35

When writing letter to an academic professor (not necessarily from student to professor), what is the appropriate way to address his/her title?

I have seen in letters using

Dear Prof. X even when the addressee is not a full professor

Dear Dr. X though, knowing that the addressee is a full professor

Dear Mr/Mrs X though, knowing that s/he has an academic title

  • 17
    All faculty (in the US) can be properly addressed as "Prof. X". We faculty are all professors, even though we are not all Professors. – JeffE Sep 1 '13 at 15:29
  • I used to have an instructor who specifically didn't want to be addressed as "professor" because he wasn't a professor. He asked us to just call him by his first name. Though clearly I wouldn't suggest doing that unless they explicitly tell you to. – Mehrdad Aug 22 '14 at 4:47
  • It also depends on the campus culture -- I went to St. John's in Annapolis, and the faculty were all called Tutors, and the only one we called Dr. was also a cardiologist. Everyone else (including students) was Mr./Ms. – April Sep 19 at 13:36
  • For this question to be useful you need to specify what country you're in. – Flyto Sep 19 at 18:08
37

The appropriate way to address someone is with their proper title. In your question, it seems you know what the title should/should not be. If you know, use it. If you don't know, it's generally safer to err on the side of formality.

While I personally prefer (and request) everyone to refer to me by my given name, I do feel it a little strange when someone I do not know / have never met addresses me in writing by my given name. Perhaps I am old fashioned but I expect introductions to be formal (and better to be too formal than too familiar) and then quickly get to preferred ways of addressing (i.e., to use my given name).

When corresponding (in writing or electronically) I would look to the signature. If they wrote:

Dear Professor Schmoe:

Blah blah blah

Sincerely, 
John

----- 
Dr. John Doe 
Agri-science Department 
University of Whatchamacallit

Then I would write back

Dear John:

Thank you for your letter. Blah blah blah.

Sincerely,
Joe
  • I follow exactly the same rules. The only liberty I allow myself sometimes is to write "Prof. Schmoe" instead of "Professor Schmoe" in the very first letter if I am sure that he knows of me and wouldn't mind to communicate with me informally. However, I never start with "Dear John" or abbreviate in any way in an "official" message (like job application, etc.) that may be filed with the office rather than read in private even if the addressee is among my personal friends. Also it is better to make an error of addressing a secretary as Prof. than that of addressing a professor as Mr. – fedja Sep 1 '13 at 14:00
  • @earhling, at this point (i.e. after the original email and your reply, where you used a more informal Dear John) would you consider appropriate if John wrote back starting with Dear Joe, thanks for... or it's still better to use again Dear Professor Schmoe, thanks for...? – boscovich Sep 1 '13 at 17:38
  • 3
    @andrea In the example in my answer, where I signed my letter "Joe" then I consider it completely acceptable for him to respond "Dear Joe" - however, to be even more clear, I could add "Please call me Joe." However, since I've signed the letter "Joe" I would expect him to interpret that as an invitation to use my first name from here forward. If he continues to use "Professor Schmoe" I would think either he was a bit too formal or he didn't read the signal (my signature) clearly enough. – earthling Sep 1 '13 at 23:51
  • 3
    FWIW this is the convention I go by as well. If someone signs a letter or email with their first name only, that is an implicit invitation to address them by their first name in any future written communication. If they sign it with their first and last name, or their title and last name, that indicates you should stick to formal forms of address. I think this convention is widely known about. – David Z Sep 2 '13 at 2:00
15

This is a sticky question. Preferences for academic titles varies between countries, institutions and individuals.

In the US, any individual employed in an instructional capacity by an institution of higher education can be properly addressed as "Professor Smith", even if his or her official title is "Assistant Professor", "Lecturer", "Adjunct Instructor", etc. Moreover, any individual holding a doctoral degree can be addressed as "Dr. Smith".

Of course, these two cases often overlap, and you are left to decide whether to use "Professor" or "Dr.". The pattern I've observed is that at institutions where only some of the faculty have doctorates, those who do are more likely to prefer "Dr."; whereas at places where almost everyone has a doctorate, they will all prefer "Professor".

I think the safest default, and the one I most commonly see, is

Dear Professor Smith,

I would not abbreviate "Professor" as "Prof.". It sounds too much like an annoying student saying "Hiya, prof!"

  • 6
    Note that in Germany (and possibly elsewhere) it is common practice to address someone with their full title (sometimes even in speech). For example, Professor Doktor Zweistein... – TransferOrbit Mar 23 '14 at 11:31
7

This depends on a number of factors, not limited to the country the professor is in, the actual title, the type of correspondence (formal/informal), and the professor's personal preference. In the U.S. in computer science, for instance, virtually everyone goes by first names, almost regardless of university affiliation or rank.

I would avoid Mr./Ms. if you know there is an academic title (and these days, unless you have demonstrable evidence that the person prefers it, never Mrs.). I happen to prefer people use my first name, but I have to admit that it does tweak me a little bit if someone who should know better calls me "Mr." instead of "Dr." ("I didn't spend six years in evil medical school to be called 'Mister', thank you very much!") I shake my head whenever I get an email from my PhD alma matter when they refer to me as "Mr." -- of all the places or people in the world that should get this right, they don't!

If you're in a country where it seems to matter (Germany comes to mind), call the person's office and ask explicitly (or figure it out by going to the professor's web site or the school site). Otherwise, I suggest that for a formal never-been-introduced letter you should use either "Dr." (if applicable) or "Professor" (for all ranks of professor), or if you're in a field where first names are standard, go with that. For unofficial correspondence, you will be safe with the formal titles, but shouldn't have a problem with a first name.

  • 2
    The only caveat I would have is unless you're in a field where the first name is the universal default, don't address somebody by the first name until invited! (The "Du/Sie" issue in Germany is still a big thing in Germany, for instance—and violating that kind of protocol can get you into a lot of trouble!) – aeismail Sep 1 '13 at 13:28
1

Before writing be aware about: the context- formal vs informal (friend or someone you have been in touch long ago vs cover letter for a journal); In the latter context you always should address the person in cause by the academic position: Professor (be sure about his/her position- in the web - it is not difficult).

-1

I will address Dr. X (if I know that my professor is holds a doctoral degree) and I will address Professor X (if I am not sure that he is holding doctoral degree). Not all professors hold doctoral degree I guess.

  • This is the start of a good answer, but perhaps if you can find a style guide to support this, or recommend HOW someone researches whether or not someone is a PhD? – April Sep 19 at 13:35
  • In the UK this almost works the other way around - you know that most staff hold doctorates, but you may not know if they are professors, and indeed the odds may be low (that title is used really differently on the two sides of the atlantic). So I tend to default to "Dr X" as the least likely to offend. – Flyto Sep 19 at 18:10

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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