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What is the etiquette for addressing senior research staff and faculty members in an academic setting in the USA? A postdoc is no longer a student but at the same time he or she is (in general) not at the level of senior research engineers/scientists and professors. How should he or she address them ("FirstName" or "Dr. LastName") so that proper respect as well as confidence in one's "above-the-students" position is maintained?

Does it depend on the University, Lab group or the level of experience one has acquired before joining the present postdoc position?

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    This must be field dependent. In computer science, or at least in my subfield and in the departments I've been affiliated with as both student and faculty, most grad students address faculty by their first names, and most faculty strongly encourage this practice. – JeffE Sep 29 '12 at 5:22
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    In my department, it is encouraged that all people address all others by first name, from receptionist to professor. – User 17670 Sep 29 '12 at 15:47
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When I was a grad student, my initial preference was to call faculty "Doctor" or "Professor". At some point (about halfway through, I think) one professor said to me: "If you want them to see you as a peer, you should call the professors the same way that they call each other." At my university, all the professors called each other by their first names (it didn't matter if they were assistant, associate, or full). Since I planned to make a career in academia, I really did want to be viewed as a peer. So I started calling them by their first name (and no one ever told me to do otherwise).

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    I think you have to make that transition as you go along. Unless asked by your advisor to do so, you should refer to them as "Professor," at least to start. Don't start off on a bad footing by assuming equality right off the bat—unless given license to do so. – aeismail Sep 30 '12 at 9:20
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    @aeismail I agree with aeismail. I think it was a mentor of mine who told me this, and it was after I had taken 3 or 4 classes with him. – Dan C Sep 30 '12 at 20:31
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    I disagree; by default, use their first name. Any objection indicates that that they don't think of you as a colleague, in which case you should immediately start calling them "Professor" and start looking for another advisor. (Again, this advice may be country- and field-dependent) – JeffE Sep 30 '12 at 21:00
  • @JeffE: There's a big difference between your primary advisor and other faculty members. I would never have called another professor by her first name until invited. And I believe that it doesn't take into account the issues of differences in "educational upbringing": faculty who didn't get their degrees in the US may view this issue very differently. – aeismail Sep 30 '12 at 21:29
  • A bit of a rhetorical exaggeration: if someone thinks of me as a "colleague", in the sense of "peer", in the sense of "equal", then they'd surely not want me as their advisor. I claim that there is sometimes an unhelpful confusion of the social or moral sense of "peer", with the professional sense. It is not reasonable to use one to argue about the other. – paul garrett Oct 2 '12 at 1:42
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When I was a grad student, I got into the habit of always referring to everyone as "Professor" or "Doctor". The theory was that no one would be insulted by your referring to them as "Professor", whereas some folks would be insulted if you called them by their first name. This worked very well; the few people who wanted to be on a first-name basis always told me so at our first meeting ("Oh, please, call me Bob").

  • I have colleagues who would be insulted to be called anything but their first name. – JeffE Sep 30 '12 at 20:58
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    @JeffE - I met people like that as well, and they let me know at our first meeting. – eykanal Sep 30 '12 at 22:38
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Address senior research staff and faculty members in the same way that they do with you. You're "Robert Doe" and full profs are calling you "Bob"? Then you can do the same.

And if you are the senior, you are supposed to tell explicitly what is the tradition, in order to avoid embarrassment for juniors.

  • Some risks in this militant egalitarianism, I think. Depends what point one is wanting to make. – paul garrett Oct 2 '12 at 1:39
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As a grad student I was lucky and faculty in my program tended to be clear about what they wanted to be called. Since everyone but the medics wanted to be called by first name, I came to the conclusion that faculty should expect to be called by the first name unless they say otherwise.

There was one awkward Professor in my grad program who never made it clear what he wanted to be called. Soon after deciding to call him by his first name (Lou) I heard my advisor, who has known Lou for 40 years, called him Louis. At that point I decided if my advisor calls him Louis I better stick with Professor. About two weeks later another colleague was talking to me about how he and Louie used to play football together. At my next interaction with Lou I related the stories and asked him what he wanted to be called. He thought Lou would be fine.

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What is likely true is that first/given-name form of address expresses a peer-relationship attitude. In some contexts, there is a nearly-mandatory pose that "we are all peers", etc. While, ideally, this is true at a moral or civil level, it is equally obviously false in terms of sheer experience, and, usually commensurately, expertise.

(There is an auxiliary-but-related question simply about age... Given the extreme disparity between my own kids and myself, I don't expect them to address me by my first name... nor as "Professor Garrett" ... but hopefully by some affectionate honorific that does acknowledge (the complexity of) our relationship. Similarly, I pointedly adopt a stylized form of address for my kids. We are all acquainted with the trope that when the mom addresses the kid by the kid's full name, they're in trouble. I myself, especially at the point that I'm older than many postdocs' parents, have a similar feeling about that relationship. Opinions differ, of course.)

Use of an honorific, even if informal-honorific, form of address does express respect. Use of given name expresses familiarity, etc. At worst, given-name address implies a sort of "good ol' buddy" relationship that verges on the demeaning.

Perhaps the genuine issue isn't the words uttered, per se, but the tone-of-voice and body language. But, if we agree with this, then the original question becomes enlarged to the question of whether one should express deference or respect for ... ok, the real question is about how one fills in the blank about the object of this sentence! If it's "one's boss", well, one does what is necessary. If it's "one's mentor/teacher", then perhaps a systematic tone of respect is appropriate. If it's simply "the old person", then who knows? What is your attitude toward your mentor/advisor/teacher?

Operationally, as in some of the other answers, unless there's a pervasive conformity pressure to do "given name address", surely it's better to err on the side of slightly-excessive expression-of-respect, rather than the other way. Wait till some says "Please, just call me ...", rather than the awkward opposite.

(In French and some other languages perhaps-inappropriate first-name address used to have its own name: "tutoyer", meaning to address toooo many people with the familiar "tu", rather than formal-er "vous", but I gather that times have changed...)

In terms of quips, I might suggest that, ... in contrast to the suggestion that if your thesis advisor or postdoc mentor doesn't want you to call them by their first name,then get another, ... if you don't have a mentor you respect enough ... for good reason, that their expertise and insights are nearly-unimaginably superior to yours at this point in your career... to throw a little honorific their way, then you should get a new advisor/mentor.

People won't be offended by your being too polite and respectful, but may be by the opposite. Pretty straightforward, I think.

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