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…