It is often asked whether students should be encouraged to address their instructors by their first or last name. My question is the opposite.

I teach at a large US university but I have not grown up here. Most students address me by my last name or by 'Professor', which seems to be the traditional way to do it.

Questions: It turn, would I traditionally address students by their first name or their last name? Or just "student"? Is the communication symmetrical or asymmetrical? Is there a difference in email and personal interaction?

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    I encourage you to ask someone at your own institution. Culture varies. Commented Nov 18, 2017 at 20:46
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    To many people, especially those of us who've spent time in the military, being addressed by one's last name (especially with no Mr/Ms attached) borders on the insulting.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 4:36
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    As someone in the USA with a very common first name - over the course of my life I've been addressed by my last name far more often than my first. Both in school and out.
    – NotMe
    Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 4:45
  • I'm a postdoc and recently decided that I'd like to be addressed by my last name in the workplace (without the Dr.) to avoid confusion because many people share my first name, including my mentor. I'm finding it harder than expected to get people to switch! Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 14:46
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    To elaborate on Ellen's comment - some institutions prefer to use the given or surname. Some cultures have given name first others have surname first. And the students from those cultures are virtually guaranteed not to all share the same method of determining which witch is which.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 16:21

5 Answers 5


First name, at every university I've been. Both for in person communication and email. There are a few charmingly old fashioned professors who use Mr/Miss Lastname, but they're seen as oddities. So yes, the communication is generally asymmetrical.

  • I have one student in my class who for whatever reason uses "Dr. [My first name]." I still don't get it—particularly since she can see my name in literally every email I send out.
    – aeismail
    Commented Nov 18, 2017 at 20:30
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    @aeismail Some countries use Dr. Firstname instead of Dr. Lastname. Brazil is one of them. (not only Dr but Mr. as well). Commented Nov 18, 2017 at 21:00
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    I wouldn't say they're seen as oddities, just as slightly more formal. It wouldn't incur any negative perception.
    – jpmc26
    Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 7:41
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    @jpmc26 Well, for me 'oddities' is not a negative word. They're odd in the same way my old lecturer in maths who always wore a full suit with a bow tie, not in the 'oh wow does he never shower' kind of way.
    – user141592
    Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 20:23
  • I had a professor who insisted that he and students use last names until the student graduated, at which point they could be on a first-name basis. It was a little odd (plenty of professors did not mind students using their first name, and most used students’ first names as a matter of course), but it was kind of “nice” to get that recognition after graduating under him.
    – KRyan
    Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 23:42

In most schools, students are called by their first name, unless there are two students with the same name in a class, or the student prefers their last name. Often, when a student is called by their last name, it means they are in trouble: "Mr. Brown, what do you have to say for yourself?"


Your own personality is a big factor in your decision.

Should you be an easy-going person for whom informality is part of your way of teaching and interacting, first names are acceptable but not required.

If there is no restriction at your University about such usage, mention your preference for informality during interactions in the first meeting with your students. "Good Morning! Welcome to Theories of General Relativity and Subatomic Particles, section IX, My name is Dr. Mason Ambicion, but you can call me Mason."

When you are teaching students who may come from other areas of the US, or from other countries in the world for that matter, standards of instructor <> student interactions will be different. Some US students will be unable to be so informal with you in a classroom situation, or in private consultation for that matter because their schooling demanded it.

When some of your students call you Professor or Dr. Ambicion, there's no need to remind them of your preference. You can try to subtly change their perspective over time by addressing them back in the same formal manner they present to you, while remaining informal with the other students.

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    I'm not sure your last paragraph is good advice. It seems too subtle, to me. I think the student is more likely to think that a professor addressing some students by first name and some by last name is favouritism rather than anything else. Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 13:19
  • @DavidRicherby - it is subtle, but it worked on me!
    – IconDaemon
    Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 17:05

As a student in New England, my teachers almost always address me by my first name. I think it's the same with most teachers, and additionally many teachers ask on the first day if students want to be called by a nickname before calling attendance. It's unusual for a student to be called by their last name, but slightly more common in athletics. Gym teachers like their last names.


I probably would ask other members of the same faculty what they do if I wasn't sure. Almost certainly they use the students' first names: I haven't been in an institution that requires formal modes of address between students and teachers (exclusive private schools may differ, of course.)

If you're not sure about how to address a student and you don't want to appear to be playing favourites, you can often resort to circumlocutions that avoid the need for exact names (i.e. "the previous speaker", or simply omitting names altogether), or request that students give their name when they ask their question. Many classes that I have attended are lecture-style, so the need for names is usually not very high, and it's unfair for the lecturer to be expected to know how to address each person (even knowing the correct pronoun to use nowadays is a difficult conundrum!)

I know some professors who can remember everyone's preferred forms of address, but they tend to teach higher-level courses with smaller numbers of students.

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