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I have worked with my adviser for a few months as a graduate student. Everyone, including her other graduate students, seems to call her by her first name. She never expressed a preference to me, so I've been calling her "Dr. Smith". She signs her emails with her first name.

I am worried that I am being awkward. I don't mind calling her "Dr. Smith", but during meetings where other students are present, it would be jarring to call her "Dr. Smith" while other students use her first name in the same conversation. So far, I have managed to avoid this issue by choosing my words very strategically to avoid directly addressing my adviser at all.

I don't wish my adviser to think that I am making some sort of statement by being unnecessarily formal. On the other hand, I don't wish to appear too informal either. Apart from that, once you've addressed someone by their title for several months, unceremoniously switching to their first name out of the blue seems like it would be very strange.

Is there any tactful way of resolving this predicament, besides waiting and hoping for the adviser to express a preference? I am in the US.

12 Answers 12

101

Excuse me, do you prefer me to call you Dr Smith or Ellen?

A polite question will solve all your doubts.

  • Kind of a tangent, but what about professors other than your adviser? I've noticed (in the US) that PhD students still seem to call other professors by their first names too, so does it matter if they're your adviser or not? – Mehrdad Sep 1 '14 at 9:16
  • 1
    @Mehrdad I bet it depends on the culture they are and they come from. So, the same technique applies. Ask them. – Davidmh Sep 1 '14 at 9:50
  • Do you expect they would ever reject being called by their first name? i.e. I'm not sure everyone would ask to be addressed by their formal title even if that's what they might prefer... – Mehrdad Sep 1 '14 at 9:58
  • @Mehrdad where I have been, first name basis is the norm for everybody, from high school to posdoc, so I cannot tell. In any case, if they would prefer something different that what they have explicitly told you, it is their fault. – Davidmh Sep 1 '14 at 11:08
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    Note: Unless it is her first name, don't call your Ph. D advisor Ellen. – Zibbobz Jun 18 '15 at 14:25
64

I really don't think this is close to such a big issue as you seem to make it.

What's really bothering me in your question is the following:

So far, I have managed to avoid this issue by choosing my words very strategically to avoid directly addressing my adviser at all.

You are investing way too much effort into addressing this non-issue. As I see it, you have 3 options, all of them entirely valid:

  1. Ask her, as Davidmh says.
  2. Silently switch to calling her by first name. Everybody does it, why wouldn't you?
  3. Go on calling her by last name, until specifically prompted by her to go for first name instead. You don't mind, she apparently does not mind, so why bother?

Literally all three are probably ok. Just decide for one option, and then start thinking about more important things (such as your research).

32

All other answers are correct. One note to add is that if you are coming from different cultures, it is possible that your advisor does in fact feel awkward about it, but is not very comfortable with stating so explicitly. So it's likely best to get this straightened out as soon as possible.

Otherwise, this flowchart provides the answer ;-). On a more serious note, you seem to be in the situation that the student in the comic is. In my opinion, avoiding to address him/her at all is worse than either being too formal or too informal.

Comic
Source: PhD Comics. Do not take seriously.

  • 3
    Less formal than Prof/Dr but not as disrespectful as their first name? How about "sensei"? You might even get bonus points for being "clever." – Kyle Strand Aug 28 '14 at 18:22
16

I can't imagine that someone who signs her e-mails to you with only her first name would object if you addressed her by her first name.

10

If all her other grad students use her first name, you can too. It would be a very strange person who let some of her grad students use her first name and insisted on others using Dr Surname.

  • Depends. Sometimes there are out-of-work or prior relations, e.g. a professor-doctorand pair may have a (informal) history as doctorand-undergrad. – Raphael Aug 28 '14 at 13:01
5

There's one other option that hasn't been mentioned: call her either one, depending on the situation.

You've been calling her "Dr. Smith," but, apparently, she has never said, "Please, call me Linda." Therefore, she doesn't seem to mind being called Dr. Smith.

In meetings, everyone else calls her "Linda," but she doesn't seem to bristle, nor has she said, "Will you please show some respect and stop calling me Linda!"

I interpret this to mean she is unfazed by either one.

Nothing says you need to flip a switch, and always use "Dr. Smith," or always use "Linda."

In meetings where everyone is calling her Linda, call her Linda. When you are in a one-on-one meeting in her office, call her Dr. Smith, if that's what you're more comfortable with.

I work alongside several people I have a "part-time first-name" relationship with. I might call them by their first name in some situations, and use their more formal title in others. It depends largely on their rank and position, my rank and position, the formality of the meeting, and who else is in the room.

Your advisor seems to be someone who doesn't mind either name. Be glad you're working with such an adaptable professor.

4

Don't worry too much about it. If everyone else calls her by her first name, and she signs her emails with her first name, then she clearly doesn't mind being called by it.

Switching suddenly to calling her by her first name will be far less awkward than avoiding addressing her at all.

3

Despite I think that your question is already answered in the other two related questions in this site (Should your PhD students call you by your first name? and Is it acceptable for me (an undergrad) to call professors and other research professionals by their first names?); I am posting my answer as follows.

  1. Go back to the culture of the country in which you are studying. In some cultures, it is very normal to call a professor (also a boss, teacher, someone who is older, etc) by his first name. For instance, in my culture, it is very odd to call a professor by his first name because even students are sometimes called by their last name.

  2. Look at other students of your advisor who are in your level and see how they call her. If they call her by her first name, you can also call her by her first name too. You are a student too. What's the difference? But I advice you to look at the students at your level. Perhaps post-docs or PhDs call their advisor another way.

  3. Ask her directly and politely. Try not to complicate things for yourself. Ask her politely the way she prefers to be called. I remember when I wanted to write a professor's surname in an email and I was not sure how should I spell his name correctly, I asked him and he was happy to tell me the correct way of his name spelling.

3

First criterion is "fit in". Do what others do.

On another hand, from the opposite point, it may be worthwhile to think of whether you want to use honorific forms, however subtle, of address. One might not want to address one's grandmother exaggerately-familiarly, nor one's grandfather, nor father, nor mother, ... nor significant mentor?

  • 1
    And, back-around here another time: the real point is the respect expressed in the nuances of form-of-address. Duh. It is possible to be light-hearted in very positive ways and "yet" express respect. I do like the "Dr. G." I received when I was still young enough to contribute positively to the math dept softball team... I wasn't a bum on the team, and not "the hero", either, but/and, still, I think it was a psychologically good balance that the (20-something) grad students decided to give me a slight honorific... True, these things are subtle, and vary among cultures... but... be nice... :) – paul garrett Jun 17 '15 at 23:52
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Yes

Adults call other adults by their first names. You're an adult and she's an adult so you call her by her first name.

(Cultural conventions vary by country but certainly in the anglophone nations, this holds true pretty well)

  • 2
    Clearly you have never been to the UK (-: – tripleee Aug 29 '14 at 8:19
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    Er, I'm English. I'm doing my PhD in the UK! – Jack Aidley Aug 29 '14 at 13:36
  • I feared as much (-: – tripleee Aug 29 '14 at 13:39
2

She signs her emails with her first name

Everyone, including her other graduate students, seems to call her by her first name

These are strong indications this person would be comfortable with you using her first name. But even if she says, either in response to a question, or on her own initiative, "Pronce, please call me Mary," you may not be comfortable doing so, based on your own cultural upbringing. This happened to me. After finishing a Master's in the midwest, I moved to East coast, where I was the only one calling people Professor So-and-so. It took a few years for me to re-train myself.

(Sample question you could pose: "Do you have a preference about what name you go by with your students?")

But that's okay. I remember some advice given to me in Latin America when I was struggling with choosing between the formal and informal modes of address in Spanish: "What matters isn't what you call the person, it's what you say, and how you treat the person."

-9

A person must never refer to there boss or somebody they work with who is in a higher position than you by their first name, if one of my employees called me by my first name, I would be deeply upset, it is unprofessional to use your bosses first name while talking to him/her, always use mr/dr/prof. [last name]!

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    You should include details in support of your answers such as if never using a first name is the norm in your country as it may be a cultural thing. For example in my home country Ireland we would be very casual and would nearly never refer to anyone but by their first name. – gman Aug 28 '14 at 18:18
  • I am on a first name basis with my boss and the company CEO. It depends on a huge number of factors including the company and region culture. – user21268 Aug 30 '14 at 11:54
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    'never' never works. For instance, husband and wife, wife is in a higher position than the husband. According to your pronouncement, the husband must never use her first name. I worked for a US company in the US for over 25 years and never heard anyone called by their last name with a title. – John Johnson Sep 3 '14 at 2:28
  • There are a lot of fields where respect comes from what you can and not which formal position you have. Together with a normal respect for other peoples, this goes quite well and enhances collaboration! You should may give it a try;) – Mayou36 Feb 4 '17 at 14:55

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