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I've read at least one career advice essay that calls out asking your PhD students to call you by your first name as unprofessional.

My coworkers and I always called our PhD advisor by his first name, and a graduate student calling any professor by their last name, much less their own advisor, strikes my sensibilities as quaint and old-fashioned (undergraduates are a different story, of course).

What is the standard practice for this?

  • 34
    Yes, my PhD student should call me by my first name. – JeffE Jun 19 '13 at 2:26
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    It depends on the local customs. In Croatia, it is customary for students to address professors by the title. In England, first-name basis seems to be the standard, to the point that one professor actually told me, semi-desperately, "PLEASE, call him by his name!", when I kept mentioning "prof. <the name of the other professor>". It took me some time to get used to it. – Vedran Šego Jun 19 '13 at 3:10
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    Echo @VedranŠego . This question is definitely local custom dependent. Please specify your location or answers by locations. – scaaahu Jun 19 '13 at 4:05
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    I call my supervisors by their first names, and we graduates have even got a nice nickname that one of my supervisors likes to be called. – user7130 Jun 19 '13 at 4:16
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    NO! They should call you "Master" ;) – NPcompleteUser Jun 20 '13 at 12:35
55

Yes, a PhD is essentially an apprenticeship in academic research, so they should be treated as a colleague in potential (it seems normal practice for an RA to refer to their supervisor by their first name). Also I think it is a bad idea for researchers to be overly formal and deferential towards their supervisors; if you ware working at the cutting edge of your subject, not all of your ideas will be good ones, and the PhD student should feel comfortable pointing out where they feel this is the case. This sort of self-skepticism (being comfortable with the idea of being wrong occasionally) is a key component of being a good scientist, and it seems to me to be difficult to communicate this by example if the student is constantly reminded of their place in the hierarchy by making them call me "Dr Marsupial".

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    +1 "PhD is essentially an apprenticeship in academic research" – user7130 Jun 19 '13 at 11:20
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    You're right that PhD students should be treated as colleagues in potential, but the fact that this implies first-naming is location dependent. – Étienne Jun 19 '13 at 21:19
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    I fully agree (+1), first naming is indeed location/culture dependent, however the point about inculcating self-skepticism shouldn't be. I think informality encourages the student to be questioning and not take what I say to be the ultimate truth. In a more formal culture there needs to be other ways of encouraging this sort of occasional and entirely appropriate dissent. While I prefer my students to refer to me by my first name, this is difficult for some of them and I don't insist on it. – Dikran Marsupial Jun 20 '13 at 10:58
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    I agree with your point about formal distance and the invitation to criticise. In the same vein I feel that emphasising authority this way is antithetical to science anyway. – Konrad Rudolph Jun 20 '13 at 12:21
34

This is definitely a local practice. Here in Germany, it is not standard that colleagues call each other by their first names without specific invitation to do so. However, in other institutes, it is now standard policy that everybody refers to each other by their first name. So what is considered acceptable varies very much from location to location and group to group.

Within my own group, my undergraduate students tend to call me "Professor," while the graduate students and postdocs call me by my first name. This seems to me to be a reasonable balance—but I wouldn't really have a problem if an undergraduate who's worked for me for a while calls me by my first name.

A graduate student who isn't in my group, however, should not automatically expect to call me by my first name in an initial email. That would be rather presumptuous.

  • 5
    Plus we have the combinations of Du + Lastname () and Sie + Firstname (de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamburger_Sie)... Main point: if you (= teacher/advisor) want to be addressed by Du and/or given name, do not forget to invite the students to do so (for some students, it will be invitation enough if you start saying Du + given name, others will consider this impolite without your invitation for a mutual Du). And if you do so, do it with all of them. Otherwise, the situation will become awkward. – cbeleites Jun 19 '13 at 15:21
  • I work in an English-language institute, but outside of it, the patchwork is crazy. – aeismail Jun 19 '13 at 16:53
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    @cbeleites “Du” + “last name” is rather uncommon though, isn’t it? It sounds very patronising to me. Like the bad cop talking down to a criminal. – Konrad Rudolph Jun 20 '13 at 12:19
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    @Jase What is offensive isn't based on logic but on custom. There's nothing intrinsically offensive about a raised middle finger except what meaning Western culture gives the gesture. In German culture, to address an academic colleague by their first name without permission is offensive - that doesn't need additional justification to be the case. – dbmag9 May 27 '14 at 20:07
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    @Jase: dbmag9 is correct. In general, I find it strange when someone I don't know personally (and I would not consider a lecture a "personal introduction") calls me by my first name. But my reaction would not be to find it insulting (given context, of course). Many of my German-born colleagues would. – aeismail May 27 '14 at 20:12
16

I always have my students call me by my first (given) name. Currently, I'm teaching in Asia and the students have the local custom of calling everyone as Mr. Givenname or Miss Givenname (yes, even if she is married - strange, I know). This is completely different from my native culture but I bring my culture with me...for a reason.

I have no desire to introduce the formality of calling me in any sort of official way. I feel it distracts from the importance of focusing on the matter of education. As long as my students do not refer to me in a rude way, I'm quite flexible. I do, however, encourage (without insisting) them to use simply my first name, without any title, rank, or any other identifier. This is true not only for my graduate students but for my undergraduate students as well.

Others in my departments, most notably Asian teachers, do prefer to have the greater level of formality. To each their own. It really does come back to culture. For me, I allow my students to follow which ever culture they prefer, but I do let them I know I don't want formalities to interfere with the educational process in any way.

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    most notably Asian teachers, do prefer to have the greater level of formality is very true in my Asian location. Some would not only prefer but also insist on it. – scaaahu Jun 19 '13 at 6:52
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    @scaaahu I was toning it down a bit. Many that I work with do insist on it as well. – earthling Jun 19 '13 at 10:59
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    In China's education system, starting from kindergarten, NOT formally calling a teacher is an actionable disciplinary breach in most schools... so this has been ingrained in them. – Nelson Jan 28 '16 at 9:05
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I recall a teacher of mine saying : "Dealing with different cultures is dealing with different expectations", and calling someone by his title or his first name is definitely related to customs.

Being a French (from Chinese parents) student myself, I have never called my teachers/professors by their first names, but things tend to change just as customs evolve. Maybe it is because of my chinese backgrounds, which implies a strong use of titles (even for family members) that is explained by the importance of respect for the elders in the society.

Then I got to study in Oslo for a few months, and people explicitly asked me to call them by their first names, which I did later. However, it still feels akward for me to call someone by his first name when he is "much" more older than me.

Now what I do is that I say "Monsieur" or "Madame", and use the first name if I am invited to do so.

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    I had the same experience as you, in my French classes calling a professor by his first name would have been insulting, but then I studied in Norway and my Norwegian teachers laughed when I called them by their second name as it sounded extremely formal for them. – Étienne Jun 19 '13 at 21:11
7

In Japan, graduate students generally address their professors as Lastname-sensei or just sensei. Using the first-name would be unheard of. Even faculty do not address each other with their given names (unless they are foreigners).

Faculty generally address students by lastname-kun or lastname-san.

Use of given names in Japan is generally restricted to genuinely close friends and family in private situations.

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    Out of pure curiousity, do students address each other with their last names as well? – svavil Jan 27 '16 at 17:26
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    Japanese cultural formalities are very complex. It IS possible for students to address other students with more formal titles. – Nelson Jan 28 '16 at 9:07
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    Classmates will use lastnames (with or without honorifics). Only very close classmates will use firstnames (men on the same sports team; lovers; etc.). – RoboKaren Jan 28 '16 at 21:12
  • @svavil - for students, it greatly depends on the university context and environment (my comment disagrees with RoboKaren's comment), but in some majors students address each other by first name with kouhai affixing "san" and sempai affixing nothing onto the first names. – virmaior Jan 29 '16 at 1:02
3

I choosed an intermediate way: up to the master of science, I call students with Mrs./Mr. and their last name. I propose my PhD students to call them by their first name, and to call me with my first name too (equal footing), but, in French, we have a difference between "tu" and "vous" (see here), with shades related to "you" and "thou"; "vous" is regarded as more polite, and we use the "vous" to talk in everyday life.

When they get their thesis, I generally propose we switch to the more casual "tu", and I leave them the choice. I cannot impose them choices anymore.

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