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Regarding a post-doc position, I recently wrote to a professor in the US by starting my mail "Dear Professor X" where X is the surname and she replied to me "Hello Y" where Y is my first name. I am hesitating if I should start always with "Dear Professor Y1" where Y1 is her first name. I did not find any satisfactory answer by searching here. Personally, I would choose the second option, starting by her first name but I am not sure if there is any social norm for that? What is the best appropriate way?

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Continue to use the surname until explicitly given permission to do otherwise. One way for her to give that permission, actually, would be to sign a mail with only her first name.

There is a power imbalance between you. She is probably not being entirely correct in assuming she can use your first name, but it is common for people in authority to take some liberties.

But I'd recommend keeping it a bit formal until that obviously no longer works. And my full name is "Bobby Buffy" then I'd never be Professor Bobby. It would either be Professor Buffy or just Bobby. (For the record, though, I'm not Bobby.)


Note that this answer may not apply everywhere. It has a US perspective.

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    I would bold that last sentence, this can be very, very different in different cultures. – msouth Dec 11 '19 at 22:29
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    Given that she signed her email to you using her first name, using her first name is probably acceptable. – JeffE Dec 12 '19 at 3:35
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    In my field in the US it would be really weird for people with PhDs (or close to it) to refer personally to each other as Dr Lastname, at least past an initial formal message. It's weird enough when early grad students do it - you are training to be and act as peers. MDs in the field are more formal just because that's the standard in the hospital. – Bryan Krause Dec 12 '19 at 4:08
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    @optimalcontrol If she signed using her first name then she probably expects you to address her like that. And not doing so actually makes things awkward. That was your cue (that, and the fact that she used your first name). People don't generally explicitly write “please call me X” and, at least personally, I'd rather not have to spell this out. Instead, that's what the signature is for. – Konrad Rudolph Dec 12 '19 at 11:48
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    @Buffy This has nothing to do with addressing a child. It’s simply the default assumption in much of (English-speaking) academia: unless indication to the contrary is given, it’s usual and definitely not improper for the more (or equally) senior person to assume that an informal mode of address is appropriate between (prospective) colleagues, especially in emails. If a professor continues using first names after being told not to do so — that would be improper. Well: maybe this is domain specific; it’s definitely the case in STEM. – Konrad Rudolph Dec 12 '19 at 12:11
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If she "signed" the Email, see how she signed it. People usually sign letters and emails (if at all), the way they'd like to be addressed by the recipient.

  • If she signed with only (one of) her given name(s) (Y1), feel free to address her using that/those name(s) (the same she used), without any title, i.e.

    Dear Y1

    • The same applies in the unlikely case that she signed with a nickname (Z): In your reply, address her as

      Dear Z

  • If she signed with anything including her last name / family name (X), be it

    • only her last name (X)
    • her given name(s) and her last name (Y1 X)
    • (some of) her academic title(s) and her last name (Prof. X)
    • all of the above (Prof. Y1 X)

    , then continue to address her with title(s) and last name / family name, i.e.

    Dear Prof. X

  • If she didn't sign the email, or just with a greeting but without any part of her name, also stick to

    Dear Prof. X

    unless there is another compelling reason to believe she wants to be addressed differently. (E.g., she explicitly mentioned it in the body of the email.)

As buffy mentioned, academic titles and given names without the family name don't go together. So if she were to sign her first email to me with

Cheers,

Prof. Y1

I'd be rather baffled and wouldn't be sure how to address her in a reply.

This rule of thumb applies outside of academia, too. (In absence of academic or other titles, use "Mr." or "Ms." as appropriate with last names.)


While my experience stems from Switzerland, I believe it can (regarding this) be applied to all of the "western world", thus to the US as well. While even western countries and cultures (and sometimes, individuals) can be very different in when what person allows what other person to be on (uni- or bilateral) first-name basis with them, the way of signalling this in signatures is, to my understanding, much more universal.

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    I'm not really sure the side note about PGP signatures is anything more than confusing – Azor Ahai Dec 12 '19 at 3:28
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    ‘ I believe it can (regarding this) be applied to all of the "western world" ’ – it's probably ok to apply it everywhere, but e.g. here in Norway it's so overwhelmingly common to address people simply by given name that I wouldn't worry to answer in that way, even if her mail wasn't signed at all. – leftaroundabout Dec 12 '19 at 13:40
  • What if the professor signs the email with just their initials? (I had that happen when my PhD supervisor was replying later on in a chain of emails) – Jan Dec 12 '19 at 17:00
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    @Jan I'd expand each initial to the part of their name it stands for, then again apply the rules from my answer. (Off course, that won't work if their first name and family name start with the same letter and they sign with a single initial. If in doubt, use title + family name.) – das-g Dec 13 '19 at 4:27
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Stick with Professor X until you get a blindingly obvious cue. It will not cause offence even if you missed a hidden cue that just Y1 would be appropriate.

As a male, white former academic married to a (woman) professor, there is another unfortunate dynamic to be aware of. Unless Professor X has been extraordinarily lucky, she will have doubtless experienced at some point in her career being taken less seriously by someone due to her gender, and this may well have translated into that person addressing her informally by first name, uninvited, while continuing to address her male peers formally. While this has nothing to do with your situation, a too-early uninvited transition to informality may -- not necessarily, but more likely -- set off niggles of concern than in someone else who is less likely to have had to ever deal with this unfortunate dynamic.

  • You do not make it clear how being white is related to the question or your answer. – Itsme2003 Dec 12 '19 at 6:37
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    What’s “blindingly obvious”? In my view (and my experience), an email saying “Hi YourFirstName, … Regards, MyFirstName” is, and it won’t get more blindingly obvious than that. – Konrad Rudolph Dec 12 '19 at 12:18
  • @ltsme2003, given my attributes (gender, race, in my case perhaps also physical size and loud booming voice -- I don't know), I've never personally had any problems with having my professional expertise and position respected. Academics of other genders and races often have, or have experienced disparate treatment versus peers like me. Informality of address, uninvited, seems to often be a "tell". That understandably makes them more sensitive to this than I am, even if such informality does not always imply lack of respect. – Houska Dec 12 '19 at 13:22
  • @Konrad Rudolph, as I revisit this, I agree with other answerers that the signature (manually typed, not automated) is also a good clue. As is tone of the email. If the sum total of these is "blindingly obvious", first-name-away. If in doubt, continuing formal won't hurt. – Houska Dec 12 '19 at 13:26
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From my experience I think that it should be fine to reply address them with their first name. (Given the fact that the professor was raised or long term living in the US.)

Where I live (Belgium), the general trend is to address someone using a formal greeting, most likely with a last name. Especially when addressing someone with a higher status. (Could be age, seniority or rank.) People will often explicitly invite you to use their first name, and even specify in what contexts it would be fine to do so. In the UK however I experienced quite the opposite, there professors would feel uncomfortable if a senior student or PhD student would address them with anything but their first name. Germany again on the other end of the spectrum. So very depending on culture.

We also had a few professors from the US living in Belgium teaching us. They would also invite us to address them by their first name. Well realizing that to some it could feel uncomfortable, they did not insist! And I also had an American housemate that was very surprised by our formal distance.

In short: If the professor is originally from the US or has been living there for a long time, I think it should be totally fine to use their first name. If their is evidence of the contrary, I'd try to find out about their local culture.

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    +1. The issue is not that the professor called OP by their first name; the issue is that OP is a post-doc (candidate). At this point, they should not be acting like a student anymore; different rules apply. In the US, in most cases, that means addressing professors by their first names. – cag51 Dec 12 '19 at 18:17
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In Germany, I would write "Dear Ms. X" as a less formal way, because Prof. X really sounds a bit too formal if they call you by your first name but in the USA they seem to be less formal. We had a Professor from there teaching programming for a while and he told us we can just call him by his first name so we did that (was computer science though, don't know if that is true for all fields).

  • For a UK perspective this seems wrong. "Prof X" is correct because it's their name with a correct title; firstname is correct because it's their name (but possibly a little informal); "Ms. X" is incorrect because it isn't their title, so it would be a worse option than the other 2. Obviously this is culture dependent, so doesn't apply everywhere – DavidW Dec 12 '19 at 16:13
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    The US is certainly less formal than Germany, generally, and if you are told to call him by his first name, then do so. But we aren't so informal as to ignore earned titles, especially of superiors and potential employers. And calling someone with a doctorate or an earned academic title "Ms" or "Mr" is just odd (here, anyway). I don't think I've ever been "Mr. Buffy" in any professional context. But "permission" to use given names is pretty common. – Buffy Dec 12 '19 at 16:27
  • In Germany it's different, for example no one calls each other Dr. X here in informal contexts outside of medical doctors at the hospital, because many people in academia have one anyways. – Konrad Höffner Dec 12 '19 at 16:30
  • From my experience in Germany, I agree that titles are dropped at a certain level of informality. However, be careful when addressing women without their earned title, as - generally speaking - they have been and still often are underestimated. Dropping the title could be taken as if you assumed that a woman is less likely to hold an academic degree and more likely to be the secretary. – henning -- reinstate Monica Dec 12 '19 at 20:09

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