What do you call a professor?

How to play (and win) the university name game

One thing every new university student must face, but few students are prepared for, is the matter of how to properly address their instructors. As in many subcultures, forms of address are an important part of university life, and, believe it or not, many at the university will be put off if they are not addressed correctly. Although the situation may vary depending on your school and program, here is a quick introduction to help you avoid the major pitfalls.

Professor. This term is properly used for any instructor who actually holds a title with the word professor in it – as in my title Associate Professor. These people are what we call professors at rank. The term professor should not be used to address an instructor who does not actually hold that rank. For instance, while you may informally refer to someone as one of your professors, you should not actually refer to Jane Jones as “Professor Jones” if she is, in fact, appointed only at the Lecturer level.

Doctor. Instructors may be properly referred to as Doctor if they hold an earned doctoral degree. In most disciplines and in most Canadian universities, that degree is a Ph.D. Depending on your university, you may run into instructors with other doctoral degrees, such as an M.D. (Doctor of Medicine) or D.Th. (Doctor of Theology). Anyone, regardless of their rank, may be properly referred to as “Doctor,” in these cases. Notice that not everyone who holds a doctorate is necessarily appointed as a professor, and vice versa. So you cannot use “Doctor” and “Professor” interchangeably. Notice too that most teaching assistants will not have completed their doctorates. Similarly, many part-time and sessional instructors, and most lab instructors, will not have doctorates either.

Mr, Mrs, Miss, and Ms. Instructors who are not appointed as professors at rank and who do not hold a doctoral degree, may be addressed as Mr or Mrs or Miss or Ms, depending on their preference. Here comes the biggest potential pitfall. Never refer to an instructor as Mr or Mrs or the like if they hold a doctorate or a professorship. Going to Dr Jones’ office and calling her Mrs Jones may seem respectful to you, but may offend her more than you can imagine. For men who are neither professors nor doctors, Mr is the obvious choice. For women, well, it depends on the woman. When in doubt, go with “Ms.”

First names. This is the trickiest one of all. Many instructors do not mind, and, in fact, quite like students calling them by their first names. Others consider it extremely presumptuous and improper. The best thing to do is to avoid calling instructors by their first names until they tell you it’s okay. Professor LeBlanc will not be offended if you call him “Professor,” even if he prefers you call him Pierre. But Professor Watkins might be very offended if you call him “Brad” and he prefers a higher level of formality.

By this point you may be wondering how you are supposed to know who holds what degree and is appointed at what rank. One way to know is to check the university calendar. Most universities give a list of their faculty with their titles and the degrees they have earned. If that’s too much work, listen closely to how your instructors refer to themselves. If they use the title “Doctor” (as in “Hi, this is introduction to World History, and I’m Dr Chang) then you can be assured that you can use that title, too (for Dr Chang, not yourself). Similarly, if Dr Chang introduces herself as “Samantha” then you might turn up at her office and politely ask, “Is it okay if I call you Samantha?” In many cases you might use a more formal title in first year, but as you get to know an instructor better, you may naturally switch to the first name.

Going to university is like travelling to a different country. You need to learn the local customs. Knowing what to call the people at the front of the classroom is a good start.


What do you call a professor?

  1. “Please, Mr. Pettigrew is my father. My name is Dr. Pettigrew.”–have you heard anyone actually say this? Because it sounds pretty ridiculous: ‘Yes, I’m Dr. Pettigrew now, but a mere year ago I was my own father!’

    Good advice, though.

  2. We call our teachers by their first names. It’s a very casual atmosphere. And by “it”, I mean my small college Journalism class. I think I would feel weird calling Rick and Wayne anything but “Rick” and “Wayne.”

    But then again, I have a couple friends who are in Culinary Arts and they HAVE to refer to their teachers as “Chef (First Name)”. So, I guess it depends on the teacher and the program.

  3. For me, it’s a matter of simple manners. It’s rude to be so familiar (as to use someone’s first name) unless they’ve already given you leave to do so.

  4. As a mature student returning full time to University, I was appalled to witness the degree of familiarity younger students took with the professors.

    In my view, if you’ve spent 10 years and tens of thousands of dollars studying one focused subject, I’ll call you whatever you want. If I ever go down the PhD path, you can bet I’ll be referring to myself in the third person as “Dr.” and having my kids call me that as well.


  5. As a “younger” student I’m appalled by the above comment. I have been in university for 8 years and have always referred to professors by the name which they request. I have experienced universities where I have referred to my professors by their first names. I have also been in a mid-sized university where I have referred to professors by their first names. The reverse is also true. More importantly, I have experienced individuals of all ages who “took a degree of familiarity” with their professors. The above comment is an example of one of the many reasons why society shows little respect for individuals younger than 30 and above the age of 60 and it should not be tolerated.

  6. I have a PhD and I am a Professor at a small university. I do not mind if I’m called “Dr. Doe” and most of the time I don’t mind if students call me “John” (depends A LOT on the tone used and context). However, the one thing I suggest you don’t do EVER is this: I had a student last term asking questions over e-mail over a certain period of time. Every single time she would start her e-mails saying “Hello Dr.,” followed by whatever she wanted to say. That’s right I was simply “Dr.” no last name, no first name, nothing.

  7. And then you responded, “Dr.? No! It’s Dr. Doe!”

  8. Before I refer to anyone in authority I simply ask “what do you like to be called” then I call them that, simple and everyone is happy.

  9. Alaina,

    I stand by my statement. In the period of a few short weeks I witnessed students calling their Profs “dude,” “Lady,” and “Ma’am.” No where did I say that ALL or even most students did so. However, this does not alter the fact that some did.

    Call me old school (it won’t offend me) but I would NEVER refer to a Prof as “Dude” and understand that neither would you, nor the large part of the student population. But it must be enough of an issue to justify having an entire article here on the topic.

    Mind you, I also would not attend class in my pajamas or heckle a Prof for “only trying to make a buck” by assigning his own publication as the course reader – two other things I have seen occur.

    And while I’m on my soapbox here, let me add: Please turn off Facebook. I am sitting behind you to get a better view of the screen, not to see what you and your buddies did last night. And you – over there- yeah, you! Quiet please! This class MEANS something to me, and I can’t hear the Prof in this ancient acoustically challenged hall with you and your cronies telling jokes.

    Thank you. This concludes my rant as a “mature” student…

  10. Perhaps it would be helpful if I clarified and expanded my previous point. I don’t believe I stated that it was appropriate to refer to a professor as dude or anything other than what they prefer to be called. I also understand that you did not mean ALL students. My point of contention was not with this but with the language you used to make your point; specifically, the use of the phrase “younger students”.
    The manner in which this is stated implies that only students falling in the category of below age 30 would engage in such inappropriate behaviour in a university environment. In fact many students in my “age” category find facebook, chatting and other “non-lecture” related activities to be distracting and irritable. In fact I have challenged a few professors to have better management over students that exercise this behaviour.
    The issue with the your choice of language is that it demonstrates ageism and feeds a commonly held belief that today’s “younger” generation (defined as those below age 30) consistently act inappropriate and do not know how to behave. Furthermore, they have a sense of entitlement and lack respect for those in authority positions. I’m not about to deny that individuals in my generation behave inappropriately at times. I will argue however, that individuals in my parent’s generation and grandparent’s generation did the same (the justice system has been around a lot longer than 30 years. I will also not deny that my generation has a sense of entitlement. I will however, argue that the language you used lends itself to the notion that previous generations have had nothing to do with this.
    I would both encourage and challenge you to think about why the “younger” students refer to their professors as “dude” (as one example of inappropriate behaviour) and do not seem to think this inappropriate. One hundred percent of the fault does not lay with this generation. They must be taught how to behave before they know how to and that responsibility lies with the previous generation.

    Thank you for the opportunity to debate with you :)

  11. Make it easy on yourself, put your hand up and ask how the guy at the front of the room prefers to be addressed.

  12. I have to say…although I do completely agree that Professors and the like should be called the name they deserve (ie. “Dr xxxx” if they have a PhD). However, it surprises me when I read this in the posted article:

    Never refer to an instructor as Mr or Mrs or the like if they hold a doctorate or a professorship. Going to Dr Jones’ office and calling her Mrs Jones may seem respectful to you, but may offend her more than you can imagine. For men who are neither professors nor doctors, Mr is the obvious choice. For women, well, it depends on the woman. When in doubt, go with “Ms.”

    Are people truly that cynical when it comes to what they are called? Honestly…if it was an honest mistake by a student..would the Professor be literally “offended”? I should sure hope not. Of course, in a personal matter, I will call my instructor whatever name they prefer, as I like to abide by their wishes. But honestly…calling a professor “Mr.” or “Ms.” by either accident or just not knowing what to call them should not make them be offended.

    In most Western cultures, it is common knowledge to refer to most people in authority as “Mr.” or “Ms.” Therefore, I do not see what all the pandemonium is about when the person literally didn’t know what to call them

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