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I am an assistant professor outside the US. I want to email an associate professor in another university in the US, who I haven't talked to before. He's American. It's just because I want to discuss his paper. I agree with his paper, so the discussion will be most likely "nice".

Which is better? "Dear Professor {last name}" or "Dear {first name}"?

Does your answer change if he's a young assistant professor or an old almost-retiring full professor?

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    The better greeting probably comes down to personal preference, and I doubt either will cause issues in the US. I'm a PhD student, and I always address people with their first name when I first contact them. This has always seemed to be received fine. Dec 14, 2021 at 4:11
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    From a CS perspective: if I see "Dear Dr ... " or "Dear Professor ..." in the first line of the email I assume the person is either an undergrad or otherwise completely unfamiliar with academia in the English speaking world/that its likely spam.
    – Oxonon
    Dec 14, 2021 at 15:00
  • "I agree with his paper, so the discussion will be most likely "nice"." I am not sure what you meant with that sentence. Is their "paper" a statement of political stance rather than a research paper?
    – Stef
    Dec 14, 2021 at 17:39
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    @Stef I think the OP just means that they are not intending to criticize the paper's findings, but are just trying to learn more about the topic. Basically, they aren't sending a message like "I think your paper is wrong for reasons X, Y, and Z", which if not phrased delicately could offend someone.
    – Tyberius
    Dec 14, 2021 at 19:39
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    I am French and it would always be "Cher Dr <last name>", or "Monsieur/Madame". @Oxonon - if someone used my first name I would assume complete unfamiliarity of the French academia world or spam :)
    – WoJ
    Dec 16, 2021 at 16:00

4 Answers 4

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When in doubt, play it safe.

Addressing the professor using "Professor (lastname)" will do no harm to anyone, while some may take offence to using the first name. In any first instance of communication, I always advocate the formal tone of "Dear Professor", and keep an eye on their articulation of the salutation. If they write

Email content bla bla ...
Best regards,
First-name

then that is your sign to start addressing the person by their first name (in case they are superior/senior). If they do not, continue with the formal tone. In the other case, if you happen to be senior, use the common tactics in military: address an unknown junior officer with a formal tone, then when they reply, start using their first name to show that the seniority has been established.

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    The last comment may vary by service. When I was a junior officer in the Navy, both enlisted personnel and senior officers called me Mr. Guyer or LT Guyer. I called senior officers by their title ("WEPS", "ENG", "XO", "Captain"). I called enlisted by their rank and name ("Petty Officer So-and-so" or "Chief Hooziwatzitz". The only people I was on a first-name basis with were other junior officers (and not them either in duty situations/in front of other ranks).
    – jeguyer
    Dec 14, 2021 at 14:32
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    @jeguyer. Thanks for the clarification. I still read that the form of address for someone above vs. below is clearly different. Dec 14, 2021 at 18:16
  • Other thoughts: (1) the probability that someone expects to be addressed with a title/last name by an academic stranger may vary with field (in pure math, pretty low); (2) some people don't actually like to be called by their legal first name, even if they use it for publishing.
    – Kimball
    Dec 15, 2021 at 15:27
  • Note that 'Dear' is already toned-down formal, the 'proper' formal (that I have used in the past) may replace 'Dear' with 'Respected'. I do not recommend that unless culturally normed or if you're addressing a Nobel laureate.
    – quantum
    Dec 15, 2021 at 18:43
  • "Culturally normed", indeed. I have never seen a letter addressed to "Respected <so-and-so>", nor previously even been aware of that particular formalism. But I agree that the "Dear" salutation is of medium formality. Dec 15, 2021 at 18:47
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I'm in CS, and my exchanges are always like this: I start with "Dear Dr X, my name is First-name Last-name, and here's who I am and what I contact you about. Best regards, Firstname". This is both respectful and, at the same time, sets the tone that you aren't interested in pointless formalities. Without exception, the exchange continues like this: they reply with "Dear Firstname, ..., Regards, Charles", I reply with "Hi Charles".

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In the US, the only time "Dear {first name}" is appropriate is when communicating between established friends, coworkers or family. It is never appropriate in any professional setting -- academia or business -- until you actually are established friends.

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    @Foundling I think your suggestion misrepresents Stack Exchange's rules. Comments are ephemeral and meant only to request clarifications and improvements to the question. Any attempt to reply to the matter at hand should go in an answer, even if it is short. People don't always respect these rules, but that's how the system works. Dec 15, 2021 at 8:51
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    That's probably location specific (and the question is indeed about someone in the US). The UK seems to be a bit more relaxed in that respect (it may vary depending on the circumstances).
    – Bruno
    Dec 15, 2021 at 10:12
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    I think you're entirely incorrect there for many, many countries. It's perfectly acceptable in most settings in the UK (and a lot of the rest of Europe) to just go "Hi Bob", even if you don't know them Dec 15, 2021 at 15:23
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    @CareyGregory - I'm not even sure that's true in a US context, I've worked with people in the US plenty and never found them to expect anyone to use anything except their first name Dec 15, 2021 at 15:30
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    @Persistence In this context I'm afraid you are wrong. I'm a US citizen who has spent 35 years in business and academia here. I think I have a wee bit better sense of this than someone who has worked with people in the US "plenty." Dec 15, 2021 at 15:36
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Prof.

In my experience this is the standard academic address to someone you don’t know. E.G., This is what journal editors tend to use when asking for reports. No one is likely to be offended. Even in countries where more complicated/formal titles are the norm.

Of course, “Hi” or “Dear” are mostly fine too. But I have heard of (older?) people being offended on occasion.

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