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.