Teachers in primary and secondary school usually are called as Mr.[surname] or Miss/Mrs.[surname]. However, cases in universities are more complex. It seems we need to call a teacher who is a professor professor or prof.[surname], and a teacher who is not a professor but a doctor Dr.[surname]. But not all teachers are professors, so what about

1)one whose name we know but neither a professor or a doctor?

2)one whose name we know but we do not know whether he/she is a professor or a doctor?

3)one whose name we do not know?

  • Do you mean when addressing them directly ("Good morning, professor X") or when referring to them in a sentence ("This course is taught by professor X")? In the former case, you can't go wrong with sir/madam. May 3, 2013 at 10:29
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    @FedericoPoloni I mainly mean salutation in letter.
    – Popopo
    May 3, 2013 at 13:38
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    If you're writing a letter to someone you don't know, google them first and call them Dr or Prof as appropriate. Their departmental webpages will usually make this clear. In the UK very few academic staff are professors (unlike the US). May 4, 2013 at 10:38

5 Answers 5


Here's an answer based on my experience in the United States. I don't know how well it generalizes to other countries, but some issues may be similar.

You can't go wrong calling someone Professor or Doctor unless you know for sure that it is inappropriate and they know that you know.

At the college level in the U.S., it's common to refer to your teacher as Professor X regardless of whether their official job title includes the word professor. (The primary teacher of a college course is considered to be acting as a professor for that purpose, even if their official title is visiting scholar or postdoctoral associate or whatever.) This may not apply to grad students, but it can cover just about everyone else.

When possible I'd avoid gendered titles like Mr. or Ms., and specifically Ms. The issue is subconscious sexism: some people tend to use fancier titles to address men than to address women in comparable positions, and calling someone Ms. may make her wonder whether you are one of those people. (If you are such a person, then you should mend your ways, and even if you're not you could still be mistaken for one.)

On the other hand, Miss and Mrs. are far worse than Ms., because they indicate marital status. You should never address an academic as Miss or Mrs. unless she has explicitly indicated that this is what she prefers.

  • Downvoted because not everywhere follows US academic titling conventions, and this question is about the UK, not the US.
    – nick012000
    May 25, 2021 at 0:07

Within an academic setting while you might run into a Dean or a Duke, generally Professor is the highest honorific you will need. Therefore, I suggest calling everyone you do not know Professor. If they are not a Professor, or do not want to be called Professor, they will correct you. It seems to me to be a lot less pompous to say "actually, I am only a doctor", then it is to say "actually, I am a Professor/Dean/Duchess/King".

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    If the professor in question is a nobleman, you can find the appropriate form using these very simple criteria. May 3, 2013 at 10:27
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    @FedericoPoloni I do hope you intended that as sarcasm, if so, bravo!
    – rcollyer
    May 8, 2013 at 12:34

Everywhere I've attended and worked in Britain, I've called teachers by their first name and been called my first name.

It also depends on what you mean by a college. Most universities are not called college (and if they are going to, say, Birkbeck College, one would say one is going to university. Most colleges are technical colleges, or colleges of further education (I've attended or taught at http://www.burton-college.ac.uk/‎, http://www.nulc.ac.uk/, http://www.southstaffs.ac.uk/), which have no professors, and few staff with PhDs - although there are also colleges of higher education which would have professors and where most staff would have PhDs (but most of these have become universities).

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    In Australia it is typical for staff, and students, to refer to each other by first name. So much so that other than in staff directories I find noting people's titles against their name to be socially obscene. On the other hand we have a clearly hierarchical distribution of academic work functions and in this case we refer to clusters of staff by their title or pay level to refer to an expected set of responsibilities (Associate Lecturers don't lead research culture). I don't think there's any reason for students to have need to do so, excepting doctoral students as apprentice academics. May 3, 2013 at 23:13

In the UK a professor is higher status than a Dr. and not nearly as common So a Dr. won't be offended but they might be snippy about the lack of local knowledge about them if get that wrong.

I spent a while worrying about this when I first got to university as it seemed like a minefield. With that in mind I can tell you UK universities usually list the staff on their websites and often a Dr/Prof will have their own page which tells you all about them and their publications etc. So, you can usually find the answer to this without having to worry. Just in case though, I'll give you an answer for each one.

1) one whose name we know but neither a professor or a doctor?

Mr/Ms (Ms is best for women because it can offend someone if you assume anything about marital status when you don't know them)

(and sign off your mail 'Yours Sincerely,')

2) one whose name we know but we do not know whether he/she is a professor or a doctor?

In this case google is your friend. You will be able to find out. I would not advise emailing an academic to ask them for anything without first finding something out about them (or their research at least) first.

(and sign off your mail 'Yours Sincerely,')

3) one whose name we do not know?

Dear Sir or Madam (and sign off your mail 'Yours faithfully,')

In all three cases how they end their letter to you will tell you how you can relax. If they sign off as 'Jim', you can lose the formality (especially if that's not even their real name ;-))

  1. Mr/Ms
  2. Why not ask what they prefer to be called?
  3. Again, ask them.

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