I just got hired for a TA role as an undergrad. Normally, I would refer to a professor as Professor LastName if I'm talking to them in a "professor" capacity, or as Dr. LastName if talking to them in any other capacity. However, given the closer role I will have this semester, and that many grad students (all the other TAs) generally call professors by their first name, I'm unsure of what proper etiquette should be.

I know generally asking is the best solution, but there are very few times where the professor stands on their ego enough to say "you must call me by my title", even if they prefer the title to their first name. The prof in question is particularly prone to this sort of behavior (based on hearsay), hence the reluctance to email.

To clarify some comments, I normally stick to calling any professor by their title. However, every other TA is calling the professor by first name (although they are all part of his group). The entire situation of an undergrad being a TA is unusual enough. I don't have the familiarity with the prof that the other TAs have, but it also feels awkward to be the only person calling the professor by their title.

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    You answer your own question when you say (I think rightly): "...there are very few times where the professor stands on his ego enough to say "you must call me by my title" even if they prefer the title to their first name." The most natural course is then to default to calling them by a formal title and waiting for them to correct you to something more informal. If they never do, then just keep using the formal title. Also look for how they sign emails that are sent only to you. If they sign with just their first name, it's a signal that they are OK with you referring to them in that way. Commented Jan 20, 2021 at 21:59
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    Your country? In mine (and I have a hard time imaginig where this strategy could be wrong), you'd use the formal form until invited otherwise. Or ask the other TAs how they do it...
    – user111388
    Commented Jan 20, 2021 at 22:41
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    There are plenty of reasons besides ego for a professor to express the preference that people call them by their title. But even if it were ego that motivated that preference: is it so important to you not to do so that you would want to irritate an egotistical person in charge of your job? Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 6:04
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    knowing your country is definitely necessary information here because these sorts of cultural questions vary hugely. In fact, what even constitutes a "professor" is very different in the UK & US ("professor" in the UK sense only really refers to the equivalent of tenured professors in the US, with everyone else having a variety of other job titles but generally being "doctor Smith" rather than "professor Smith")
    – Tristan
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 10:15
  • Just to stress how much it varies: I'd actively correct anybody who called me "sir" or "professor" (they're both strictly incorrect), and would be rather weirded out by any coworker (which a TA is, regardless of their other status) calling me "doctor" (or for that matter anything other than my first name) unless they were introducing a talk that I was giving. Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 13:25

6 Answers 6


This has a cultural element so it varies. Some places tend to be quite formal and others not so. My perspective is the US.

But as an undergrad you probably shouldn't make assumptions and use a title until told otherwise. Of course, you can also ask.

I normally expected my undergrad and even master's students to be fairly formal as I think a certain separation is helpful to them since it is occasionally necessary to be an authority figure. But I accepted things like "doc" or Dr. B" from those who worked closely with me.

When I was in the PhD program I was the only one who called many of the faculty by their first names (not my advisor, though). My fellow students (also TAs) were all more formal, but I was a special case, joining at an older age with a young faculty. I insisted my own doctoral students called me by my given name. But many of them resisted, wanting to be more formal.

But, if you are working closely with a faculty member it is good to just ask.

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    Was this in a mathematics department? I am quite surprised, when I was doing my math ph.D. in the US I don't think I ever met a ph.D. student that was not on first name terms with their advisor... Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 12:33
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    @DenisNardin, yes, math. But my advisor was a very reserved and distinguished older European (Czech) man. And quite a while ago, also. Your profile pic suggests a quite different generation.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 12:37
  • Thank you for the good advice, Dr. Buffy!
    – KingLogic
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 22:46

In my environment (Italy, engineering university), I would expect students to refer formally to me as "prof. X". In many cases (PhD students, master thesis students that I supervise, etc.) I will ask them to call me by first name. So, my suggestion is: start formally, unless the professor tells you otherwise.


I'd recommend simply asking. "Excuse me, I don't want to be rude at any point, but how would you like us TAs/me to refer to you?" I've done this before and it's perfectly fine.


This is an extended "specify the country" comment, but as it expands the perspective of the two answers I see, here we go. The question is country-, discipline-, and also community-specific. Across Europe, there are maths faculties in which "Professor X", or even "sir" will ring too formal, and there are those where omitting the whole "your excellency the archchancellor" just once may rub someone the wrong way. It also sometimes happens that a direct question "how should I address you" may put the person in question in an uncomfortable position, especially if they are socially awkward (and I do know such rare extreme cases among mathematicians, but this is something rather easy to spot), making for a bad first impression.

If that would be the case, or if you feel that in your environment defaulting to the professor's full title is not the way to go, I would advice to observe other people in your position at your faculty, and ask them about it. You note that other TAs are older, but they will have more insight in what's done and what's not than we could: you can't go wrong following the local norm, the keyword being local.

Also, let me say that in my language the professor/doctor lost most of its teacher/scientist distinctions that your question implies, and instead convey seniority - and thus a misplaced "doctor" may be (mis)construed as an affront. But clearly your environment is different, so I wouldn't worry about that layer of complication.

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    Are you sure “sir” is used anywhere in European academia? To me this has a ring of either American military superior, or British knighthood. Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 8:32
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    "Sir" is in common use in schools in the UK to address a male teacher. "Sir [Name]" would imply they're a knight, but just "sir" comes across as a generic respectful address to someone senior to you. It's related to the military-superior use, but it's used in somewhat formal contexts - some schools, staff speaking to customers in some shops, hotels and restaurants, and so on. I'd be more surprised to see that at the university level than in primary or secondary education, but there may well be countries with more formal norms that use that kind of language for university teaching staff.
    – LizWeir
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 9:18
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    'Maybe for once someone will call me "sir" without adding, "You're making a scene."'
    – DavidW
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 12:54
  • This is what I normally do, but the situation of having an undergrad TA is extremely unusual. All other TAs are part of the professor's group. Please see the last paragraph in the question for more details. I think what happened was that the professor's class is too large for only his group to manage, so they reached out to someone else (me). As to why they chose me over any other student, grad or undergrad, I can only speculate (perhaps vainly).
    – user760900
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 18:13
  • My understanding is that in UK English sir is used where in other languages one uses the respectful pronoun (e.g. Sie in German, lei in Italian, vous in French etc.) Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 10:30

Be formal with Dr or Professor until they tell you to use their first name.


There are some deeply rooted prejudices that may be at play, depending on your discipline, so it's best to just ask what they prefer.

Start from information given by the professor. How do they sign their emails? If they sign them "Firstname", you should ask if it's ok to address them as "Firstname".

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