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I've heard that after the first email, I need to switch from Dear Dr. X to Dear Firstname.

I've also heard that "Dear Firstname" is only for the professor that I actually met in person.

The "rule" I use depends on how they address me and how do they sign the email. If they call me with full name OR they sign the email formally with their full name, then I will use Dear Professor Lastname. If they use "Dear Firstname" to address me and they informally sign their email with a simple firstname, I will email "Dear Firstname" back.

However, most professors go down to the informal "Dear Firstname" and signing with firstname in the first round of email exchange. I am not sure if I should follow it right away after the first email or not. If I continue to use their formal title, would they be not amused?

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8 Answers 8

39

In contrast to some of the other answers, let me suggest that, unless you are a peer of the other person, that you stick to the formal address until explicitly invited otherwise. Don't make any assumptions at all.

I always preferred that my undergraduate and masters level students addressed me formally, and never by first name. This was to emphasize that we weren't yet peers and their relationship to me was one of student and teacher.

On the other hand, with doctoral students (those already in the program) we, the faculty generally, tried to insist that students use first names. This was to emphasize that they were now "peers" in the sense of collaborative researchers, if not formal rank. Some students from more formal cultures resisted, but we were mostly successful.

But if you are a supplicant in some sense, such as in seeking an advisor, then the formal is always safe until the informal is invited, no matter how one signs their name.

For peers, on the other hand, these assumptions are generally benign.

Yes, I realize that I'm very old, but I'm also quite informal myself and times are changing. Nowadays youngsters might refer to parents by first name, though it would have been unthinkable when I was younger. Mom was always "mom", never "Liz", and for the same reasons as above. We weren't peers and emphasizing that can be important in learning.

So, call me "Dr. Dog" until I invite "Call me Buffy". And note that a lot of the people you will be addressing are closer to my age than yours. It isn't (just) a matter of respect for the person, but one of respect for the nature of the relationship.


I have no real advice on the "Dear..." aspect. Even for me it seems archaic, though I doubt that most people even notice it anymore since it is just a bit of boilerplate without much meaning.

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  • 2
    I'm skeptical this should be the accepted answer. At present it has ⅓ the votes of the highest-voted answer, and it seems to focus mostly on the answerer's personal preferences rather than more generally.
    – Reid
    Jun 30 at 17:48
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    @Reid, I'm on the other side of such a split also for other questions. I also have several accepted answers with negative vote totals. It is the OP that gets to decide which answer is most useful to them. The rest of us don't get a vote. You've been here longer than I have, actually, so probably know that. Note that I gave (and often give) personal information for context to show how some things might work in practice.
    – Buffy
    Jun 30 at 19:40
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    Absolutely. If the professor doesn't want you to call them Dr. Surname, they'll tell you so. If they never tell you "please call me Given-name", then that's your answer. Jun 30 at 21:51
  • Wait, so your full name is Buffy Dog?
    – Passer By
    Jul 2 at 7:05
  • @PasserBy, woof.
    – Buffy
    Jul 2 at 10:49
45

The "rules of etiquette" about titles in academia are highly local (both geographically and in terms of the field), and even then they are at best rough guidelines with a lot of variation from person to person. So there simply is no "correct" rule when to use Dr., Prof., last name, or first name.

Your best bet is generally to observe how formally the other side writes and adopt based on how you see them behave (maybe erring on the side of slightly more formal, if you are unsure). My personal rule of thumb is "if the other side signs with their first name and/or addresses me per first name, I also use that - as long as the other side remains highly formal, I do the same".

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  • Thank you xLeitix. It is for USA.
    – High GPA
    Jun 29 at 6:50
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    @HighGPA This is a good answer for USA professional etiquette.
    – fectin
    Jun 29 at 16:42
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    In Germany it is Prof. Dr. not Dr. Prof. Jun 29 at 17:38
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    @MaartenBuis there is a , between "Dr." and "Prof." in the question, to indicate that you choose one (as one would in the US). But that is just proving the point that the rules of etiquette in these areas are "highly local"
    – Esther
    Jun 29 at 18:53
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    Culture surely is highly local. I know of two United States universities ten miles apart. At one, everyone was on a first-name basis with everyone else. At the other, everyone with academic rank, however low, was "Professor" or "Doctor." (These two institutions have merged. It's still that way; the two campuses have completely different cultures.)
    – Bob Brown
    Jun 29 at 20:44
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Your rule is valid. If I call you "Dear High" and sign with "Thomas", I am proposing to go on a first name basis. If I call you "Dear Ms. GPA" or "Dear Ms. High" (because I am confused about your name), I am not expected to be addresses as "Dear Thomas". If you are in a conversation chain, you can also just ask. Finally, going to a first-name basis wrongly is more dangerous than staying with "Dear Professor".

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    So always follow the last name is the safe bet?
    – High GPA
    Jun 29 at 6:50
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    But what if the professor writes "Dear High" but then just uses their full signature block, without signing by first name. Does this mean that the professor wants to use the student first name but expects for formal naming back?
    – Ben
    Jun 29 at 7:58
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    @Ben Hard to say. Might just be lazy.
    – cheersmate
    Jun 29 at 15:06
  • The rule as stated in this answer is what I follow. But then you have instances like one of my kids' teacher who calls me "Dear Martin" and signs "Mrs. XX". Jun 29 at 21:23
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    @HighGPA FWIW I believe it's safer, if there's any doubt, to err on the side of waiting - there is little to no negative repercussion for being more formal than expected for a little while, it's extremely common and won't raise so much as an eyebrow in most cases. Jun 30 at 19:51
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I was a computer science professor at two different west-coast universities for a total of nine years. Here are my thoughts on the matter:

  • I almost never got a letter starting with "Dear". Maybe it's a west coast thing but I would find using the introductory prefix to be a bit odd and overly formal.

  • My preference for opening correspondence was to start with their title (i.e., either "Professor" or "Dr."). Technically, students should aim for "Professor" over "Dr." since it's a higher mark of distinction but that nuance is lost on most people. Plus, any professor who cares that much is probably a bit of a jerk and should be avoided.

  • Getting to your original question about how to address: You can always go with how they sign their name. If they drop down to their first name, you may respond in kind. If they respond with something formal, continue to be formal. However, even if they respond with their first name, it's completely fine to continue to address them using their formal title. I never got upset with someone using my formal title and actually found it to be somewhat charming.

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    Ok so staying formal is the safe bet.
    – High GPA
    Jun 29 at 18:11
  • Professor being a higher mark of distinction than Dr. is sensitive to context. If there is a significant number of faculty without doctorates, which may be the case depending on the institution/field/country, then Dr. may be higher.
    – SolveIt
    Jun 29 at 21:30
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    How would you start a work-related email then? Jun 30 at 13:09
  • Again, caveat that my understanding is that west coast non-religious universities tended to be more casual than central or east coast universities. For example, a former chair of mine was fond of wear flip-flops around the office and in class. In this environment, I would say the norm when communicating with colleagues would be to address the person by their first name immediately if I had met them at least once before. If I did not, I would start with Dr. XYZ and then move onto first name after initial contact.
    – acarteas
    Jul 1 at 5:09
3

A rule that works universally is to reflect back what's sent your way.

When in doubt, go with formal. But like, if the prof uses your first name and/or signs with their first name, then it's more likely to be ok to use their first name.

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This might also be a culture or language issue of confusing formality with familiarity. In a language with, for example, different pronouns for formal and informal it might be considered rude or stilted to not switch to the informal form at some point. Using someone's first name isn't informal, it's familiar.

You are only on a first name basis with someone if you are close to them, either personally or professionally. Family or friends or direct coworkers are familiar. Or they may specifically tell you to use their first name.

If someone is explicitly a professor (not "another professor") I don't think that counts as closeness, especially given the possible power dynamic. So you probably should include last name in almost all forms of address as a given. Whether Dr or Professor is appropriate is more subtle.

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This is going to depend on region, but in the US I'd wait until you get an email back signed with a first name, which can fairly be interpreted as an OK for a first-name basis. Otherwise, simply "Professor" would be less formal than "Dr. X", but is acceptable

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    That's just a habit from rush-signing loads of departmental memos, formal letters to colleagues, etc. Don't read anything into it as regards your professional relationship with him/her. Keep it Prof X or Dr Y all the way is my opinion. You'll have enough first named people outside of work to cherish in your limited time with them.
    – Trunk
    Jun 30 at 12:56
  • Sorry my previous comment contains a typo.
    – High GPA
    Jul 2 at 4:03
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    I think your rule works for US: wait until the professor sign the letter with first name. So if the professor, in his very first email reply to me, sign his email with a first name. Then, shall I just call him by his first name right away?
    – High GPA
    Jul 2 at 4:04
  • Yes. If the prof doesn't want it that way, they can correct you, but it's their mistake that triggered it. Jul 2 at 15:43
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Never.

It's a professional relationship, not a personal one.

You'll see other staff occasionally firstname each other but that is between them.

You'll hear some students and fellows firstname their supervisor. But don't compound their folly by imitating it.

Also be aware that much of your communication with academic staff will be within earshot of others in the department, i.e. office staff, other students, other faculty, etc. You are setting an example. So make it a good one.

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  • Professional relationships can remain professional while being on a first-name basis. It varies a lot by region, by profession, etc. It might be "never" in certain places/times/environments, but definitely not generically speaking, even within academia. Jun 30 at 16:32
  • What is the countries are you referring to?
    – High GPA
    Jun 30 at 17:27
  • US, Canada, ZA, Aus, NZ, EU countries. And I believe many more. I don't think there are many professors who achieved the status they have who like being firstnamed by postgraduate students. And I see no advantage to the student in their doing so. Professors who espouse informality tend to neglect the disagreeable obligations of their job and redefine others according to how much they effort they are comfortable with. Be careful with such people: avoid them whenever possible. There are no short-cuts to achievement.
    – Trunk
    Jun 30 at 17:35
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    If what you write reflects your own experience, then there must be huge differences between the various academic disciplines – what you describe in your answer and your comment doesn't even remotely resemble what I've witnessed so far (drawing from my experiences with universities in the US, Canada, the UK, the Netherlands, and Germany).
    – Schmuddi
    Jun 30 at 21:10
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    Speaking as an academic from Australia, at least in engineering this kind of formality doesn't really have the effect that you want. Unless there is a specific reason for formality, or they have arrived recently from a country that's really into titles, it personally gives me the subconscious impression that I'm talking to a schoolchild rather than an aspiring professional. In other fields things might be different, but I have hardly ever heard anyone who hadn't recently arrived from overseas refer to staff with titles, to the point that it would stick out like a sore thumb.
    – Lll
    Jun 30 at 23:22

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