Academic Forms of Address

Chad at Uncertain Principles has a post addressing the topic of forms of address in academia.  Specifically, he asks how academics refer to their students in recommendation letters.

I thought I’d flip the script on this one, and talk about how students address their professors.  In my undergrad experience, I almost always referred to my professors as “Dr. LastName.”  This applied even to my advisors, whom I worked with pretty closely over the course of a few years.  I was never quite sure if and when I could make the transition to address these professors by their first names.  Although they signed their emails by their first names and had other students address them on this basis, I was always wary of assuming this level of familiarity.

Now at Minnesota, I’ve noticed that everyone refers to and addresses the professors as Professor LastName, or even simply “Professor.”  I’m not sure if this is a standard protocol (after all, Professor is a more exclusive club than Doctor), or if it’s just one of those things that varies from place to place.

In reading about Garrison Keillor’s experience at the University of Minnesota in the 60s, he remarks upon the equal form of address among students and faculty: “An egalitarian spirit prevailed at the U that truly was noble.  There was no rank, no hazing… You were Mr. Keillor to your professor and he was Mr. Brown to you.”  He claims that this setup, which does not persist on campus today, made it feel like education was something both the teacher and the student participate in equally, rather than a hierarchy where the unquestioned expert knowledge is handed down from on high by the Great Professor.  Maybe there is something to that.

As a final observation, I have also found it easier to get used to calling foreign-born professors by their first names.  I think that it may be because a foreign name won’t strike me as being too familiar a form of address, while calling someone by a common American name hits my ear as being very informal.

I’m interested to know what my readers think: How do you address your instructors?  Does it vary by familiarity or discipline?  Or do you leave it up to the professor to specifically tell you to use a less formal form of address?

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4 Responses to “Academic Forms of Address”


  1. 1 Ponder Stibbons July 1, 2009 at 6:07 AM

    As an undergrad I addressed them “Professor X”, but when I visited grad schools as a prospective grad student, all the grad students called their professors by their first names. This was for philosophy and history/philosophy of science departments.

    There was one exception as an undergrad – I called the physics professor whom I was doing research under by his last name only (no Mr/Dr/Prof prefix), because that was what everyone, including the grad and undergrad students working for him, called him, and I felt weird being extra formal. I don’t know if it’s relevant that this professor was of Asian descent.

  2. 2 1stYearPhysicsGrad March 5, 2010 at 5:55 AM

    I just found out your blog and am reading through the archives but this seems racist.

  3. 3 excitedstate March 8, 2010 at 9:08 PM

    All I am saying is that, to my American-born ear, a name like “Bob” strikes me immediately as a first name, and a nickname at that, so it feels extremely informal for me to address a professor as such.

    In contrast, a name like “Yong,” “Vuk,” or “Yuichi,” to my ear, could be a first name, a last name, or not a name at all. For this reason, I don’t get that same visceral feeling of informality when I address professors by these names (as they have asked).

    Nothing racist in this observation, and in re-reading it, I don’t see how you could have picked up such a vibe.

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