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As an administrative assistant at a major university, I regularly field questions from prospective applicants and students. Occasionally, in response to my reply the author will address me as "Professor" or "Doctor".

What is a concise yet polite way to reply with regard to this (in my case) misattribution? I am flattered to be sure, but my flattery is exceeded by my concern for honesty in advertising – I'm neither a PhD/ScD/MD, nor a professor. On the one hand, if I just ignore it I feel I'm tacitly accepting the misattributed title, on the other hand if I reply with a correction, I fear that I misrepresent the values of our community as being overly obsessed with titles and protocol. Any suggestions for a tactful and honest way of addressing this kind of misattribution is appreciated!

  • Comments in answers and discussions in comments in answers have been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. – Wrzlprmft Aug 12 '19 at 18:55
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In the U.S., I think just don't bother to directly respond.

Your email signature probably accurately indicates your position, and if people don't understand the hierarchy of universities, it doesn't really matter. Their respectful form of address is just recognizing that you can give authoritative opinions on things... whatever your precise title/degree...

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    Also in the UK this is the right answer. If you are writing a letter or email and don't know the correct title for the person you are writing to, then the polite thing to do is use the "maximum" reasonable title, in a University this is likely to be Professor. – James Mitchell Aug 10 '19 at 6:59
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    Similarly, in language teaching, we recommend not making a big deal of grammar/vocabulary errors. Usually, just restate correctly and only explain if the student doesn’t catch on. (Or if the error is one that is “hazardous.”) – WGroleau Aug 10 '19 at 14:50
  • @JamesMitchell If I just cannot find out if a person has a doctorate, I would assume in the negative. If I cant be bothered to find out, well, why am I contacting this guy anyway? ;-) – Karl Aug 10 '19 at 18:10
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No need to correct explicitly, but ensure you include title (Mr/Ms/Dr/Prof./&c.) in your signature

To an outsider, it is often unclear:

  • whether the designated contact is an academic or an administrator; and

  • whether the designated contact has a doctorate (in the UK, many people working in academic administration do have a doctorate).

The lack of clarity is exacerbated by the fact that many university websites and web profiles do not spell out titles and credentials prominently.

Given that it is a far bigger faux pas to address somebody with a doctorate as Mr/Ms/&c. than it is to address somebody without a doctorate as Dr/Prof., the general advice for an outsider is, "if in doubt, assume the designated contact has a doctorate".

If you are concerned about anybody being misled, the best solution is to ensure your electronic-mail signature includes your title, credentials, and position; for example:

Ms Josephine Bloggs, BA (Ebor.) MA (London)

Secretary for Research and Postgraduate Programmes, Department of Futile Studies

University of St Kilda

+44 1632 960555 [this is a fictitious number, so calling it would not disturb anyone]

But if it really bothers you that much, you could add a brief note just below the salutation in your reply; for example:

Dear Mr Schopenhauer,

[Please note that I do not hold a doctorate, so I am "Ms Bloggs"]

Thanks for your enquiry about our postgraduate programmes. We are certainly willing to consider applicants with a degree in a different subject, and your background in philosophy looks like it would be compatible with the prerequisites for our Master of Futile Studies programme. I should observe, however, that it is very windy on our campus, so your proposed enquiry into whether a falling tree makes a sound may be tricky to ascertain reliably. We should also warn you that, in order to avoid replicating the mistakes of Easter Island and Donal Rusk Currey, we have a rigorous policy to protect the trees on our campus, and you will require a special permit and ethics approval to fell any of our trees for research purposes. You may find it helpful to make a campus visit before committing to your project.

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    In the U.S., including those degrees would seem rather strange... – paul garrett Aug 9 '19 at 23:47
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    For what it's worth, when I was an admin on the us 15 years ago, having my email signature say "Ms X Y" wouldn't have seemed strange at all. – GrotesqueSI Aug 10 '19 at 5:18
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    "Given that it is a far bigger faux pas to address somebody with a doctorate as Mr/Ms/&c" - really? I once collaborated with a senior UK academic who was also a Fellow of the Royal Society (which doesn't quite put him on the same level as Isaac Newton, but not so far off...) Everybody called him "Dave" - and that wasn't even his official first name, which was David. – alephzero Aug 10 '19 at 10:04
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    @alephzero The faux pas is referring to someone that is a stranger without previous contact with a title below theirs. For many people the use of a title is odd and they don't expect it to be used, but undergraduates are typically cautioned to be careful in case the person they correspond with is one who does care about their title. – Bryan Krause Aug 10 '19 at 11:54
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    Calling someone by first name is not at all the same as calling them by the wrong title. – Noah Snyder Aug 11 '19 at 13:38
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Be sure to list any minor title that might apply to you in your signature when replying by mail: as an administrative assistant you'll likely have at least some formal letters you can tack onto your name, however ridiculous. That will clear up the problem without drawing further attention to it. If this occurs in spoken communication, you can just interject something like "I wish" or "a bit premature" but in written communication it's hard to lend it the necessary non-importance.

Not parading one's minor titles may have the consequence that some people may err on the side of caution then: after all, it's just a title. And this kind of mistake happens to the best: Mistitulation example

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    That's not a mistake. It's Knuth making a joke. From the postmark and the redacted addressee, It's obviously a letter from Knuth to someone else. – alephzero Aug 10 '19 at 9:59
  • @alephzero Yes it's obviously a letter from Knuth to someone else, but why are you sure that it's a joke and not a mistake that Knuth (or rather the assistant who sends out his outgoing mail) addressed the recipient as "Professor"? – ShreevatsaR Jan 1 at 9:19
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In some countries, it is usual to either add some titles to people vaguely linked to academia, or to "upgrade" their title.

I was often addressed as "Professor" when everything about me said "Doctor" (business card, letter, signature, ...).

So depending on the country these student write from, it may be a normal thing for them to do and you should not bother (and not feel flattered, and have your signature up to date which it I am sure is). Correcting them will bring more problems / misunderstandings than it is worth.

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