Our lab is having its holiday party tonight at a somewhat fancy hotel restaurant. How do I address a PI (Principal Investigator) of our lab? I’ve never met her this semester – she spends time at another research institute and communicates with us via group emails.

Given that a party will be a casual meeting, how should I address her? By her first name, say, "hi Karen", or is it better to address her more formally, such as "hi, Dr. Samsonite"? Our lab consists of about twenty members.

Update

So I met her just a short while ago in her hotel room where she is staying through the weekend, and I decided to adress her as I normally would, thanks Aeismail for the useful tip. She seemed just fine with it, so a big thanks to all for the answers and comments. Party time!

  • 1
    What's the locale and discipline? Both "Hi, Karen" and "Hi, Dr. Samsonite" would be weird in Germany unless you are a lawyer or historian. I guess "Hi, Dr. Samsonite" would be weird in Scandinavia, and "Hi, Ms Samsonite" and "Hi, Karen" would be inappropriate in the US. – henning Dec 7 '17 at 16:28
  • 2
    How does she sign the group emails? How does your colleagues refer to her? – jkej Dec 7 '17 at 17:59
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Dec 8 '17 at 16:38
up vote 12 down vote accepted

The person best suited to answer this question would be your PI. You could simply say, "Hey, I'm so glad you could make it! By the way, do you prefer Dr. Samsonite or something else?"

It's likely that your PI doesn't know the culture of your particular lab, so she may even ask what people there prefer.

  • 2
    I think it would be awkward to ask her that. It's like "I want to call you by your first name but I want to have your permission first." There might be a reluctant yes. – padawan Dec 7 '17 at 20:51
  • 6
    How can a PI not know the culture of THEIR own lab? I mean, I know academics are out of touch, but suggesting that the PI doesn't even realize what people are calling them seems strange. – StrongBad Dec 7 '17 at 22:55
  • @StrongBad OP mentioned that the PI spends most of their time at another lab and only communicates via email. I'm not saying the PI is "out of touch" with the general vibe, just that they may be unfamiliar with OP's particular group of labmates on a social level. – deckeresq Dec 7 '17 at 23:43
  • 1
    @padawan I respectfully disagree -- I've had many people ask me this question without me ever feeling like they preferred one way or the other. There could be some cultural differences at play here, though (e.g., I'm in CS, and we're notoriously casual), so I definitely could be wrong. I can edit it to say, "What do you prefer to be called," if you think that is more appropriate? – deckeresq Dec 7 '17 at 23:45
  • 3
    @deckeresq: It's definitely a protocol breach in certain cultures. (In Germany, for instance, you'd never ask if you could duzen with your advisor—it's up to the advisor to decide.) – aeismail Dec 8 '17 at 0:55

Address her as "Dr." unless she invites you to call her by her first name.

  • 24
    I'd say "Address her as you normally would at work." You won't get it into any trouble that way. – aeismail Dec 7 '17 at 16:59
  • 4
    Exactly. It's not rude to start with the most formal title and if they invite you to address them using something else then you can consider yourself welcome to do so. Starting without the title has the possibility of being seen as rude so you do yourself no favors taking that route. – Dason Dec 7 '17 at 18:41
  • 2
    I certainly agree with this answer (assuming we're talking about the US). But you might want to expand your answer to explain why this is the case. – thanby Dec 7 '17 at 20:14
  • Depending on where you are (and especially in German-speaking countries or with German-speaking academics) it might be more appropriate to use "Professor" instead of "Dr.", if she is indeed a professor. – Patrick Sanan Dec 8 '17 at 14:25

I would choose the first applicable option from the following list:

  1. The way she has asked you to address her
  2. The way she introduced herself to you in person
  3. The way someone else from the lab introduced her to you in person
  4. If you have a significant history of email communication specifically directed at each other (i.e. she is emailing you, not just emailing the group), the way she signs emails specifically directed at you, assuming it's actually a name or title and not, say, initials
  5. The highest or most specific title (Professor, Doctor, or so on) you know or believe her to hold
  6. If you really have no clue about #5, the default way you address other academics of similar standing who you don't know - probably either Professor or Doctor, depending on field

When meeting someone in person for the first time, items 1-4 tend to not apply and you wind up at #5, which basically reduces to Nicole Hamilton's answer.


Note that generic forms of address like "Mrs."/"Ms."/"Mr." don't appear anywhere in this list. They would come in as a last-ditch default option if you weren't talking to an academic, but within academia, titles like "Prof." and "Dr." are common enough that you take them as a default.

  • About that note: Unless you believe your PI is a member of the British Royal College of Surgeons, in which case #5 applies, and "Mr." or "Mrs." (regardless of marital status) is a higher title than "Dr." (but not as high as "Professor"). – Martin Bonner Dec 8 '17 at 16:26
  • @MartinBonner Huh, well that's interesting. I guess I might as well clarify that note accordingly. – David Z Dec 8 '17 at 22:11

protected by StrongBad Dec 7 '17 at 23:51

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.