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At US universities, how should one address a professor while talking to him or her? In my home country, we usually address the professors as either "sir" or "madam" while talking about our queries in person.

What's the norm at US universities?

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    Whatever you decide, pay attention to your forms of address and make sure you address your male and female profs equitably. Female professors tend to be addressed more frequently by first name than by title + last name. Personally, I live in an area where first names for everyone is fine, but something to keep in mind. – Azor Ahai Jun 26 '18 at 21:14
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"Professor Lastname" is a sensible default, unless and until the professor asks you to call them something else, or you become aware of local customs that are different.

"Sir" and "Madam" are normally not used.

  • Sir or ma’am is commonly used in responding to questions however ("yes ma’am", etc), although that's no different than for any adult, at least in the South, but not using it doesn't doesn't exactly cause offense these days either. – user0721090601 Jun 27 '18 at 12:17
  • But absolutely agree on professor as the default. Not all professors are doctors so it avoids needing to know their degree – user0721090601 Jun 27 '18 at 12:18
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Assume that you should be formal unless invited otherwise. Of course other students at the institution can give you advice, but Professor or Professor Williams is normally used. Some what less formal is "doc" or "prof", but only with permission. I was once on first name basis with most of the professors while a grad student, but not with my dissertation advisor. He was European and was always "Professor".

I don't think there is anything like a nationwide norm. At most there might be a departmental norm, not even one for an entire university. But it is best to seek guidance. Assume the formal until you know better.

In my own case I had to convince doctoral students to call me by my given name. They seemed uncomfortable calling me anything but "professor". But we wanted the doctoral students to think of us more like colleagues so we pressed them a bit to use personal names.

  • Do people in the US really give permission to use "doc" or "prof"? Over here (UK), I think saying "Call me prof" would seem insufferably pretentious! ("call me Bill" would be OK) – Flyto Jun 27 '18 at 14:00
  • @Flyto Actually that wasn't the conversation. Some students started to use it (at various points in my career) and I didn't object so it sort of stuck. It usually started with people I was working closely with, as a supervisor or such. From there it passed around. These were often undergraduates. – Buffy Jun 27 '18 at 14:10
  • Ah, I see :) 123 – Flyto Jun 27 '18 at 19:38
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There is no norm across US universities.

I have had lots of professors announce on the first day of class that they dislike being referred to as "Professor" and to simply call them Mr/Ms [lastname]. Some even said they preferred being called by their first name. Had the same experience when conversing with professors outside of class (I was not their student or anything).

Other professors would take offense and lecture you if you do not call them Dr [lastname] or if you don't refer to them as "Professor". This seemed to be a minority of professors.

In the grand scheme of things it does not matter to most professors. I have seen people refer to professors in a vast variety of ways and I don't think most mind unless it can come across as particularly disrespectful (avoid first name unless they say its fine to refer to them that way, don't use casual slang when referring to them like "Yo homedog stevens", etc). I would default to simply "Professor" or if there is more than one professor in the room I might say "Mr./Ms.[lastname]".

There is also no harm in just asking a professor if they prefer to be called Professor Stevens or Mr. Stevens or what have you if you are worried. It's not as if they will take offense at that question.

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    Where did you have people say they prefer "Mr./Ms."? That's way way out of the norm in my experience in the US. – Noah Snyder Jun 27 '18 at 1:26
  • Maybe they were adjuncts or Ph.D students, but yeah, uncommon to use Mr/Ms. – mkennedy Jun 27 '18 at 17:22
  • Indeed, I'd suggest for "Ms." this is actively not the preference of a large number of female academics. See the whole #ImmodestWoman thing recently. – Fomite Jun 28 '18 at 16:07
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By default, it is always appropriate to call your professor "Professor Smith" or "Dr. Roberts".

However, it is usual that the professor will either ask you to call them by the first name, e.g. "Michael" or "Jane; if this does not happen but you do work with the professor quite closely or are on friendly terms with them, there will be a moment when one goes on to the first-name basis anyway.

I heard that some professors prefer their relations with students to remain formal and to continue to be called Professor or Dr., but I've never experienced this personally.

Note: In some countries like France, an equivalent of Mr./Ms. may be the norm (e.g. Monsieur), but in the U.S., that may be considered as implying that the person is not a Doctor and, therefore, an insult.

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