Monday, January 12, 2009

Just Call Me F

In various posts over the years, I have mentioned that I do not like being addressed in writing or speaking as Mrs., Miss, or Ms. when I know for a fact that the person writing or speaking addresses male professors as Professor or Dr., or, in written cases, when the person writing addresses himself (it has always been a himself) as Professor or Dr. I am somewhat sensitive to these incidents because my husband is never addressed in professional situations as Mr., only Professor or Dr.

It's OK to use Mr./Ms. for professors as long as these terms are used the same for all. For example, there are certain academic ecosystems in which the titles Mr./Ms. are routinely used for faculty, including some highly regarded institutions of higher education and the Chronicle of Higher Education. In these cases, the use of Mr. and Ms. is applied equally for men and women and that's fine.

Otherwise, I don't really care how my undergraduate students address me in writing or speaking. Those who address me as Mrs. or even Miss FSP may be making a sexist assumption that I am a non-PhD instructor (and in doing so show that they haven't read the syllabus, attended the first day of class, and/or looked at the course webpage), or they may just be clueless. If they call me Mrs./Ms./Miss FSP, I say "Just call me F". In my non-academic life, kids in my daughter's generation call the parents of friends by their first names, so there is no sector of my life in which I am routinely called Mrs. or Ms. FSP by people who know me.

If a student sends me an email addressed to "Mrs. FSP", I reply as I normally would, and sign the email with my first name. My title and contact information are at the bottom of the email in a sig file, should this information be of interest.

In fact, all other things being equal, my preference is for students to call me by my first name. I don't consider this disrespectful; I find it convenient. If a student is for some reason not comfortable calling me by my first name, I don't insist, but in those cases they do have to call me Dr. or Professor FSP, as there is zero chance at my institution that they are calling their male professors "Mr.".


Anonymous said...

I find freshman to call me "Mr." in person and in emails. They seem to be growing out of the habit from high school, where everybody would be Mr/Ms/Mrs/Miss X (except, of course, the person with the Ed.D. who demands to be called "Dr").

So perhaps its not only a sexist thing for students, although your professional colleagues are another case totally.

- MSP at elite university

Anonymous said...

I ask my students to call me Dr. FirstName because my last name is a bugger!

I applied for tenure track faculty jobs at large research schools and search comm idiots addressed me as Ms. LastName in emails (not emails from secretaries, emails from search chairs themselves). Unreal. So, I replied back to Mr. LastNames to teach the sexist crackjobs about addressing me. This happened several times.

Helena Mallonee said...

This is really interesting to me, because I much prefer to use formal titles like Dr./Mr./Ms. when communicating with professors. It feels really disrespectful to use a first name address with someone more educated, usually older, and higher in status.
If a professor asks to be addressed by their first name, I either use Mr./Ms., or avoid using their name altogether. It's probably rude, however.
But if your institution usually goes by first names, then it seems entirely reasonable you seek equal-opportunity address. :)
(And Mrs. is an antiquated address that seems ridiculous in our supposedly egalitarian society.)

Jay said...

I don't care if people use my honorific in social settings, but in my own office I'm always a bit stumped by patients - who should clearly know who I am - calling me Mrs. Jay. I'd prefer my staff use my first name but it's not our culture. In the hospital, where any woman with a stethoscope is assumed to be a nurse, I insist on being called Dr.. And when I went to my daughter's school to participate in Career Day and the cardboard sign on my table said Mrs. Jay, I corrected it. Career Day, for God's sake.

Anonymous said...

My institutional culture is strictly first-name, which I really do not care for when it comes to undergrads. I refer to myself as Dr. Lastname and most students catch on that I prefer to be called so. A certain group of students have settled on calling me "Dr. Dave", and one girl last semester for some reason began referring to me as David Lastname in full, every time she spoke to me. I think she may have been mocking me.

Ewan said...

This is something that really irks me. Far more than would be rational ;-).

I *hate* being called 'Mr. McNay.' I am universally happy with 'Ewan' - which freaks out the students in the lab of one of my colleagues who have been *forbidden* to address faculty by their first names (!), but at least they use 'Dr.'

The most irritating environment is my first-grade son's classroom. I went in to talk about 'my life as a reader' and he introduced me as Mr., so I commented (in a way appropriate for 5-6 year-olds) that this wasn't correct; but then the class newspaper that day has a bid picture of 'Mr. McNay.'

Argh :-).

No, not the end of the world. {And oddly, never seems to happen to my wife - she's always 'Dr.'}

Anonymous said...

In grad school everybody in the research group called my advisor by his first name. So this past summer (my first summer as a professor) I told my undergraduate research assistants to call me by my first name. It felt right to be less formal with people that I'm working side-by-side with, puzzling over the same results and frequently making mistakes in front of them. (If I knew how to do it right the first time, it wouldn't be research.)

But I told them that they should call me "Dr." or "Prof." in class because all of the other students call all of the other professors by those titles.

But now I have a dilemma: Besides the handful of students who do research with me full-time in summers and work pretty closely with me in the school year, there are a few students that I take on a provisional basis during the school year. A lot of them wind up doing very little and kind of fade out of research. Should I ask them to also call me by my first name? Should I wait until they've done enough to become "full-fledged" members of the group?

I'm not interested in having a caste system among my students. However, the practice of using my first name with students is uncommon in the department, and being new and untenured I don't want to deviate too significantly from departmental culture.

Anonymous said...

Yo, miss F.

May I just say, that this is one of the most reliable blogs out there. There is always a post to read on Monday morning while I'm drinking my coffee. It's awesome after a weekend when no blogs are functioning.

P.S. you have a Ph.D. ??!! Sweetness!!

P.P.S. I might miss the exam due to sickness. Lolz, sorry about that, but I have a doctor's note.

Pagan Topologist said...

This whole question is a bit amusing/intriguing. I always ask students to call me by my first name (David)or by Dr. or Professor followed by my last name (Bellamy.) I tell them that I do not like to be called Mr.

As they progress further into their studies, I become more insistent on first name usage. It irritates me when grad students call me by anything other than my first name.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it is a culture thing, but I would find it near-unthinkable to address a professor as Mr/Ms/et caetera.

Actually, even "Dr" sounds a little dismissive to me - if I know or suspect that someone is a Professor, I should address him/her/it as such!

On the theme of email etiquette, suppose that I am a phd student and I want to audit a course (not a laboratory, nor particularly participation-heavy): should I send a mail to the professor asking for permission?

On one hand, just intruding in the class seems fairly rude, but on the other I am sending a nigh-useless message to someone who probably has more than her/his share of them.

Anonymous said...

I've worked on a number of research projects as an undergrad and as a medical student, and I am always unsure of whether to call the PI as Dr. Lastname or Firstname since I'm not a doctor yet. I've noticed, though, that practically all of them are ok with me calling them by their first name. It's a new conundrum when it comes to physicians that I know through their administrative roles rather than as attendings.

daisy mae said...

my undergrad insisted on a first name basis. grant it, it was a small school and my largest class was 25 students. it has it's pros and cons, but i find that the pros far outweigh everything else.

although now in grad school, any email i send to a professor for the first time begins with "Dr. So and So"... when they respond, i look at their signature - more often than not it's their first name, and that's how i begin to address them.

as for auditing a course - i've ALWAYS emailed the prof first, because there may be a class limit, and it's nice for the prof to know who you are and why you're not taking exams or turning in homework. plus, you NEVER know who will end up making a good reference, so i like to get to know all of my profs, not just those in my area of study.

Anonymous said...

There is so much variation in forms of address between cultures, institutions, departments... most of us don't wish to offend, but it can be difficult (and uncomfortable) when you don't know the rules each person is playing by.

A request to all the professors out there: Please give your students a clue as to how you would prefer to be addressed. Professors have a wonderful opportunity to do so at the beginning of each term, when they introduce themselves to a class.

Also, a cultural note: in Germany, where I live, adults (starting around age 18) either both address each other by first name, or both by last name (with a Mr./Ms./Dr. prefix, as appropriate). For a professor to address a university student by first name and expect to be addressed as Dr. soandso, which is common practice in many countries, would be very rude here. When someone addresses me by my first name, I assume I may use their first name as well.

Unknown said...

As to Occam's Dr./Professor dilemma - here's one that still confuses me. In grad school we are encouraged to call ALL professors by their first names, as we are expected to be colleagues by the time we leave here and they all address each other on a first name basis.

As an undergrad though, all of our professors were addressed as Dr. So-and-So. (My favorite professor admitted that she would have preferred to have students use her first name but was warned as a newly minted Assistant Prof that she had better tell them to call her Dr. or she would get no respect! Admittedly, she still looks a lot younger than most people's stereotypic Prof image, but really?)

Even weirder still, in some departments (not in the sciences), there were people teaching who had still not received their doctorate...they were dragging out the submission of their dissertation as best I could gather. It was these Drs. in Limbo that were addressed as "Professor".

Word Verification: "galling"
Seems appropriate.

Anonymous said...

re: anonymous 11:23

I've found email to be the best solution to this problem! The reason is that most people rarely refer to themselves when speaking, but most people DO sign their emails. When signing, most people use whatever form of address they prefer. If I email a professor starting "Dear Dr. Smith" and they sign the reply email "Joe" that's a signal that it is OK to call them "Joe" in the future. Alternatively if they sign back "Dr. Smith" I will continue to refer to them formally (though this is rare in my department).

Anonymous said...

On the first day of class I always do a little "Who am I?" spiel that gives them options on what to call me:

Dr. Lastname or Prof. Lastname.

It is them that has to say it so they can choose what to call me (from those options). There is no Mr. Lastname option and I have yet to be called that.

Anonymous said...

I don't think women should encourage students to call them by their first name. Mrs. is irritating too. Professor or Dr. is the appropriate prefix in academia and students refusing to do so are acting somewhat passive aggressive because making a fuss however politely makes a woman seem aggressive. As for the schools, the teachers are careful to call medical doctors and Doctors of Education using the prefix Dr. They should do so for anyone who has earned a doctorate. Teachers who know you have a Ph.D and insist on calling you Mrs. are annoying.

Anonymous said...

Some of my female colleagues and I have been able to conduct informal research on this by comparing the frequency with which we and our professor husbands are referred to by first name or as Ms/Mrs/Miss/Mr. It rarely if ever happens with the men but happens to the females all the time. I finally took to not putting my first name on my syllabus, which somewhat decreased emails that addressed me by my first name. I still got plenty of Mrs., Miss, Ms emails, though. For some reason, the Miss and Ms. irk me the most. When done in person, it always seems to sound so whiny, and I imagine the students as second graders tattling on a fellow student.

FPS notes that her email signature contains her accurate title, etc. I have never found that to be successful. I have even responded to students by signing my email Professor x and they typically replay again with their inaccurate reference. My assumption is that if you are too clueless to understand your female professors are professors with doctorates, you are too dense to make note of a signature.

Anonymous said...

I am a female assistant professor in Engineering and I have rarely if ever been called Mrs/Ms/Miss, in person or via email. Maybe our school has smarter students?:))

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Occasionally my students slip and accidently call me "Mrs." For every five times this happens to me, it only happens once to my male colleagues. I know why. They aren't consciously being sexist, but it still is.

Scientista said...

I call all of my profs by their first name. We are all adults, and if your first name happens to be Steve, why should I not call you Steve? I don't think that my policy lacks respect: man or woman, they are called by their first name and they know that I do it to everyone, so it does not come across as impolite.

One of my profs, let's call him B, said something really inappropriate in class the other day that made me think of this blog. I was responding to an email on my Blackberry (in fact writing to another prof) during his lecture, and he comes next to me as he handing out a reading assignment and says "What, you're writing to your girlfriends to tell them how attractive the shirt I'm wearing today is?". I found that really rude: what, because I am a girl, the only subject of my emails can be boys, and in particular, him?

Am I overreacting or is that as inappropriate and sexist as I perceive it to be?

Female Science Professor said...

You were sending an email during his lecture?

Scientista said...

Dear FSP,

Really? The email is the part that troubles you? His comment, not so much?

Besides, he was lecturing about something totally asinine... If profs wants students to actively listen, they should not repeat the same lectures as A) their colleagues and B) as the class they taught last semester.

Anonymous said...

When I got my PhD I had a LOT of people (not people I work with, but family and friends) ask me if I was going to "use my doctor". And, they seemed really thrown when I said yes, as if it was pretentious or something. I told them now that I've published and am starting to establish myself, I'm not about to go change my last name, so I am I supposed to go as "Miss MaidenName" for the rest of my life? most of them hadn't considered not changing their names, so then they were doubly thrown and had no good answer.

The whole thing has made me feel so self-conscious about the possibility of being called doctor in every-day life that I'm paralyzed when faced with a series of check-boxes on a form, which makes me kind of sad. These comments at least give a little idea of what some people do...

Anonymous said...

I wonder... how many people *do* "use their doctor"? My fellow grad students and I have occasionally played around with the question of whether or not we would want to (should the opportunity ever present itself), and we're about evenly divided on the issue. Some want to use it because they want recognition for all the hard work required to earn their PhD, while others don't because they think it's misleading -- that a "doctor" is someone who heals people. (Plus, there seems to be a string of stories floating around about PhDs paralyzed when they are turned to during medical emergencies.) Wish I could take an FSP-style poll on this question!

Anonymous said...


What is rude is emailing during a lecture. His comment was sarcastic, end of story. If you dislike his lectures that much (or they truly are repeats) then get out of his class and get the notes.

Me? I just stop my lecture and stare at the student until he or she puts the Blackberry away.

Anonymous said...

Rant: I detest the use of titles, because in my opinion they ruin communication between people. I'm really glad that despite my stay in Germany I can call my professor by his first name- most profs here insist on 'dr.', 'prof.', 'prof. dr.' or even 'dr, dr.' (when they have an MD and a PhD). First names are mostly out.
I really think that this hinders communication, especially between a grad student and a professor. I think that if you force grad students to call you 'dr' or 'prof', you create a barrier which will hinder brainstorms and won't allow an equal input of both parties, as one 'talks up' and the other 'talks down'.
However, this comes together with the much German attitude of literally doing what the person who's 'above' you tells you to do and not ask questions- this is an attitude that probably works in the army, but not in science...
/rant over.

Anonymous said...


Perhaps he assumed that, since you were emailing during his lecture, the message must have been lecture-related. However, since the class is soooo boring, and he probably knows that, he figured you must have been emailing about his shirt since that would be the only important topic left to warrant an email during lecture.

On a more serious note... I tell my students that it is rude to have a phone on during class. I also tell my students that if their phone rings during my lecture, I get to answer it. If they are texting, I get to read it and respond. I haven't been forced to do either yet... I guess the threat is enough to make they all put their phones on silent mode and refrain from texting.

Dr Sam

Anonymous said...

I got my PhD in a department where all the professors and grad students called each other by first names, and the same was true all through my postdoc years. However, I interviewed for a faculty job at a place where the norm was for faculty to refer to one another as Dr. Soandso. The first time I returned a call and asked for the chair by first name I got quite the frosty reception until they realized I was a faculty candidate. I was pretty embarrassed, but in my field this is unusual among colleagues. It was one of the things that made me not want to work in that department.

Now that I do have a faculty job (elsewhere), I've been somewhat surprised by the number of grad students who have trouble calling me by my first name -- many of them seem to have been taught it's disrespectful. It doesn't help that we don't have a consistent department "policy"; some of my colleagues still want to be called "Dr.", so it can be hard for the students to switch back and forth.

Unknown said...

My other half checked the "Dr." box on the form when he signed himself up for phone service (he's a post-doc).

Now he gets several unsolicited calls per day (at home!) from people making bids to supply the office furniture, fax machines, etc. for his "new practice".

daisy mae said...

as a grad student, i daydream about my partner saying "i'd like to introduce you to my wife, dr. gradstudent", and then i get to say "please, call me firstname". i think that the hard work, effort, and time that's put into a doctorate warrants at least SOME attention.

as for emailing during class - i think it's one of the rudest things possible, no matter how boring the lecture. yes, the comment was inappropriate, but i think on par with the disrespect that accompanies emailing during class.

Sandlin said...

I did a high school exchange in Portugal, where teachers are referred to as Profesor/profesora. Some of the teachers got the shortened version 'Stor or 'Stora. At my undergrad, I was on a first name basis with about half the faculty, and I found my mouth often wanted some brief way to imply the respect of the title without giving up the casualness. In retrospect, 'Stora! is probably only a half step up from Yo.

Ewan said...

I give the same "I will answer it" warning if the class is big enough (say over 50).

I actually got to do so once. But only once :-).

Eve said...

I'm comfortable calling my supervisor by his first name, but I am sometimes a little worried calling other profs in my university by their first names (especially if they are Very Important). I can understand avoiding a first name basis at first, but I would never ever call someone Mrs, Ms or Mr. Maybe there should be a requirement for every first year course to include a short section on academic etiquette. Apparently appealing to common sense doesn't work.

yolio said...

If it is a large class, I don't care if students email/text during my class. If it is less than 10 students or so, then I find it distracting to the group, but this isn't a problem in larger groups.

As long as there are no rings or beeps, then I don't care. Rings and beeps I find wildly unacceptable, and am likely to make a scene about.

They way I see it, as long as they aren't disrupting the lecture for others, then it is up to them how they use the lectures or fail to use the lectures.

quasarpulse said...

I'm constitutionally incapable of calling professors by their first names (or Mr./Ms.); my mother was a student, first undergrad and then grad, during my formative years and went on to become an adjunct. Since she was of a generation that still pretended first names didn't exist, despite being in the same age range as her professors at the time, she still used Dr./Professor all the way through grad school.

Now I'm at a community college where nearly all the faculty have terminal master's degrees and virtually every student feels free to call the professors by their first names. I still can't do it. It's "Professor Soandso" - at least until I graduate.

Anonymous said...

I am a female faculty at a research university. I was reminded of this post as I read an email from a student today. It was regarding a course that I co-teach with a male faculty colleague. The email was addressed to Dr. Male Professor and 'my first name'. I have never met the student and we are definitely not on first name basis,although I do prefer the 1st name being used by students in my courses and research lab. Regardless, I had to hold myself back from signing my response: Dr. Female PhD.

PG said...


I'm not a fan of what your prof said. It has condescending, sexist tones. I agree with some of the others, however, that you should not be texting in class. If the class is boring, don't go or leave. Give the professor a bad evaluation or if it's a major concern, raise it with the department/faculty.

I explicitely tell my students to not use the internet or their cell phones (communication devices) in class. It's distracting to me and other students and it also sends the signal that ignoring or disrespecting the professor is acceptable.

Anonymous said...

I am a graduate student in an English-speaking Canadian university. I come from the French system, where it is unacceptable for a student to be on a first name basis with a professor (at least, not until a very long time, and after the professor has explicitly asked for first names to be used). I always refer to my professors as 'professor soand so', or, in written form, 'prof. soandso'. Gender is irrelevant. I never use "doctor", unless I notice that the person has a PhD but is not a professor or presents himself as such (usually professors from other academic traditions).

I have noticed that I am the only one of the graduate students who does not call her professors by the first name only. Some even use a diminutive of their first name.

My colleagues and professors might be accepting this as an unfortunate idiosyncrasy... but I do not want to be inappropriate or nagging. I hope that what I am doing is acceptable in the English-speaking academic world.

Female Science Professor said...

It's better to err on the side of being respectful rather than disrespectful, so what you are doing is fine.

shoebuddy said...

It is common for female professors to be called Miss or Ms and not Dr. It upsets me that the Chronicle of Higher education uses Mr and Ms (and in a recent article used Ms for a female professor and Dr for a male professor). If I am to be distinguished, I'd rather be distinguished by education than by gender. This reinforces gender norms. As most educated people know, there are more than TWO genders--not everyone is comfortable being labeled male or female. Why not use M for an address? Or Dr.

Anonymous said...

I have another problem/ question.
I’m a 45 years old specialist in public relations, a women, in a rather big factory (1500 employees) working in Eastern Europe.
I rarely meet the CEO and other executives, but when I do salute them, with some exception, two of the women executives address me by my first name although I continue to call them “director second name”. I don’ fell comfortable because we are the same age and they consider normal to address me on my first name because at work they are superior and me, the inferior, not a colleague worker. I would like to address this but how? I believe that using the first or the second name should be agreed upon by both parts, not imposed without consent by the will of the higher in rank at work.
What do you think I could do?