I am currently doing a PhD. My professor, which is my first supervisor, is a man. My second supervisor is a woman and works for my first supervisor. The etiquette and the courtesy, at least in my country, requires to greet the female first, e.g.:

Dear Dr. Female,
Dear Prof. Dr. Male,

This sounds wrong to me, since my professor is my main supervisor. Can I greet my professor first without violating etiquette?

My PhD position is located in Germany; my research field is mathematics and I write everything in English.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 1:37

5 Answers 5


Hierarchy beats Gender in Germany

In a professional context in Germany, hierarchy beats gender, at least according to the Knigge, which is an etiquette guide of nontrivial influence. This goes as far as to be gender-blind. Only rank is important.

So you would address the highest ranking person first, in this case, your professor.

  • 31
    This answer is correct (+1), but I would like to add that it is likely that your professors will not notice or care who is mentioned first. Of course this depends on the professor(s) in question. Germany can be a little strict sometimes and it doesn't hurt to err on the side of caution (hence +1), but most people I met (including many Germans) would not care at all.
    – Louic
    Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 12:40
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    @TheoreticalMinimum: Some care, others don't. Thus, assuming equal rank, greeting the woman first is the only safe choice if your goal is not to offend anyone.
    – Heinzi
    Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 17:28
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    @darijgrinberg, "Sehr geehrte Herren und Damen" just sounds wrong.
    – o.m.
    Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 18:14
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    @o.m.: I know, but I never thought to apply the logic when addressing people by their names. Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 18:19
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    Okay I never implied that one should use "Sehr geehrte Herren und Damen". This sounds extremely weird. But if I want to address Mr. Müller and Mrs. Heinz then I don't see any difference between "Sehr geehrter Herr Müller, sehr geehrte Frau Heinz" and "Sehr geehrte Frau Heinz, sehr geehrter Herr Müller". I wouldn't even think about the ordering, it's irrelevant.
    – user117200
    Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 18:31

This may sound flippant but I’m being 100% serious:

You’re doing a PhD in STEM and addressing your supervisors. The customary form of address is “Hi” or, if you have a very formal relationship with your supervisors, “Hello”; not “Dear Prof. Dr. X” — even in the traditionally hierarchical German system.

Starting an email to your supervisor with “Dear Prof. Dr. X” is distinctly weird and risks coming across as off-putting. If you’re not on first-name terms with your supervisors, simply leave off the name entirely from the salutation (i.e. write just “Hello”, not “Hello Xavier”).

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    I think "Hi" or "Hello" is far to informal, given the type of question the OP has (if the OP had an informal relation with their supervisors they wouldn't ask it). I'd only switch to that if I'm on a first-name basis. Otherwise, I'd much rather prefer "Dear. Mr. X" than "Hi Prof. X" in level of politeness - the latter feels oddly impolite (including, and in particular, in German, which is not the question here). I also think that your classification of "Hello" as a "very formal" address is rather odd.
    – user151413
    Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 23:32
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    @user151413 I (strongly) disagree. OP also said all communication is in English. “Hello” is a completely acceptable, neutral email greeting even when you don’t know the interlocutors at all; it’s fine even in a fairly formal context. Once you know the interlocutor, it’s more than fine. — As for calling your supervisor “Prof. Dr.”, that should probably be addressed in a separate question but in OP’s professional context (PhD in STEM in Germany in English) it’s also very unusual, and if I had to guess I’d say that OP is committing a minor social faux-pas doing so. Commented Sep 16, 2020 at 7:39
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    @user91988 I disagree. English is not English. There is a local context. In Germany, I would consider "Hi Prof. X" informal. Not from a student writing from the US, but from a student who has been in Germany for a while. Just as I would find a student who does not know which part of the name is first or last name inappropriate, if they have been around for a while - things might be different in their culture (or english culture, whatever that would even be), but this does not mean you should not try to learn the local standards.
    – user151413
    Commented Sep 16, 2020 at 19:15
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    Although I like this answer – 1. in Germany it's really not that universal to be per du with PhD supervisors. Many professors indeed put all their ≥master students on a “hallo Firstname” basis, but they tend to make this explicit – my master supervisor asked me if I was ok with that. Others do still prefer to stick to the traditional forms. Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 8:28
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    2. There's at least nothing wrong or weird with using a formal style, even if the professor doesn't care about it. Here in Norway, “hei Firstname” is very much the standard and everybody knows it, yet some of my fellow PhD students (one I have in mind is from Pakistan) apperently aren't comfortable with that and will write something like “dear Prof. Firstname” (in a group chat). I do find this somewhat odd myself, but certainly wouldn't say there's anything wrong with preferring a “polite/professional” mode of conversation, regardless if you're the supervisor or student. Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 8:28

In addition to @PhilYardman's point (which is correct) you also need to consider how directly your email addresses whom. This beats both hierarchy and gender: the importance in the style link in @PhilYardman's answer is evaluated in the context of the email.

  • The ones who are primarily addressed (To) come first and are always greeted.
    So, if you primarily write to your secondary supervisor and "only" keep your supervisor informed of this, the greeting starts with "Dear Dr. Second-Supervisor"

  • Those who are only informed (CC):

    • I name them, but usually put that greeting into parentheses. This reminds everyone that more people are reading this email, while also signalling that the ones in parentesis are only notified.
    • It would also be acceptable to not include them in the greeting.
  • If there are further people on BCC, they are not named (that would defeat the purpose of BCC), but you may use a generic greeting - depending on the context and content anywhere between "Dear all" and "Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren" [Dear Madam or Sir - but the German version is in plural], or a group address (Say, "Dear supervisors")

  • I'd adapt the level of formality ("Sehr geehrter Herr Prof. Dr. med. mult. Supervisor" - "Sehr geehrter Herr Prof. Supervisor" - "Lieber Prof. Supervisor" - "Lieber Herr Supervisor" - "Lieber Vorname") to the customs at your institute and to the likes of your supervisors. This varies a lot between fields, institutes and people...
    "Prof. Dr." sounds too formal to me for the STEM fields I work with - but e.g. in the medical field it is AFAIK quite common (and there the position in the hospital would be attached as well "Chefarzt Dr. med.").

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    To me, "Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren" is more what I would use if I don't know who reads this email (similar to "To whom it may concern") - it would be not something I would use to address a set of known people.
    – user151413
    Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 11:59
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    +1 On bcc, you can name people (without defeating the purpose) when the intention is to include them just once, e.g., to thank them for the introduction. (By all means edit to include, if you like.)
    – user2768
    Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 12:00
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    @user151413 Yes, "Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren" is only appropriate for people which you already know, if they are more than three and both female and male (not only male/female!) and you want to address them formally. When addressing one woman and one man with "Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren" this is very odd, when addressing a group of four men with it, then it's just hilarious and stupid. But please don't write something like "Sehr geehrte Damen" if there are only women either. This sounds like you are some wannabe playboy from 60 years ago.
    – user117200
    Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 14:46
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    @cbeleitesunhappywithSX I see your point. I myself (male) would be hesitant to use it despite knowing that they are all women though. I think it has this very old-fashioned undertone, that I hate (not as bad as Fräulein but still). But now when thinking about it I recognize that this is a bit silly, as I would have no issue of addressing a group of men as "Sehr geehrte Herren".
    – user117200
    Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 18:48
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    Concerning your examples, note that in the German Anrede, "Professor" ist always spelled out (in contrast to "Dr."), e. g. "Sehr geehrter Herr Professor X", but "Sehr geehrter Herr Dr. X").
    – erc
    Commented Sep 16, 2020 at 5:53

The etiquette and the courtesy, at least in my country, requires to greet the female first

This answer will be a little bit on the philosophical side (probably too much so for some people’s taste), but I’d like to suggest another way of thinking about the question. Instead of asking what is tantamount to “how can I best conform to what my society expects of me in email greetings?”, you can turn the dilemma around and ask “how can I help dismantle antiquated social norms that assign different genders to predetermined roles, and push society ever so slightly in the direction of being more rational and fair?” In other words, put the focus not on being the best follower, but on being the best leader. Granted, the particular social norm in question is a harmless one, but the point is that it’s part of a larger pattern of gender-aware (or outright sexist) norms which are not all harmless.

If you like the idea of looking at things that way, just write the greeting in the way that seems most logical to you based on the content of your email and your relationships with the two co-advisors.

Of course, the specific dilemma in your question is so trivial that it doesn’t really provide much of an opportunity to be a leader. Whatever you do in this specific situation, I doubt anyone will even notice it, let alone know to interpret your behavior as a conscious attempt at shifting social norms (although if they happen to ask you about it, you can certainly explain the thinking that went into your decision). But I’m mainly suggesting this as a mindset to adopt in similar situations that you may encounter in the future, some of which may be more consequential. In other words, the current situation can be used as a kind of training or practice opportunity to get into the habit of challenging stupid social norms — particularly in a low-stakes environment where no matter what you do, it’s almost certain that nothing bad will happen.

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    I didn't downvote, but I suspect the downvote is due to some people (and cultures) viewing this as not all that trivial. As for me, if it's more than two people, I usually use "All,". If it's two people and I'm not especially concerned, then it'll be alphabetical by whatever I used (if only first names, then alphabetical by first names) and I make sure names in the "To" window are in the same order. If I'm concerned, then I might use something like "X (and also Y)," and put Y in the 'cc' send window and write the email as if I'm talking to X, where X is the primary person for the email. Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 17:45
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    @DaveLRenfro I was fully expecting some downvotes (precisely for the reason you mentioned), so I’m not troubled by it. Indeed, if there’s a culture that thinks it matters a lot that the woman’s name comes first in an email greeting, all the more reason to challenge this outdated belief.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 18:51
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    I haven't downvoted either, but as I wrote in this meta answer trying to dismantle antiquated social norms may cause issues when one has to deal with old timers. Know your enemy first ;-) Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 18:59
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    @MassimoOrtolano good point. Well, all the Germans I know are pretty sensible people, so I assume my advice is mostly harmless in this particular situation. In others, yes, of course breaking norms may come with a cost and one should take that into account when making decisions.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 19:03

In a professional context, it is often acceptable and actually useful to address correspondents using their functional title. In this case I think it would certainly be acceptable to use

 Dear Supervisors,

It sidesteps the issue of order and immediately makes it clear in what capacity you address them. This would of course not be appropriate in the context, e.g., of a course that you are assisting with which may have nothing to do with them being your (research) supervisors.

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