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Background:

I am in an administrative staff position, in a research compliance role, and frequently have to "cold" email professors I have never met or otherwise previously interacted with. In my institution almost all professors have MD degrees, so I typically address them as "Dr. X." However there are a small number of professors with master's degrees in areas of specialty that don't offer doctorate-level degrees, and I am uncertain how to appropriately address these individuals.

My gut reaction is to address these individuals by their first name (as our institution's culture considers first name acceptable for staff above you in the reporting chain), but to me this feels disrespectful when applied to faculty, especially considering the content of my messages are often directing them to do things (or stop doing things) they'd rather not. Conversely, calling them "professor" seems unusual to me since I am not enrolled at the institution. Finally, my school is very progressive, and I worry about (mis-)using gendered pronouns.

Question:

Am I worried about this unnecessarily? How should I address these professors when I can't open by asking how they would like to be addressed?

  • 2
    What's wrong with just using their full name? – Azor Ahai Aug 18 '17 at 22:39
  • Why not ask your boss? That way you will get an answer tailored to the culture of your institution / country, and appropriate to the content of the message. – Nate Eldredge Aug 18 '17 at 23:42
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    @Azor-Ahai Where I work, nobody ever addresses anyone with their full name in an email header. – S. Grey Aug 19 '17 at 0:43
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    @Nate Eldredge Because (1) He's on vacation, (2) Because he is on the same side faculty / staff wise as I am so frankly his judgement isn't any better than mine necessarily, (3) because I googled the question out of curiosity and found lots of answers for students, none for staff, (4) he's C-level so it would be a waste of his time, and (5) I bet that others would have the same question so good thing to post on SE. – S. Grey Aug 19 '17 at 0:49
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as our institution's culture considers first name acceptable for staff above you in the reporting chain

First name it is then. Or you could go first and last name without a title. Or you can drop the name completely and just get on with telling them what they have to do. It sounds like you know they are all professors/faculty, which would mean using professor is not incorrect, although it is more formal than just the first name and the same as calling someone doctor.

I would steer away from Mr/Ms/Mrs for a couple of reasons. First, it introduces the gender issue you raise. Second, Professor is a higher honorific than Ms/Mr. Finally, working in a medical field where half the clinicians have a terminal masters and half have a terminal doctorate, I find it mildly insulting to use different titles for two people who have terminal degrees.

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    Agree with this post, although I'd say for an email, which is typically more formal than face-to-face contexts, "professor" isn't all that unusually formal; especially if you are "cold" emailing people usually the trend is towards more formality. Especially avoid the Mr/Ms/Mrs. – Bryan Krause Aug 18 '17 at 21:36
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    @BryanKrause you are right that "professor" isn't really that overly formal, especially if you are in a compliance role where you are saying things like, "Dear Professor Smith, please stop discarding nuclear waste at the orphanage next door. If you have not stopped by September 15, 20% of your funding will be cut. Thanks, S. Grey, Compliance Officer, The Research Compliance Office". – Robert Columbia Aug 18 '17 at 23:06
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    Non-Ph.D. full-time lecturers are addressed as "professor" in official correspondence at my university. Traditions may differ, but I'd agree with full name no title, or alternatively go with Prof. + lastName absent official advice to the contrary – user0721090601 Aug 19 '17 at 0:14
  • Why do you suggest avoiding Mr/Ms/Mrs.? – James Aug 19 '17 at 1:05
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    @James see edit. – StrongBad Aug 19 '17 at 1:50
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You mention that the persons in question have a master's degree.

In Mexico and I guess other Hispano-American countries, someone with a master's degree will be called Maestro/Maestra. Likewise, the formal way to address a person holding a bachelor's degree will be either Licenciado/Licenciada, or Ingeniero/Ingeniera if he/she is an engineer. Anyone with a teaching load at a university is considered a profesor and could be addressed that way. But the title from the degree is usually more formal.

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    Not relevant to me specifically because I'm in the US, but +1'd because it's definitely potentially helpful to others. – S. Grey Aug 19 '17 at 1:38
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    But in Spain, in contrast, you never use those terms as titles. To my ear, it would just sound odd, not disrespectful, though. – Davidmh Aug 19 '17 at 7:04
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    @DanRomik my girlfriend holds a MSc in astrophysics, and she points out her title should be "Master of the Universe". – Davidmh Aug 19 '17 at 7:07
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    @Davidmh funny. Well, I've heard it said that while physics is the study of what is true in our universe, mathematics is the study of all universes. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out what this means my title should be... – Dan Romik Aug 19 '17 at 7:30
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    @DanRomik I would suggest "Master of all imaginary universes". (As a physicist myself I have to poke fun at mathematicians). – Davidmh Aug 19 '17 at 12:42
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All depends on the academic structure of merits in the country and in the branch of science. In some countries there are scientific degrees, and faculty positions. Typically an equivalent of Ph.D is required to get elected into a faculty position, but this is not a rule carved in stone, it might depend on particular personal achievements and/or recognition in the area of science or technology. But if a person holds a position of Professor, he/she IS a Professor, regardless if he/she holds any official qualification degree or not. So you should address them as "Professor".

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