr. is generally safe in conjunction with the last or when in doubt, the full name (and not the first or nickname). Dr Levi sounds stupid, I am sorry to say. But I have only been yelled at once for calling someone a Dr. (Last Name) when I should have called them a Prof (and it was in the biomedical field, and by a third-party Austrian… see below).

In the Anglo world, there is little to no difference between Dr. and Prof. in the social sciences as far as I could tell. If you are not sure of their last name, as with Bruno above, use their full name as they have used it somewhere official (website, paper, etc.). Assistant Professors, Associate Professors and Professors are all professors in the worlds where those titles exist, so Dr or Prof works. Very few Professors out there without a doctorate (though we have one in our department – and you would never guess who… well, OK, maybe if you are really smart you would.) TAs, grad students, they are not Dr. or Professor yet. Usually they don’t mind the upgrade but it may look silly to call them as such. (You can always check someone’s CV. If they have a PhD, they are Dr. If they have a Prof position they are Prof. or Dr.)

In the Germanic world the rules are also pretty simple. They use their titles. They really do! All of them. It is not uncommon to see a Prof. Dr. Dr. Hab. etc. whatever Schmidt (with some post scripts too). The good news is that since they use their titles, you will find their name with all the things that go in the front (and the back) of it right there on the institutional website. On initial contact, address them accordingly.

And then there is this problem of casual, formal, etc. which becomes a common headache early in grad school when some profs start to treat students as peers while others reserve this for PhD candidates or PhDs (or never). But here are sure tips to navigate this problem.

First, if the person asks you to address them a certain way, do as they ask. I always ask people not to call me professor so and so, rather just call me Levi, and some people don’t listen. It is more a sign of disrespect not to address someone the way they would like to be addressed than calling them by their first name. For some, especially from very hierarchical academic cultures, this is weird. Deal with it.

Additionally, another sure tip is to use however they sign their letters. Say me, I use Levi. This means you are allowed to address me as Levi. (This is true even if there is a pre-defined signature sheet at the bottom of someone’s email with their full name.) You can especially go more casual (or formal, depending) if they address you the same way. In fact, you should follow this rule too. Sign your emails the way you would like to be addressed. And don’t be surprised if people address you the way you signed your email. It is a great signaling mechanisms as to how you would like to be treated and how you prefer to treat someone. (It won’t work me. If you sign your emails as Mr. or Ms So and So, I may address you ask such but I will still sign mine Levi, and insist that you call me Levi, but I am stubborn. Others are less so.)

Hope this helps, somewhat…

How to ask for a letter of recommendation

from PhD comics.

Many people are shy to ask for (or about) letters of recommendations. Never be! As academics, it is part of our job to write references. In fact, it is an important part of our job. But You can make this experience as painless as possible for your letter writer. So, instead of wondering if it is OK to ask for 14 recommendations when you need 14 (and yes, it is OK), just do your best to help your letter writer. Here’s how.

First, think about who would be the best letter writer for you. If you had little to no contact outside of class with this person (and in class there is 20-30, or more people where you certainly were never noticed – maybe you even made sure of this) that person is not the best letter writer. I have written countless letters that say person took my big class (usually stats – could be worse, Scope and Methods), seemed engaged, got an A- (which is a very good grade, BTW), but if this is all that a letter says, that will not stand out. Unless you can’t (in which case you have clearly done something wrong) you should find someone who can write a better letter. I often tell people that I don’t think I am the best letter writer for them as all I can do for them is… well… see above. Usually they still want the letter. (OK. So these people all probably did something wrong along the way, as highlighted above, but it is fine, live and learn. Hopefully, in these cases, my job is only to complement some other letter writer who will write an awesome recommendation.)

So how can you make this easy for your letter writer. Well, look at it from their perspective. They don’t have much time. Here is the key information you need to briefly give them:

What position? Is it a PhD, internship, job, etc.?

Where? Such as University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Department of Political Science

Few words about the position if applicable. eg. I would continue my research I am doing in my MA on voting behavior there or I plan to utilize my skills in focus groups with this NGO during their data collection on how people feel about XYZ policy. In this section, be brief and to the point! A sentence or two is fine. Focus not only on what you want to do but also how is this position a fit for you. OK, if it is PhD at Harvard, nobody will wonder why you would want to do that. But for less obvious things…)

Now I understand that it is easier for you to just send them the link which contains a detailed description and etc. but don’t do that. (Or, do that, but don’t make them peal all the info out of the link. Spoon feed it to your letter writer. Link is good, but only for reference. In fact, many other things are good for reference, CV, other letter writers, etc. But only for reference as an attachment or under your signature in the short email you will send to ask for this letter.

What should the letter writer highlight about you? Give them ideas what to write about. Be specific. If you think the final paper you wrote for their class (which they probably don’t remember so give them cues, tell them what grade you got) is relevant for the position, say so. If the class the person taught makes you a good fit, mention that as well. If your activity in the Political Behavior Research Group would look good in this letter, remind me that you are active in the group and I should mention this. (OK, some of these things the letter writer can figure out as well, but don’t make them think hard about these things. They probably do too much of that every day.)

VERY IMPORTANT. How to send the letter, where to send the letter and the deadline. And this can get difficult. Sometimes, the place you are applying makes you fill out a web form and they contact us letter writers with a link. (And these systems usually suck. Often, they don’t even tell us the deadline, so you need to do that.) Sometimes the reference needs to be emailed. Sometimes they require that the email comes from the institutional email address. Sometimes the form needs to be printed and mailed (less and less, but still). Sometimes, and this is not cool, but what can we do, the letter has to be sent directly to the applicant who includes it in their application. It is your job to make sure that your letter writer knows what they need to do. If there are forms (electronic or paper copy) make sure you read the form first and fill out all parts that is your job to fill out (like your full name and etc. be nice and fill out your letter writer’s name and contact as well – we usually use office contact for these things, though I, myself, use my personal phone which anyone who asks for a letter from me should know).

And again, the deadline. Give your letter writers time. If you cannot (then you messed up, though it may still be worth asking than foregoing an opportunity). Mark the email URGENT: in the title. Apologize for not allowing them enough time. Be understanding if they cannot submit, but ask them to do so even if it is late (most places will still consider it). Make sure the letter writer knows the deadline and send them reminders a week, 3 days, 2 days, and 1 day before the deadline. (Yes, all of those, unless they confirmed that it was sent.)

This is hard. This is especially hard if you consider that most of us, letter writers, receive many emails. To ensure you get a speedy response, your letter better not be more than a short paragraph, otherwise I surely will set it aside and deal with it later (which you don’t want me to do when there are deadlines involved). I understand the urge to be courteous and write a paragraph of a polite sounding big nothing, but don’t do that. Just be polite throughout your message. And being polite does not mean you cannot be assertive. For example, you can (and should) ask the letter writer to let you know once the letter has been submitted. (Electronic platforms also let you know sometimes, but you should not consider that enough. I have seen situations where the instructor submitted, letter was never received and … well, you know what happened.) You can also say you will remind them if you have not heard from them a week before the deadline. (And then remind them.) Despite this task being hard, don’t stress about it. You will make mistakes but if you follow only one of these points (not to mention the rest), you have already made your letter writer’s job much easier. So, you don’t check all these boxes, it is not the end of the world. Nobody will bite your head off, reject your request. But try.

And finally, there is no end to weirdness that letter requester can throw at you or your reference. In these situations, always, think about how you can efficiently and effectively communicate with your letter writer making their job as easy as possible under the circumstances.

And a post script. Some people will ask you to draft the letter for them yourself. Yes. This is a thing. And there is nothing weirder than writing a letter for yourself. But here are some tips if you run into this. Take the list of things you wanted the letter writer to highlight and write then up as if it was written by the prof. No need to overly praise yourself too much. The content is the praise and good letter writers know this. Also, rest assured, the letter writer will go through the letter, will edit the letter, adjust it to their style, add and delete comments as they see fit. (It is really more a collection of the points as suggested above and not a letter that will just be forwarded on, at least, most of the time.) I personally never do this with the exception of letters that seem to do little more than checking administrative boxes (in which case I always ask the requester to draft the letter). If you need such a letter from me, be ready to write it yourself (in fact, send it with the request).