How should I address an email to a professor who hates being called "Professor ___" or "Dr. ____?" He has made it very clear to students that he prefers to be referred to by his first name in person, but I have been told time and time again that one should be more formal when writing emails. Is this always true, or should I simply follow how he prefers to be addressed in person?
If the professor explicitly says not to call him by his last name, then don't. It would actually be more impolite to ignore his request in order to conform to some abstract "formality" rules.
However, even if you are addressing your professor by his first name, you can still preserve some degree of formality. Some common norms include:
- do not use slang
- avoid excessive contractions (e.g. use have not instead of haven't)
- use your full name in the signature
- be polite
In general, the rule of thumb is to be respectful and professional in your communications. Sometimes that includes addressing the person as "Professor X" or "Dr. X", but it does not have to. Just make sure you sound polite!
Rules exist to serve people, not people to serve rules. The default is formality, because if you don't know how someone wants to be called, then formality shows respect. If you do know how someone wants to be called, them calling them that shows respect. Don't confuse the means for the end. Formality is the means, respect is the end.
I would suggest that you use the name/term/concept that the professor signs his initial reply to you with as the introduction to follow up e-mails. This approach ensures that you are always correct and formal in your initial contact and can be informal in the subsequent contacts if the reply allowed you to do so. See the following e-mail headers/footers as an example:
Dear Prof. FancyPants, ... Kind Regards, Hopeful Grad Student
Dear Hopeful Grad Student, ... Cheers, John
Hi John, ... Cheers, Andy
I hope that the above illustrates how I would treat your situation.
In general: Do not be scared and do not think too much about it.
Professors are people as well and often they are way more interested in the content of your mail than in formalities. Especially when they have a lot of work, they do not even have the time to judge how you begin your e-mails ;).
Here is a cartoon how much time professors need for e-mails and how much time students need:
You're on the right side and overthinking the formalities. Your professor is on the left side and just reading the important parts of your e-mail (so make sure that you do not hide your question in too much text) before replying.
who hates being called "Professor ___" or "Dr. ____?" He has made it very clear to students that he prefers to be referred to by his first name
It seems he did not make it clear enough to all of the students. If he hates it and makes it very clear, it sounds even desperate! Please, do him the favor and address him as he prefers:
"Hi John" or "Hello John" or "Dear John"
That's what he explicitly prefers. And btw. as soon as you are around researchers (grad student and higher), you will address most people you meet at conferences etc as "hi FirstName".
Professors are humans as well. General rules are nice but do not hold every time. Here is one of the exceptions.
If you are very worried about it, in your first email you can use the polite and very English "If I may".
So for example:
Dear Sarah (if I may), I am writing to you to ask about...
It signals your commitment to formality, but also takes your Prof's preference into account. If they sign their response with their full name or say something like "of course you may!", you're set.
There are possibly two issues here. The first is accommodation of the professor's wishes. As a default, address him however he wants. It is better to be respectful than formal, as all the other answers point out.
The other (possible) issue (pointed out anecdotally in @RadishQueen's answer), is that students may feel very uncomfortable addressing a professor like that. If this is indeed part of the motivation for the question, the solution is never to disrespect the professor, but you can always mention to him that it makes you very uncomfortable to address him so informally. He may decide to ignore your feelings on the matter or come up with a reasonable compromise. In either case, respect the professor's wishes.
As a programmer, the vast majority of most of emails I send in a professional context are of the following format :
Hi Tom, ... Kind regards, John Slegers
At least in my sector, pretty much everyone uses this format these days, whether communicating with clients, with subcontractors, with our boss, etc. At least in the IT sector, formal emails are the exception rather than the standard.
As a student, I'd inclined to be a bit more formal when contacting a professor in at least my initial email, but not in your case. Considering he explicitly expressed his desired to be referred to by his first name in real life, I would not be any more formal in my emails to your professor than I am in my corporate emails.
I'd likely just use his name, as in
I'd like to ...
The option of writing
and putting your full name into signature/From line seems not as much informal as familiar to me. Probably not the best idea.
Also, your informality should only extend to the degree the professor has specified as desired, so don't start with
Either way, make sure that the From/To lines contain the full name of yourself and the professor. If there is a formally required title for your professor, it should be added there. This is the "mail envelope". While you won't likely enfuriate a secretary by being less than formal on the envelope of an Email, I think it is a good strategy to show respect in the content by using the amount of informality desired, and in the envelope by using the amount of formality due.