I am applying for PhD programs at graduate schools in the US and I am wondering how I should refer to researchers that I name in my statement of purpose? In particular, I am wondering whether to refer to people that have titles of 'Assistant Professor' or 'Associate Professor' as Prof. or Dr.? I have heard that the prefix 'Prof.' tends to be reserved for full, tenured Professors - is that true?

(note, that I have edited the question due to its similarity to this one, to focus specifically on the context of a statement of purpose for US grad schools)

  • Possible duplicate: academia.stackexchange.com/q/37037/101 Nov 23, 2019 at 16:09
  • @MarkMeckes it is quite similar. Thanks for pointing that out. Perhaps what I will do is edit the question to be specific about prefixes used in personal statement for US grad schools.
    – Time4Tea
    Nov 23, 2019 at 16:18

2 Answers 2


tl;dr. In a formal situation, be formal, otherwise...

The US is pretty informal about titles (unless the professor is from a German university). So either should do in general (see below). Even an assistant professor can be referred to as "professor". It is even possible, if rare, that an Associate Professor won't actually hold a doctorate. But no one is likely to be offended.

You might, however, after a first usage, be told that some other thing is more appropriate. Then you should just do that.

My own doctoral advisor did have a Germainc type doctorate and additional beyond doctorate degrees. But he was happy enough in the US to be referred to with any reasonable designation. I also had a colleague who was at least an Associate Professor but held no doctorate. He did, however, participate in very important theoretical research - with Edsger Dijkstra, actually.

But this is how you refer to a person in person or in email and such. For a more formal designation, such as in a paper, you may need to refer to an actual title. "Associate Professor Smythe" or such. The context you give, suggests a formal title is called for - an application.

  • Hello Buffy, FYI: I edited my question to focus more specifically on a statement of purpose, due to its similarity to a previous question.
    – Time4Tea
    Nov 23, 2019 at 16:45
  • See my last paragraph. You are in a more formal situation, so a more formal designation is probably better. Getting it "wrong" won't have a devastating effect, however.
    – Buffy
    Nov 23, 2019 at 16:51

I have heard that the prefix 'Prof.' tends to be reserved for full, tenured Professors - is that true?

For formal writing in the US, that is false. Assistant, Associate, and Full Professors are all titled "Prof." This would be especially true if a student is writing.

Exceptions include: University websites, press releases, and promotion documents. In these cases, the exact rank is specified.

In other countries and in informal language, practices can be totally different.

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