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I am an undergraduate student working for a professor this summer. Up to this point, I have referred to the professor as Dr. LastName. I have met his research group; his graduate and PhD students refer to him by his first name. Moreover, he signs his emails to me with his first name.

Is it acceptable to ask, through email, how he would like to be addressed? Or is it proper etiquette to wait for him to correct me? I would prefer to ask him in person, but I will not be seeing him for several weeks.

For example, in an email: "I have noticed that you sign your emails as 'FirstName'. Would you prefer that I address you as 'FirstName'?"

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    In my experience, you should always refer to a professor by Dr. Lastname as an undergrad. The professor might sign with their first name only but it doesn't necessarily mean they want you to address them by first name. Addressing a professor by first name suggests that you're their equal. Younger professors will sometimes prefer that their grad students call them by first name since they feel a bit uneasy about the level of formality and feel that their grad students are not really their junior in a meaningful sense. It doesn't hurt to ask, but I'd be surprised if they were okay with it. – Cameron Williams Apr 26 '15 at 4:25
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    @CameronWilliams you should have just written that as an answer. – RoboKaren Apr 26 '15 at 5:45
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    My approach to this 'problem' on email (as a grad student not an undergrad) is to start with "Dear ProperTitle LastName" on the first email and to follow that up with "Dear FirstName" if the response to the first email is signed off with FirstName and to continue with "Dear ProperTitle LastName" if they sign their name in that way (which incidentally has never happened). Whether or not undergrads should be more formal I'm not sure. – user49483 Apr 26 '15 at 11:20
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    @CameronWilliams Anyone who signs their emails FirstName, and expects not to be called that is being totally unreasonable. If I'm emailing with someone I'm not yet ready to go to first names with, I sign with my full name or "-BW". (I' ve never signed an email "Dr. Webster" or "Prof. Webster", and don't intend to start now). – Ben Webster Apr 26 '15 at 11:48
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    This seems very depending on the culture of university and field. During my undergraduate forays in the USA, in Romance Languages it was always Dr. L'astnamé and in all my time in math it was always FirstName. Here in UK it's almost universally Dr. L'astnamé. – T K Apr 26 '15 at 14:09
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In contrast to other answers voiced here, to me, signing a mail with {Firstname} is a clear indication that one can address the sender by {Firstname}. It would be unreasonable for the prof signing with {Firstname} to expect otherwise. I don't agree with the "always better to play safe"-advice, as I strongly believe in that an academic discussion should be based on arguments, not on status. If I expected my students to call me in a formal way, then I would have to address them in a more formal way as well (at least, that's what I feel). When I indicate that I as prof feel comfortable with the informal route (which I do by signing my mails in this way), there is no reason not to accept that offer. Having said that, it is of course highly dependent on culture and language.

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Yes, it is completely acceptable to ask how you should refer to someone via email.

In fact, I think I still have the email I sent to my supervisor. Here is the (edited) last line of one of my early emails while sorting out our first meeting:

I should also ask, what is your prefered form of address? Would you prefer I address you as Dr. L'astnamé, or by first name, or in some other way?

The response was:

Regarding forms of address I think Dr. L'astnamé will be fine

and so that is what I called him all through my undergrad project, as a short-term research assistant under him, and now into my Ph.D.

I'm sure he will tell me if he would like me to change. It is generally acceptable to ask people matters of etiquette concerning them. (Life would be hard if asking what was polite was normally impolite.)

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It is almost never impolite to ask how to be polite.

  • but it can be kind of a hassle :P Many professors will find it tedious to deal with matters of etiquette. – 6005 Nov 17 '17 at 20:02
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Interesting question... Let's put aside opinions and try to list the facts:

1. Variability

The preferred for of addressing a prof, much like anyone else, will vary immensely. It ultimately depends on many factors like:

  • culture in that country ...
  • and in the country of origin, if the prof in question has a different background
  • culture in that particular faculty/department (usually less formality/honourifics in Maths/CS/Physics etc)
  • how down-to-earth that particular person is
  • ...

2. Uncertainty

If you don't know something regarding another person, you essentially need to acquire that piece of information. It won't magically dawn on you... So your options are either to ask that person, or to ask someone else that knows this person.

The risk is, if you ask another person, you might be making the assumption that the person you ask has a different level of relationship with the prof. It might be so that the grad student you ask "goes way back" with the prof, and while they might be on a first name basis, you might not have the same grounds to stand on.


Bottomline: If you don't ask you can't know the right way to address the person. Noone can really blame you for asking how to refer to a person, especially if they are at a higher position than you, implicitly or explicitly.

You might be considered unnecessarily formal, or stiff, but still it's better than making an assumption and making a rude mistake, especially if the person in question comes from a culture where titles are taken very seriously.

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