What education does one need to be called "Professor" in the United States of America? A woman with a law degree in a junior college paralegal program insists on being called professor at a local community college. She is the only one in the whole school that does this. Is this normal?

  • 7
    I don't understand the question. Do you mean "a law degree from a junior college paralegal program"? Also, you say she "insists on being called professor at a local community college": what is her position at the college, and by whom does she insist on being called "professor"? Feb 2, 2015 at 0:50
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    The first time I was called professor, I was a first-year PhD student being scheduled to proctor exams (and this was the consistent usage). The last time, I was teaching business as an adjunct with an MBA as my highest degree, and this was how I introduced myself (I didn't insist, but it was how I framed how they should address me). I was an adjunct at another business school (that also gave GED courses), they actively framed instructors as "teachers," not "professors." The school was very customer service oriented - there seemed to be a degree of respect lacking from students at that school.
    – Aaron Hall
    Feb 2, 2015 at 19:12
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    @TrevorWilson the question aims at the requirements for the title Professor. In the US it is just a job description and anybody can call himself a professor. But in many other countries professor is an official title like Dr. which has to be earned. You are required to have a PhD + Habilitation + being called to a University. This means years and years of advanced studies, publications and academic work.
    – OliverS
    Feb 3, 2015 at 9:14
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    What are "real professors" (people that lead large research groups) call in the US? E.g. how do you tell between the fake and the real professors?
    – Ian
    Feb 3, 2015 at 13:11
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    @Ian People who lead large research groups are also called "Professor" or "Doctor," depending on institution, preference, etc. They aren't routinely distinguished in conversation; the full job title includes academic rank, but it's not used in conversation.
    – cpast
    Feb 3, 2015 at 17:36

7 Answers 7


I completely agree with the answers by ff524 and Pete L. Clark, but I'd like to highlight one issue that's in the background here, regarding whether this behavior is normal. When someone makes a point of emphasizing a professional title, it might be because they are pompous, but they might actually have a good reason for it. It's difficult to do your job well if the people you are interacting with don't maintain an adequate level of respect and professionalism, and insisting on titles can be an effective way to control the tone of your interactions.

Whether this is helpful is often correlated with gender or race: many white men are treated respectfully by default, while women or minorities sometimes find that students or colleagues interact with them in troubling ways that don't arise nearly as often for their white male coworkers. For example, students sometimes expect unreasonably forgiving and nurturing behavior from women and react harshly if they don't get it, students sometimes disrespect women in class and try to challenge or undermine their authority (for no intellectually compelling reason), etc. Of course this doesn't always happen, but it's a real problem for some people.

Insisting on the use of a formal title is one way to address this issue. You run the risk of looking pompous or uppity, but you are willing to take that risk in exchange for reminding everyone of your position and your desire to maintain a formal and respectful tone. This may not be the best solution in any given circumstances, but it works well enough that it's reasonably common.

So my recommendation is to approach this issue with some charity. If you hear complaints about someone insisting on a title that nobody else cares as much about, especially a woman or minority, you should keep in mind that it may be their way of dealing with a difficult situation.

  • 37
    This x1000. For a first-person account of this by a female African-American engineering professor, see They Call Me Doctor Berry
    – ff524
    Feb 2, 2015 at 1:10
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    @ff524 A female African-American engineering professor, it should be noted, at an excellent engineering program. It’s been a few years since I checked, but in the mid-2000s, Rose-Hulman was typically neck-and-neck with Harvey Mudd College (where I attended) for best engineering programs from schools whose highest degree is a Bachelor's. Having heard the name so much as our “competition” for that title, I was that much more impressed with her – and saddened by the state of things in 2014 at her school – when I saw that at the bottom of the article.
    – KRyan
    Feb 2, 2015 at 15:55
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    What I don't get is why anyone would complain about someone insisting on being addressed by their title. To Dr Berry's experience, "I doubt that this is an experience that many of my male colleagues have ever had to endure." she shouldn't make assumptions. I committed all of the slights she said she endured against all of my professors, most of whom were white males. I was just trying to be helpful, and I don't recall a negative reception (not extremely positive either). But I do think ones title makes a difference and can help improve tone.
    – Aaron Hall
    Feb 2, 2015 at 19:28
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    @AaronHall Agreed with Aaron. She's making a false assumption. All instructors get their derivations questioned (especially when they're wrong... professors make mistakes, too,) grading regarded as too harsh/unfair (unless they're unusually easy,) etc., white males included. This isn't really even a negative thing, since it usually means that either the instructor made a mistake that is likely to confuse students or the student is confused about something and needs the concept explained. Either way, failing to mention it doesn't help anything, aside from perhaps the professor's ego.
    – reirab
    Feb 2, 2015 at 20:02
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    Funnily, I generally don't like when people call me doctor (which is my title)... Indeed I introduce myself with my first name. One needs to be respectful no matter what my title may be. If they don't want to listen to me because I am not a Professor my time is not worth spending talking with them. On the other hand, one can be a Nobel Prize winner and be a complete idiot (should I name a few? Because there are a few to name...).
    – nico
    Feb 3, 2015 at 12:53

I'll answer the general question in the title of your post:

What education does one need to be called “Professor” in the United States of America?

None at all. In the United States, someone who holds an appointment as a professor (of any rank, including professor-like positions that may not even include "professor" in their official name) at a university may be addressed as "Professor." It is not a matter of their level of education, but of their job title.

A woman with a law degree in a junior college paralegal program insists on being called professor at a local community college. She is the only one in the whole school that does this. Is this normal?

If she has an appointment that is in the range of "professor" positions, then she is perfectly entitled to insist on being addressed as "professor."

  • 6
    Furthermore, since she's not a "doctor" she shouldn't be addressed as "Dr. X." It's likely that many of the other professors in the community college have doctorates (which may be PhD's but might also be Ed.D. or other doctoral degrees.) Those faculty might be addressed as either "Dr." or "Professor", but the only options that she has are "Professor", "Mrs." (or "Miss" or "Ms." as appropriate.) Feb 1, 2015 at 23:52
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    @BrianBorchers: The most common "law degree" in the US is J.D., Juris Doctor. I believe this is technically considered a doctoral degree, though it is unusual for people with this degree to style themselves "Dr." Feb 2, 2015 at 0:46
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    @ff524: Got it. (But we lecturers often get to say, "Yessir, Dr. Tenured Full Professor Sir! How high, sir?")
    – Bob Brown
    Feb 2, 2015 at 1:31
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    @BobBrown One lecturer I had joked that half the reason he applied for the job was so he could be called "Professor Soandso."
    – cpast
    Feb 2, 2015 at 2:54
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    I was an undergrad (i.e. not even a Bachelor’s yet) and I covered a couple of lectures – sure enough, some of the students, some of whom I was literally classmates with in other classes, referred to me as professor. Somewhat awkwardly, of course, but some of them did.
    – KRyan
    Feb 2, 2015 at 15:57

No specific educational background is necessary to be called "Professor" in the United States. It is not an honorific like "Dr." which refers to a specific degree. (There have been some famous academics who had no more than a BA, e.g. Lyman Kittredge. This is less common as time goes on, but there are certainly many professors without terminal degrees in their field.) "Professor" is a formal job title in the field of higher education, and if someone holds that title at their institution then they can use it with legitimacy.

In general, anyone can "insist" upon being called anything, and the other party can then decide how they want to respond. I could refuse to call my physician "Dr." if I chose to; what happens then is up to them. Insisting on being called by your job title while on the job seems reasonable to me.

"Is this normal?" can be a hard question to answer for strangers on the internet. Granting the premise that she is the only faculty member at the institution that wants to be called "Professor", then...it seems to follow that it's not normal at that institution. But there are many other American professors who want to be called "Professor" and many institutions where this is the most common appellation, so in that sense the practice is normal.

(Added: @AnonymousMathematician gives some compelling conditions in which it may be appropriate to be the only faculty member at their institution who insists on this.)

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    Note also that in many countries (but not the US) most medical doctors do not have doctoral degrees (MDs), and "doctor" is a courtesy title and not one that their academic qualifications entitle them to.
    – Mike Scott
    Feb 2, 2015 at 17:48

Sharing my own story since it comes in the grey area and might be helpful to some.

I recently completed a Master's degree in Computer Science and was asked to teach an undergraduate class the next semester. The version of this question I asked my wife was, "what should I have the students call me?" She was merely amused and responded why would it matter but astutely mentioned that it should be enough for the students to know the university was satisfied with my credentials and thus allow me to teach there. In the same vein of other answers here, I'm not insisting on formality for its own sake but am trying to juggle lots of cultural norms involving titles in an educational setting and so forth.

Since I neither have a PhD nor do I have a medical degree, I shouldn't expect to be called doctor; the question is whether to correct a student who addresses me that way. It hasn't happened but I've resolved to correct them if it does, that just leaves me with what to ask them to use in place of 'Dr.' The natural choices are the forms Prof. French or Mr. French. During my undergrad days when we had an instructor that did not have a PhD. we would make sure to use Mr. or Mrs. (in those days the Ms./Mrs. debate had not flared up yet).

In my case the question came down to whether I could be referred to as Prof. French without either confusing a student who then expected I held a PhD or somehow being seen as borrowing the title as a form of ego-stroking. There are several questions that dance around the issue like, is it ok to call Prof. X Mr. X or addressing a friend who teaches after joining his lab or at what point can I refer to my professor by their first name

What cleared it up for me was my appointment letter, which stated unambiguously that I was being appointed as an adjunct professor. At the beginning of class I wrote my full name on the board but did not include my work history or my degrees, heeding my wife's advice on not feeling the need to express my credentials to the students as I don't need to prove anything to them. When students address me they use Professor French both in person and in emails and that works for me.

My oldest daughter has recently finished not only a degree in teaching - and has been teaching in a primary school for years -but completed a master's of her own, but a different field, the same semester as I completed mine. I consulted with her about teaching in general and she had a ton of good information on how to manage a classroom. We agreed that in my case I didn't want to tell them it was my first time teaching; mainly because while it might make me feel less of a need to apologize for mistakes or oversights it would give the students a seed of doubt, however tiny, which might serve as a distraction.

As it turns out, the teaching assistant for the class is a PhD student so she addresses me in emails as Mr. French which I prefer because she isn't one of my students and if I insisted she use Prof. French it implies more formality and hierarchy than I'm comfortable with. When she refers to me when speaking to students she says things like, 'you need to see the instructor' or 'you need to talk to Mr. French.' both of which are fine with me for the same reasons as above.

So in most cases it might be a simple answer but you really need to have more context to guide you whether it comes from the culture or the institution.

Now, if I can only figure out what to call the other faculty now that I am one...


In my opinion, I don't think it's appropriate to call or act as a professor without PhD because it lead the community on the wrong way of perception. For instance I have a MBA, and sometimes universities invite me to give lectures. The students used to call me as I'm a professor and I refuse because it don't make sense. I know many colleagues haven't a PhD but they are professor. It seems unusual and inappropriate even assistant or associated professor.


In the USA, The title of Professor is given to people that have a PhD and are teachers at any academic level. A person who is a Doctor is someone who has finished a terminal degree meaning they have completed the highest degree in their field of study above a bachelors. Currently a Masters of Fine Arts is the top degree for artist in the USA technically can be called Doctor last name. Art classes are informal setting so you call the instructor by their first name but they are currently trying to develop a PhD program. Master levels are called Instructor. Now because some people get in a snit about the title of Doctor the custom is to only call people with PhD's Doctors. If you are a grad student and are called professor you should correct the person because it is a title that people earn with an additional 5 to 8 years of study. As to the OP on the first day of class the professor should of introduced herself and what degree she has from which schools. Teaching at a 2 year community college only requires a masters degree 4 year universities you need a PhD or terminal degree such as in art person. grads teaching under a direct supervision of of the proper degree person. It was a long answer but so much misinformation in the thread. I have a MFA you will find that most people teaching with an MFA a university know the details because we are the lowly Instructors among the Professors.

  • From Doctor of Fine Arts Wiki article: At Yale University, the D.F.A. is conferred on students who hold a Master of Fine Arts degree in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism from the Yale School of Drama, and who have "completed M.F.A. qualifying comprehensive examinations, and have written a dissertation of distinction whose subject has been approved by the D.F.A. committee" of faculty.
    – Nobody
    Sep 10, 2016 at 13:32
  • A master's is all that's required to teach at some (most?) universities also (that's all I have). But with only a master's you may be restricted to teaching only UG subjects. Also, to get the job, you will likely need substantial experience in lieu of the PhD. Sep 10, 2016 at 14:10
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    This is incorrect. If any U.S. institution follows these rules, they are very far out of the standard practice in STEM fields. There was one professor at my undergraduate institution who did not have a PhD, so it was technically incorrect to call him "Doctor". But "Professor" was fine. And his title from the school was actually "professor". Sep 11, 2016 at 14:42
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    And if somebody at my institution introduced himself on the first day of class and mentioned what degrees they had from what institutions, that would be odd and might be seen as snobbery. You can tell your students what you like to be called, and your current position, if you want. And any work experience that's relevant to your course. Sep 11, 2016 at 15:53

As far as physics goes, any PhD hired to teach is rightfully called "Professor." However, their title may technically be, for instances, "Assistant Professor" or "Associate Professor." One is considered a (Full) Professor once one has been granted tenure by the appropriate committee.

In short, one is a professor if one has been granted a PhD and one has been hired on to teach. One is considered a full professor if one has been granted tenure by senior faculty.

That said, I've never met a professor that objected to being addressed as "Dr."

BU has a very nice general breakdown.

EDIT: not sure why I'm being downvoted. If you're an American physics student whose experience is counter to my account, please do share.

  • 10
    I have had professors without doctoral degrees; it isn't a general requirement to be called a professor, nor necessarily even to have tenure and the rank of full professor in some fields or in unusual circumstances. A PhD is definitely not a requirement. (also, at most places, associate professors are typically tenured -- a few places have tenure happen between associate and full, but normally it's between assistant and associate).
    – cpast
    Feb 3, 2015 at 9:59
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    I downvoted this because it is, well, wrong. Having a PhD and a teaching position does not allow you to be "rightfully called 'Professor'". Professor is a specific job title that postdocs and other temporary faculty may or may not have. "One is considered a full professor if one has been granted tenure by senior faculty." This is also incorrect: tenure and "full professor" are not the same. Similarly there are physics professors at American institutions without PhDs. This is not a question about students or experiences; it is a purely factual matter. Feb 5, 2015 at 7:52

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