The Mrs

by Eszter Hargittai on February 28, 2006

On occasion, I get emails in which people address me as Mrs. Hargittai. I’m not suggesting that people need know my personal history or preferences. However, if you are going to contact someone in a professional context and they have a Ph.D. and they teach at a university (both of which are very clear on their homepage where you probably got their email address in the first place), wouldn’t you opt for Dr. or Professor?

Most of the time when someone contacts me and says “Dear Dr. Hargittai” or “Dear Professor Hargittai” the first line of my response is: “Dear X, please call me Eszter.” So the status marker that comes with these is not what’s of interest to me. Rather, I’m intrigued by how gender ties into all this and would love to hear how male junior faculty get addressed in such situations.

Today, I received a message that had an interesting additional component:

Dear Mrs. Hargittai,

Professor Name-of-one-of-my-senior-male-colleagues recommended that I get in touch with you.

My male senior colleague is a Professor while I’m a Mrs. Perhaps not being a full professor is what’s preventing me from being considered a Prof. Given that these notes have always come from Europe (e.g. Germany, Netherlands, Russia), I suspect that may be the issue. Perhaps you’re not considered a Professor until you’re a Full Professor. Nonetheless, Dr still fits even if you don’t find Prof an appropriate greeting.

Another related anecdote underscores the importance of gender in all this. I was presenting at a conference (in the U.S.) a few months ago. It was not necessarily clear who on the panel was a student vs a faculty member, we all looked fairly young. There were two women on the panel and a man. In the end, it turned out that I was the only faculty member, the other woman was a Ph.D. student, the man a Master’s student.

The discussant (seemingly American) stood up to give his comments. He started mine with “Miss Eszter”. I don’t remember how he addressed the other woman. I do, however, remember that he addressed the man – the Master’s student – as “Professor X”. While I realize that my last name may be a challenge to pronounce, everyone on the panel had hard-to-pronounce foreign names so that doesn’t quite explain the distinction in how we were addressed.

When in doubt and you don’t have the necessary information, how about just writing/mentioning both first and last names and skipping the rest?

{ 2 trackbacks }

PoliBlog: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » What We Call People
02.28.06 at 1:06 pm
Crooked Timber » » Dress optional
03.02.06 at 7:22 am



JR 02.28.06 at 9:42 am

I would expect a German academic to address you as “Mrs. Dr. Hargittai”– :-)


jimbo 02.28.06 at 9:47 am

he addressed the man – the Master’s student – as “Professor X”

Was he bald and in a wheelchair?


Eszter 02.28.06 at 9:48 am

Because of “Frau Dr.”? I can see that. No one has ever said that though. It’s also interesting that the whole “Ms.” movement hasn’t reached Germany, but perhaps that’s because “Frau” is independent of being married and is more of an age distinction. I am not sure about that one, but that’s been my understanding.


Michael 02.28.06 at 9:52 am

As a southerner relocated to the north (twice!), I would attach different meaning to a southerner addressing someone as “Miss FName” than someone from another region. Were there other contextual clues?


des von bladet 02.28.06 at 9:54 am

I only call my (Dutch) zweetie “Mejuffrouw Doctor Zweetie” on special occasions, and especially only from a safe distance.

What are these persons thinking?


otto 02.28.06 at 9:59 am

In these circumstances, I find ‘Frau Doktor Professor Excellency’ (or even just ‘Excellency’) does very well.

You have a point of course. But similar things can be difficult to judge at times. We had a new female junior professor who got into a rage that a visiting politician assumed she was a graduate student when he came to talk at BIG NAME university, but of course she didn’t look any different from a graduate student, having started in her junior faculty position about 9 weeks earlier.


Shivering TImbers 02.28.06 at 10:02 am

The whole Dr./Prof./Mr./Mrs./Ms. title thing is such a confused mess that there’s no way to know what title to use with someone you’ve never met. For example, I know several PhDs who are opposed to using the title “Dr.” for anything other than a medical doctor.

I think what the world really needs is an all-purpose, generic, gender-neutral title. I propose “Yo,” as in:

Yo, Eszter,

Professor so-and-so suggested I get in touch with you….

This title makes no assumption about the gender, marital status, profession, or education level of the addressee, and gives the recipient the opportunity to take equal opportunity offense no matter what the particulars of the situation.


Eszter 02.28.06 at 10:10 am

Otto, people think I am a graduate student all the time. I didn’t mention that here, because that’s not really the issue I was addressing. First, those who are contacting me using email likely saw my Web site and so should know better. (After all, they are usually contacting me precisely b/c I’m a prof and they want info about our program or b/c of my research and they want info about that.) Second, I’m curious to know the gender component in all this. Your example is also about a woman. I just wonder how often this assumption about having fewer credentials than you actually do happens to men or how often that is manifested in how people are addressed.


Kieran Healy 02.28.06 at 10:14 am

My rule at conferences (or at talks elsewhere, etc) is to assume until told otherewise that any academic you are introduced to is a faculty member. You can’t go wrong.


K in Denmark (Assist. Prof., Ph.D.) 02.28.06 at 10:15 am

As a European I am indeed not comfortable with calling people Professor (unless they are) or Doctor (unless they are MDs). I prefer just using the full name.


mangala 02.28.06 at 10:17 am

My male senior colleague is a Professor while I’m a Mrs. Perhaps not being a full professor is what’s preventing me from being considered a Prof.

At least at my university, that would be very surprising. I don’t know how my fellow students address our profs in private e-mails, of course, but I do know that in class, teachers are nearly always addressed as “Professor” regardless of their status or gender – and I’ve never heard anyone call a professor “Mr.” or “Mrs.”. Sir or ma’am are common, though.


Daniel 02.28.06 at 10:17 am

You are in very good company indeed, if it’s any consolation.


SamChevre 02.28.06 at 10:17 am

Two random pieces of information.

In France, one addresses a formal letter to “Monsieur” or “Madame” with no name; titles other than that are quite rare (at least, that’s what I was taught as business usage).

In the South, Miss Firstname is a friendly, but definitely deferential, form of address. It is less class-based than most other titles, but is a very respectful way to address a woman.


sean 02.28.06 at 10:23 am

A couple of suggestions: First, the title “Doctor” often has the connotation “MD”, and might sound strange to the speaker, the listener, or both when referring to a PhD. Second, while you may not crave the status, perhaps your correspondents find it off-putting. “Mr.” or “Ms.” (or “Mrs.” in a pinch) shows respect without putting the speaker at quite so much of a social disadvantage, or (in some cases) sounding quite so much the supplicant.


harry b 02.28.06 at 10:24 am

I looked for a long time like a grad student, and students, including grad students in other departments, frequently assumed I was, and changed their behaviour noticably when they discovered I wasn’t (not, usually, from me). When I worked as a Professor in London (in Education, where grad students are frequently older)no-one who didn’t know would address me as either Professor or Dr. because it was entirely possible that I was neither (a kind of reverse of Kieran’s principle).

I do get emails (but never letters) to Mr. Brighouse reasonably often, even from people who want to get at my expertise and know my position (e.g., most often, journalists). I suspect that if there is no awareness of Ms, then Mrs seems more respectful than Miss, if those are the options (i.e., I suspect addressing you as Mrs is the equivalent of addressing me as Mr, whereas addressing you as Miss would be talking down to you in a way that it is not possible to talk down to a man).

An aside — my pet peeve with the feminist movement was the adoption of “Ms.” It seems to me that advocating the pervasive use of “Mrs.” would have been more effective, and funnier.


Phil 02.28.06 at 10:26 am

A collegue was attending a formal German event as guest of honor. He has two doctorates so he was introduced as Herr Doctor Doctor Professor X.

His wife is also a professor and has a doctorate. She was introduced as Frau Doctor Professor Doctor Doctor Professor X.


harry b 02.28.06 at 10:28 am

In the South, Miss Firstname is a friendly, but definitely deferential, form of address. It is less class-based than most other titles, but is a very respectful way to address a woman

In my childhood it was the same in Wales, certainly among the older (but now dead) people we knew. Mr. Firstname too.


otto 02.28.06 at 10:34 am

“Second, I’m curious to know the gender component in all this. Your example is also about a woman. I just wonder how often this assumption about having fewer credentials than you actually do happens to men or how often that is manifested in how people are addressed.”

I’d like to know too, but in my experience there are both men making foolish assumptions about women which undervalue their credentials and women making foolish assumptions that men are making foolish assumptions which undervalue their credentials when there was little or no information to suggest that they had those credentials. Both mixed in with all sorts of other mistakes etc etc of course.

You’re right that the email contact is a bit different from meeting someone face to face.


winna 02.28.06 at 10:44 am

I call everyone Professor unless they’ve told me to call them by their first name. In an academic context, of course. For all I know it may be appropriate for me to call the cashier Dr, but in that circumstance I’m going to use ‘ma’am’ or ‘miss’.

And yes, Miss Firstname is a polite way of addressing a lady in the South, but I had always considered that any professional title supercedes its use.


fiernan 02.28.06 at 10:51 am

I get e-mails addressed to Mr more often than Dr from students at my university. Prof is less common than either.


Espen 02.28.06 at 10:56 am

I am an Associate Professor with a doctorate in Norway, but my Norwegian title is “førsteamanuensis” (there will be a prounounciation competition later.) Assistant Professors are titled “amanuensis”. The word “Professor” in Norway refers only to people who are full or chaired professors. In Sweden and in, I think, Denmark, it is the same thing. Moreover, the title Dr. is in Norwegian and Swedish reserved for physicians.

So, for a Scandinavian unfamiliar with English-language academic titles, using Mrs. can seem the safest alternative. (Then again, Norwegians and Swedes tell risque jokes in official settings, something not recommended on American campuses.)

I wouldn’t get too bothered about it – remembering Dan Dennetts joke about the atrophying effect of becoming a tenured professor, I would, in fact, see it as a complement. From a Norwegian.


Chris W. 02.28.06 at 11:00 am

I’m surprised that German correspondents wouldn’t at least use “Dr”. On the other hand, in some parts the German university system has become less formal, and indeed many doctors reject being addressed by their title except in the most formal context (when being introduced as speakers for example). I addressed all my (German) professors as “Herr so-and-so” (there weren’t any women), and those who weren’t professors (a rank indeed reserved to a handful of senior faculty) by their first names.

Non-professorial anecdote: When my lover flew back to the US from France, the woman in the travel agency asked if she wanted “Mademoiselle” or “Madame” on her ticket. She opted for “Madame”… but the ticket actually read “Mrs”, which was sort of embarrassing.

(And I wrote you a note today just addressing you with “Hi” … hm …)


jlw 02.28.06 at 11:03 am

As someone who as often been on the sending end of such e-mails (contacting individuals for interviews or possible articles) I have found you can’t go wrong by addressing everyone as Dr. _________. If they hold doctorates, great; if not, they are generally flattered by the assumed elevation in prestige. Even after I’m corrected, I often still refer to non-doctorate holders as “Dr.”

That’s been the trend in English, historically. Mister used to be reserved for those of the highest status, but now even pixel-stained wretches such as me are called “Mr.” And earlier, we lost the thou/you distinction because the Elizabethans decided it was better to flatter even the stable boy by calling them “you.”

So I find Dr. Hargittai’s experience quite puzzling. Why go out of your way to presume a less than optimal status?

We’ve been doing


Chris W. 02.28.06 at 11:09 am

P.S.: As for “Frau” and age distinctions, you’re on the safe side if you address every woman over, say, 15 as “Frau”. Indeed, I wouldn’t use “Fräulein” for anyone but very young girls, and then as a joke, most of the time. My Abiturzeugnis has “Frau”, but this was a bit of an initative of the teacher involved in this. He argued that as soon as we’d get to university, we’d be “Frau” anyway. He was perfectly right.

I’m sure many continental Europeans can’t properly assess if “Ms” is considered perfecty acceptable (or even preferred) or some sort of militant feminist statement. Although they ought to have learnt about that in high school English.


Cryptic Ned 02.28.06 at 11:14 am

Meanwhile, “sir” and “ma’am” are now almost exclusively used by service workers to get the attention of customers. I don’t think I’ve ever heard either of those used in a friendly way.


Eszter 02.28.06 at 11:18 am

Chris W – Given the context of your email, I’m glad you said “Hi”. I’m hardly in my professional role on Flickr.

JLW – That’s cute that you said “Dr. Hargittai” in your comment. As noted in my post, “please call me Eszter”.:-) Plus that’s how I sign all my posts here anyway so there is no expectation otherwise.


otto 02.28.06 at 11:19 am

Of course “Comrade” is a nice egalitarian option…


e-tat 02.28.06 at 11:19 am

There seems to be some confusion of issues here.

Are academics at Southern universities addressed as Miss, regardless of their rank, gender, or marital status? If so, strike another blow for Dixie!

If not, then what we have is sexism parading as inexcusable naivete.


LowLife 02.28.06 at 11:43 am

I’m probably guilty of calling people Mr. or Mrs. when I should call them by their honorarium. Unless I know that they went eight fricken years to Evil Medical School. Then I call them doctor.


Jacob T. Levy 02.28.06 at 12:11 pm

when I should call them by their honorarium

Hee. I won’t make the jokes; I’ll just let it lie there.

I’ve got nothing of substance to add, because I find the European/ North American gaps here confusing and difficult to navigate or predict. The degree to which this is gendered and the degree to which it’s seniority-hierarchical is confusing and opaque. But, for what it’s worth, I rarely get an e-mail addressed to Mr. if it’s from within academia but outside Chicago. (Chicago has a declining-but-not-dead custom of undergrads using Mr. for male faculty.) Academic continental Europeans often address initial e-mail to me with my full name, no honorific.


soubzriquet 02.28.06 at 12:13 pm

I found that as a graduate student I started to get emails addressed as either Dr. or Professor, but I think most of these originated from sources that found my email address through conferences or proceedings. I suspect this is policy, made on the assumption that you’ll never annoy someone by attributing a `higher’ position to them than they actually hold. I also taught a couple of courses, and had a hard time stopping the students from calling me Dr. (particularly odd, after telling them I hadn’t finished yet) or Prof. (more understandable in context).

As a point of reference, though, I have very seldom had an email of the type you describe addressed as Mr. I tend to get Dr./Prof. from people who don’t know me and my name from those who do….

Somewhat related — these days I often deal with medical professionals. When meeting people in this context there is often a bit of a labelling dance, this person is an MD, that one a PhD, and this other one an MD/PhD. I guess this is sometimes useful. I did have the amusing experience recently of a quite junior (i.e., like me) MD on a project first addressing me as Dr., then exclaiming `oh, you’re a PhD?’. After which he addressed me by my first name. Until shortly later when he exclaimed `oh, you’re a mathematician?’ after which he went back to calling me Dr., which is psychologically interesting if nothing else.


Eszter 02.28.06 at 12:15 pm

Thanks, e-tat, I wasn’t quite sure how what people were saying explained away the issues I was raising.

Re honorarium, I was going to say something, but I guess I’ll skip it.

As for what Jacob said, that’s precisely what I was getting at, just call me Eszter Hargittai and that’s fine (although if you then use Prof Dr for others it’s still a bit curious).


LisainVan 02.28.06 at 12:26 pm

While I have never had the conference experience you describe, I get addressed by students all the time as Ms. S, or Mrs S or Miss S. And like you it drives me a bit nuts. Its not that I care about the title, but I would like an acknowledgement of equal status. This is more the case now that I am tenured, and though I look younger than my age, am not that young.

I think there are a number of things going on. First, I do think students have an unarticulated assumption that professors are male — there was a NYT piece a little while ago on Saul Kripke, who was described as looking just as you would expect a philosophy professor to look (I thought: I look nothing like that). Second, especially younger students have a bit of a transition problem from high school. There, most of their teachers are likely female, and they presumably call them ‘Ms’ or ‘Mrs’. This does not explain the professional correspondence though. I will say that when I have received professional queries, I have always been addressed as Prof. or Dr.


Matt Austern 02.28.06 at 12:29 pm

I’ve had the same experience as soubzriquet: when I was in grad school, mail addressed to me usually called me “Dr. Austern”. The sender, presumably, didn’t want to bother sorting out which people were grad students, which were postdocs, etc., and figured that nobody would be offended by being called “Dr.” incorrectly. (Well, nobody other than Freeman Dyson, anyway, but I’m not him.)


Eszter 02.28.06 at 12:33 pm

Soubzriquet – that’s a really neat story, thanks for sharing! I’ve been meaning to write a blog post for the longest time about the whole MD addressed as Dr vs PhD addressed by first name issue. The details you give about this (the ohs and the back-and-forth) are very interesting.


RSA 02.28.06 at 12:39 pm

A bit off-topic from the original post, but I find it amusing that in Norway an assistant professor is an “amanuensis”. The literal meaning is the same as assistant, but I think that the connotations are of menial (though still white collar) assistance; a reasonable British synonym might be “dogsbody.”

I’m also reminded of opening a bank account in a new city early in my academic life.

Banker: So, what do you do for a living?

Me: I’m an assistant professor at such and such university.

Banker: Really? [pause] Whom do you assist?


soubzriquet 02.28.06 at 12:40 pm

Amusingly, I have the opposite experience in person. Although I am older than average for my position (I didn’t start university until 24 years of age) people consistently seem to put my age at about 8 years younger than I am (it was a lot less accurate before I had a few gray hairs!). In person, I get a lot of exchanges like `are you a masters or phd student?’, ‘post-doc.’, ‘oh, sorry.’ (I don’t really understand the apology part, either). It probably doesn’t help that as a post-doc you often don’t have an obvious departmental web presence, etc.


rfs 02.28.06 at 12:46 pm

As a southerner and a professor at a southern university, I can testify that in my experience calling anyone “Miss Firstname” is not actually a common practice outside of Margaret Mitchell novels, and that anyone who does so is being extraordinarily condescending, on purpose.


Mrs. Coulter 02.28.06 at 12:46 pm

An interesting dilemma that I have faced on many occasions, since I am both a graduate student and a faculty spouse (though at different institutions). When I’m wearing my student hat, I generally address all faculty members as “Professor.” In social situations, I address my husband’s colleagues by first name.

It gets weird when there is some sort of overlap, as when someone I knew socially (and was on a first name basis with) gave a brown bag lunch lecture attended by my fellow students. I “solved” the problem by not addressing him by name at all when I asked a question.

In general, I consider “professor” to be both a social role *and* a professional title, much like the way that “captain” is both a rank and a role (one can be the captain of a ship, but not hold the military rank of captain). If you are a student in a college-level (or above) class, then you should address the instructor as “Professor So-and-so,” regardless of the instructor’s actual status, until directed otherwise by the instructor–my experience is that most instructors who do not yet hold the title of “Professor” will simply say, “Oh just call me ‘Firstname’.”

Another oddity: I am currently taking Russian language classes. Russian teachers are most properly addressed by first name and patronymic. My previous teacher told us to just call her by her first name, but my current teacher has not done so. However, I don’t recall her ever providing her patronymic, and no one in the class ever addresses her by name. It’s kind of a “hey you!” thing.


soubzriquet 02.28.06 at 12:50 pm

Eszter — yes culturally it is quite interesting I think. The role of MD/PhD’s in research circles is interesting, too.

I’ve also run into an MD complaining of how much longer they spent in school than I did. She was quite shocked to find that my 5 yrs undergrad (hons. in two deptartments, plus `co-op’ terms stretched it out a bit), 2 years masters, 4 years phd and then at least one post-doc (ok, not quite the same thing but….) wasn’t unusual. This is quite discipline dependent, of course, as well as by country (in Canada the masters seems to be a requirement more often than here in the US, for example). Also the range of time in phd programs varies place to place, let alone discipline to discipline.


eudoxis 02.28.06 at 1:01 pm

I wonder if much of the confusion stems from the lack of an appropriate title for junior faculty with PhDs. I find professor mildly pretentious and where I was trained, only the old faculty, male or female preferred that title. I used to get irritated at the sex-based difference in address, something I don’t think Eszter is imagining. But I don’t view Mrs. as derogatory, in general.


LowLife 02.28.06 at 1:06 pm


Jacob – you’re alot more kind to me than anybody in my family, my friends, or anybody that knows me would be. Thanks for mercy and the correction.


LowLife 02.28.06 at 1:11 pm

That goes for you, too, Eszter. But wouldn’t you prefer an honorarium to an honorific?


Amanda 02.28.06 at 1:15 pm

I am a native-born American, and I live and work outside academia, in the Northeast U.S. When addressing strangers by e-mail, I use their full names or Mr./Ms. I never use Miss or Mrs., and I use Dr. almost exclusively in those cases in which the person has an M.D.

Distinctions between full and (not-full? untenured? associate?) professors are lost on me. I don’t know anything about the timeline for graduate degrees and have only a general understanding of the march from undergrad to masters to doctorate. While the subtleties of these distinctions may be very significant in a university setting, to a non-academic they are opaque and unnecessary. (All I’m usually trying to determine is: Does this person have valuable insight into the work at hand and is there a financially/logistically practical way that they can share it?)

I’m sensitive to the fact that people looking for a quick shorthand way of sorting strangers may pigeonhole young and/or female people into junior/lower-status roles. It happens frequently to me. At the same time, it’s a big world and academics’ weird and convoluted job titles are no more deserving of outsiders’ literacy than any other field or sector. So I’m sympathetic to people who send e-mail trying to be basically respectful and failing on the details.

[N.b.: Though I grew up in the North, I do sometimes use “Miz Firstname” as a respectful way of addressing service workers, especially if they are a generation older or a different ethnicity than me. Security guards, custodians, train conductors, customer-service reps, etc. often have only their first names on their name tags. The “Miz” is a slurring of Miss/Ms. and I use it as a lazy out, because I know that some people object to Miss and others to Ms.]


bob 02.28.06 at 1:23 pm

As Jacob alluded to, there is an inverted snobbery at some universities (e.g. Harvard, the University of Chicago) wherein it is considered infra dig to refer to faculty as “Professor”, or as “Doctor” for anyone other than an M.D. Thus non-medical male faculty are always “Mr.”; non-medical female faculty could present problems in knowing what form of address to use (Hanna Gray is “Mrs. Gray”, but not everyone’s marital status, or preference regarding “Ms.” is known).


Tim Morris 02.28.06 at 1:28 pm

“Miss Firstname” as a title of respect may be generational or regional in the south, or have a subtle cultural component. When my kid was in elementary school in Texas, schoolteachers were always “Mrs Lastname,” but piano and drama teachers, women outside a formal classroom, tended to be “Miss Firstname” … for what it’s worth.


Tom Hudson 02.28.06 at 1:28 pm

As a student on the west coast, we referred to all the faculty as Professor, even the one eternally-ABD-lecturer in his hawaiian shirts. Since I moved to the South, grad students have generally called faculty by their first name (except for Nobel winners, department chairs, and a few other very-senior types, at least partially driven by personal respect). Undergrads are pretty mixed in their forms of address.

To give a counterpoint to rfs’s post, I regularly hear “Miss Firstname” – it’s how parents around here encourage their children to refer to adult female family friends (regardless of age or marrital status – my wife is Miss C, my son’s sunday school teachers are Miss T and Miss B).


Tim Morris 02.28.06 at 1:32 pm

I was in graduate school at Princeton 25 years ago, and I never heard the word “Doctor” till the day I defended my dissertation. Students and faculty were always on a first-name basis, preferably a nickname basis. The culture may have changed considerably in the interim, though …


Gdr 02.28.06 at 1:43 pm

It’s not the first time casual academic sexism has been covered on Crooked Timber.


nick s 02.28.06 at 1:54 pm

I found that as a graduate student I started to get emails addressed as either Dr. or Professor, but I think most of these originated from sources that found my email address through conferences or proceedings.

Yes, it comes with the MLA subscription (or whichever Evil Disciplinary Overloard applies to you). I’ve always found it more than a little creep to be addressed as ‘Professor’, since my doctorate came from an institution where you need a chair, a pipe, and six decades on the clock… and since I’m currently unaffiliated.


MJ Memphis 02.28.06 at 2:31 pm

“As a southerner and a professor at a southern university, I can testify that in my experience calling anyone “Miss Firstname” is not actually a common practice outside of Margaret Mitchell novels, and that anyone who does so is being extraordinarily condescending, on purpose.”

Where in the South are you? I’ve lived in the South all my life (born in LA, family in MS and AR, college in AL, live in TN) and I hear it all the time, although not so much as when I was growing up.


rfs 02.28.06 at 2:34 pm

To give a counterpoint to rfs’s post, I regularly hear “Miss Firstname” – it’s how parents around here encourage their children to refer to adult female family friends (regardless of age or marrital status – my wife is Miss C, my son’s sunday school teachers are Miss T and Miss B).

This is true, and it’s exactly how my daughter addresses our neighbors. But absolutely never in any kind of professional context. And grownups don’t really do this, except to refer to people in the third person when talking to children, or maybe to close family friends of their grandparents’ generation.


Ancarett 02.28.06 at 2:39 pm

In my department, Professor is the second-rank term since it was possible, in the past, to be hired and tenured without a doctorate. So we speak of Professor So-and-so as opposed to Dr. Such-and-such, to distinguish between faculty members who don’t or do have their Ph.D.

But I do find that new students tend to call me “Miss” or “Mrs” while addressing my much-younger male colleague by his academic title. In their case it seems to be a knee-jerk holdover from their high school experience. And the number of times it’s been assumed that I’m the secretary when people stop by the department office? Too numerous to count.


rfs 02.28.06 at 2:46 pm

Where in the South are you? I’ve lived in the South all my life (born in LA, family in MS and AR, college in AL, live in TN) and I hear it all the time, although not so much as when I was growing up.

In Virginia, so maybe the upper south is different. I may have overstated a bit by claiming that it never happens, but as I say above, I’ve never ever seen it in any kind of professional context, so in the context that the possibility was originally raised (#4) I’d still say that even a southerner doing this is either confused about a person’s first vs. last name (perhaps the commenter didn’t remember or got the names reversed) or being purposely condescending.


eudoxis 02.28.06 at 2:49 pm

Maybe the use of titles are field specific. Is the professor title commonly used or expected in the humanities? I find the incessant use of “professor” on CT amusing. (Okay, I understand readership is growing. Daily!) In the sciences it just doesn’t seem that common, at least not among colleagues. There are always pesky undergrads who also wash dishes hoping for a name on a paper.


John Quiggin 02.28.06 at 2:53 pm

Going slightly off-topic, I’ve noticed that I’m occasionally addressed as “Mr Quiggin” in blog comments, and that this is a reliable indicator that the comment to follow will be both critical and incoherent.


MJ Memphis 02.28.06 at 2:58 pm

rfs- Ahhhh, Virginia, that explains it. Down here, we call that “the North”. (Of course, back in south LA, we called everything above I-30 “the North.”) Must be a regional thing. We also had quite a few “Mister firstnames”- Mister Sonny (husband of Miss Karen), Mister Boyd (husband of Miss Kay), and so forth; I never heard it used in a condescending fashion.

That being said, I have never heard it used in a university setting.


ingrid 02.28.06 at 3:04 pm

I’ve had many similar experiences as Eszter (even though I am only in my 4th year of a post-doc research position).

I’ve received a handful of e-mails where I’m addressed as Mr., even though there is a picture on my homepage that clearly displays a woman (at least I hope so).

I’ve also often been considerd to be a student. In 2002 I got my PhD in Cambridge and moved to Amsterdam on a research position. In 2004 I offered to teach in my own department, but since I would do it for free and wanted to connect my teaching to my research, I asked if I could teach at the MA level. I was told by the professor who is the teaching coordinator that this was not possible since in order to teach at the MA level one had to have a PhD. And there have been many more examples… (perhaps the solution is to stop wearing jeans and other cheap clothing?)

When last fall Pauline Kleingeld was giving her inaugural lecture as philosophy professor (the chair) at the University of Leiden, the magazine of this university announced that “his lecture” would take place etc etc. I find it shocking that even the journalists of your own university don’t take the trouble to check this, and are so influenced by stereotypes.

Something less annecdotal: in several (perhaps most or all?) Dutch universities, a male professor will be named (e.g. on lists of all faculty) “prof. dr. So-and-so” while a female prof will be called “mevr. prof. dr. so-and-so”. I don’t mind that they add the word “mevr.” (mevrouw = mrs or ms), but then they should also add something for the men.


MatthewB 02.28.06 at 3:17 pm

A fascinating discussion — my wife, an assistant professor in her late 30s, is still struggling with how to gently correct 18-year-old students who automatically address her by her first name.

As a journalist, I always address academics of any rank as “Professor” in e-mails and letters for just the reason cited here a couple of times: At worst, it’s flattering. And anyone with a doctorate gets “Dr.,” for the same reason. The only tough part comes when some guy with a Ph.D. insists on being referred to in print as “Dr.,” which is pretty much reserved for M.D.s.


Evan 02.28.06 at 3:23 pm

Medical journal editors seem to routinely promote everyone they write to to “Dr.” even after you’ve sent them a manuscript with your clear absence of medical degree or doctorate on it.


Kieran Healy 02.28.06 at 3:28 pm

As Jacob alluded to, there is an inverted snobbery at some universities (e.g. Harvard, the University of Chicago) wherein it is considered infra dig to refer to faculty as “Professor”, or as “Doctor” for anyone other than an M.D. Thus non-medical male faculty are always “Mr.

Roughly the same inversion applies to the medical profession in Ireland (and I think the UK): male doctors are addressed as “Dr”, but consultants (higher up the ladder) revert to being addressed as “Mr.” I’ve never had to deal with a female consultant, so I don’t know what the convention is. Probably shifted from Mrs to Ms.


soubzriquet 02.28.06 at 3:30 pm

I should clarify that within the disciplines I have had anything to do with, actual working relationships always are informal, and tend to be first-name basis with the possible exception of distinguished senior researchers. Undergrads sometimes seem to have difficulty knowing what to call their instructors, but that’s a different story. Everything I’ve commented on above is either at a remove (e.g. email from someone or an organization you have not corresponded with before) or interfacing with medical people, where there culture is different. We certainly don’t go around calling each other Dr. so-and-so, or whatever, and it would be quite strange to hear (as Tim pointed out).

I thought it was interesting though in comparison with the experience Eszter described….

Amanda: clearly the details of position etc. are uninteresting in your context (ok, they are generally uninteresting). That isn’t what this is about, though. The labels are not important here but the fact of their seemingly biased application is. It drifted somewhat (my fault, I think) into the MD vs. PhD usage which I suppose is interesting for different reasons.


Kenny Easwaran 02.28.06 at 3:40 pm

Contra whoever was talking about the difference between sciences and humanities, I notice that in the math department at Berkeley, people use last names to talk about all professors except their own advisor and one or two other affiliated faculty, while in the philosophy department people use first names to talk about all professors, except when disambiguating “John”. I’m not sure how people tend to directly address faculty in the math department (I always avoid terms of address in general), but in the philosophy department it tends to mainly be by first name as well.

And interestingly, my math department snail-mail box gets academic spam occasionally addresses to “Professor Easwaran”. I can’t remember what it’s for, but all the grad students get it.


Daniel 02.28.06 at 4:05 pm

Kieran: “Mr” is a surgeon in UK medicine; a consultant physician would still be “Dr”. It’s an inverted historical snobbery thing because doctors are gentlemen but surgeons are jumped-up barbers.

When I was at the Bank of England it was generally considered that the Governor was “Mr Governor”, the Deputy Governor was “Mr Deputy Governor” (I have no idea what they do with Rachel Lomax these days but bet it’s “Madam Deputry Governor”) and everyone else was first names, unless you were really really trying to crawl to Madam Chief Cashier (role now occupied by a man). This was always traumatic every October or so when a bunch of newly minted economics PhDs came in thrilled with their new titles and had to be given the “if professor fucking mervyn king can deal with it so can you” talk.


Mary 02.28.06 at 4:14 pm

I used to work as an administrative assistant on an academic journal while I was finishing up undergrad. I got to write a lot of emails to suggested reviewers asking for their assistance.

What a mess. In North America, many academics are “Professor” because they get that title in tenure track roles (and maybe before?). In the Commonwealth, even Associate Professor is a prestigous title awarded many years into your career, and most academics are “Dr” (or rarely “Mr” or “Ms” if appointed without a PhD).

The objection to using the title for people without an medical degree (MB/BS here, an MD is an actual professional doctorate which most doctors don’t hold) is not often heard in Australia. In fact, since you get to be a doctor with a couple of undergraduate degrees here, I’ve heard PhDs suggest that it shouldn’t be used by most physicians, even as surgeons slowly begin to use it too after centuries of “Mr”/(“Mrs”/”Ms”?).

On behalf of hardworking admins asking you humbly to review papers everywhere, I wished that more academics would list their title on their webpage. “Dear Eszter, please do hours of volunteer work for me” just didn’t cut it.

That said, it was interesting what I got in response given that I would state my job (administrative assistant) in the email.

From North America, Britain, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand: I almost always would get a reply addressed to “Mary” (very rarely “Ms _”) and signed with the person’s first name.

From much of the rest of Europe I would get a reply to “Mrs _”, often signed with the person’s first name but sometimes with their full name and title.

From South America, I would very often get “Dr _”, signed with the person’s first name.

I don’t recall what Asian academics sent and I don’t recall an African reviewer.


Will Wilkinson 02.28.06 at 4:15 pm

Is there any kind of justifiable social purpose for elevated terms of address such as “Doctor” and “Professor”?

There is a lot to be said against the practice. It strikes me as essentially arbitrary. It is not really a mark of respect for achievement. I know many unlettered people who are more deeply learned in certain areas than those with degrees or professorships. There seems to me to be nothing about certification as such that demands deference. And of course there are other forms of certification, at least as equally impressive, that do not have a special title attached. I respect a diploma from the Culinary Institute of America rather more than a Ph.D. in education from, well, anywhere. And the average mechanic does more good for humanity than the average academic.

Shouldn’t our social egalitarianism forbid these arbitrary distinctions between persons? I know I bridle at addressing people by their titles, especially people whose titles fail to reflect anything about them worth respecting. And I feel a wave of relief when I am invited to use the first name. I would prefer calling everyone “comrade” or “citizen” over calling some “Dr.” and “Prof.” Better yet: Gary, Eunique, Dikembe, Ekaterina, etc.


Kieran Healy 02.28.06 at 4:19 pm

“Mr” is a surgeon in UK medicine; a consultant physician would still be “Dr”. It’s an inverted historical snobbery thing because doctors are gentlemen but surgeons are jumped-up barbers.

Oh yeah … Stephen Maturin and all that.


schwa 02.28.06 at 4:51 pm

Granting that the rules are different for written correspondence, back home in New Zealand anyone who expected to be addressed as “Professor” for any reason whatsoever was guaranteed to be a self-important prat. I was on a first-name basis with all my lecturers from my second semester.

As Mary points out, in the non-American Anglosphere, at least, the fact that “professor” isn’t a generic form of address has a lot to do with the fact that it takes you over a decade of your academic career even to get within coo-ee of the word, and many quite intelligent scholars top out at what Americans would consider the lowly rank of Associate Professor.

Come to think of it, it’s not all that long ago that you could be a Lecturer or Senior Lecturer with only an MA.

I think a similar informality prevails in Australia.


soubzriquet 02.28.06 at 5:44 pm

will, schwa: While I am sympathetic to much of what will stated, that really is drifting into a different issue though, isn’t it? I mean, what form of address I would *choose* (informal, invariably) is quite different from the forms of address that have been applied to me. And all of this is quite seperate from the question of what form of address a female colleague of mine would receive, all else being equal.

I should perhaps note that when I referred to the `labelling dance’ above, it is not neccessarily a social/hierarchical thing. When crossing the medicine mathematics jargon barrier, it is useful to have a rough idea of the expertise of people in the room….


soc anon 02.28.06 at 5:58 pm

Despite being a tenured professor on the downhill side of 40, I get called Ms./Miss frequently in e-mails, almost exclusively by male undergraduates and male graduate students from East Asia (and Nigerian princes with one-time-only business opportunities, but that’s a different story). Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever had a female student call me “Miss” or “Ms.” If anything, they just avoid using my name at all.

I once was asked by a [male] discussant to fetch water for all the other panelists at a conference session. I was not the youngest or lowest status panelist, nor was I the closest to the water pitchers at the back of the room, nor was I uninvolved in a conversation at the time. I was, however, the only woman on the panel. Coincidence? Hmmm…


Daniel 02.28.06 at 5:59 pm

Is there any kind of justifiable social purpose for elevated terms of address such as “Doctor” and “Professor”?

it’s cheaper than paying them.


lalala 02.28.06 at 7:01 pm

I know a woman who is an associate professor of history. Her personal preference would be to be called by her first name, but as most of her male colleagues insist on being called ‘doctor,’ she does the same. And finds it somewhat difficult to get some of her students (esp the male ones) to do so – they will switch from referring to ‘doctor so and so’ to calling her by her first name.

In the parts of the south I’m familiar with, Miss Firstname is used, as others have suggested, by children to unrelated adult women as one step in formality below Miss/Mrs. Lastname. It’s also used affectionately between adults.


Tracy W 02.28.06 at 7:52 pm

For a while I was working on policy issues varying from science to regional development and arts & culture.

I was always addressed by, and addressed people, by first names. But I also got quite a bit of mass mailings (e.g. invitations to conferences, etc). After a while I noticed that the science ones nearly always awarded me the title of “Dr” while the other ones always went with firstname lastname.

No gender implications, as “Tracy” could, and sometimes is, read as a male name. But the difference in assumptions between different professions was interesting.


Tom T. 02.28.06 at 8:08 pm

Re: #2

>>> he addressed the man … as “Professor X”

Was he bald and in a wheelchair?

Jimbo, you read my mind.


aabbcc 02.28.06 at 8:39 pm


soc prof 02.28.06 at 9:03 pm

I grew up in the “lower south” (Alabama) and am a professor at a Kentucky university. If a native English speaker called me “Miss Karen” in a professional context, I would assume they were being either ironic or condescending. Because Miss “firstname” is used by children, it might be considered affectionate — but no respectful adult would use it seriously in a professional context.

My hunch is that some people still think of wife as a woman’s “master status” — hence the Mrs. rather than Dr./Prof. It would be interesting to see if that same thing happened to female MDs.


vivian 02.28.06 at 9:36 pm

At my first APSA, at a not-very-interesting panel, a man in the audience asked a good question that was not couched in pretentious language. The panelist began by saying “What is your institutional affiliation? I can’t read your badge from here.” The man replied that he was a member but not in academia. The panelist sniffed “I see.” and gave a patronizing non-answer.

So, yeah, snobs, status games, appealing to uninteresting mid-career men at schools they think beneath them, taking it out on anyone they dare, at a conference where threats of reprisal are low? Sounds plausible to me. However, I have always been treated with respect and encouragement when on panels and in the audience.


anon 03.01.06 at 12:08 am

My father was an officer in the military, and I grew up on military bases. There, it is easy to figure out the title an adult should be called … read it off their uniform. Then my dad was transferred to a college to be in charge of the ROTC detachment. Suddenly there were all these people who expected to be called different titles, with no apparent means of telling them apart. I complained of this to my dad. (It seemed like an adult plot at the time.) He told me it was never rude to call a person “Mr. (or Mrs.)” Lastname. So that’s what I did.


H. e. baber 03.01.06 at 12:20 am

Emily Post c. 1963 said that in personal correspondance you address an MD, dentist or vet as “Dr.” but a Ph.D. as Mr./Mrs./Miss whereas in professional conexts Ph.Ds are “Dr.” or “Professor.” At the college where I was an undergrad, faculty insisted on “Mr.”, “Mrs.” and “Miss” because it was somehow felt to be English and classy. About half also called us “Mr.” and “Miss” which I’d do with my students if I had the guts.

I get Mrs. occasionally which I don’t mind–generally from students making the transition from high school. This is very much in the spirit that they fail to realize I have an office and think they should meet me for appointments in “my” classroom.

I prefer Dr. because I just cannot stand “Ms.” What a stupid move–it carries ideological baggage and what really bugs me is that it hasn’t knocked out Mrs. and Miss as it was supposed to but has become the replacement for “Miss” which has all but died out. The idea seems to be that Ms. as a feminist title only goes for unmarried women–women who can snag men don’t need to be feminists. Mrs used to be the generic title for grown up women, married or not, like Mrs. Anne Kiligrew and if the early feminists who concocted Ms had had any sense they would have gone with that for all grown up women.

I like Dr. anyway. I worked and suffered for that degree, I’m a full professor, which I worked and suffered for also, and I deserve it. And I want all the prestige I can get.


John Holbo 03.01.06 at 12:23 am

Just to be safe, I call simply EVERYONE ‘Herr Doktor Professor so-and-so’.


josh 03.01.06 at 12:29 am

I haven’t noticed any uses of ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’ instead of ‘Professor’ at Harvard, so Chicago would seem to be a rare holdout. I’ve also found that practices in addressing/refering to faculty members are somewhat confused among grad students. Most of the time we seem (with a few decorous exceptions) to refer to faculty, behind their backs, by their first names (as part of our general air of arrogant presumption); this is not, however, universal (some faculty seem to inspire first-name references, others last-name references, still others full-name references; this seems not to be an index of the speaker’s closeness to or fondness for the faculty member in question). Sex doesn’t play a role at all, so far as I can tell; seniority does to some degree, but not generally.
Addressing faculty, as opposed to referring to them in conversation with third parties (whether the third parties are grad students or other faculty sometimes does, sometimes doesn’t, make a difference) is a more delicate proposition. At one point I asked (via email) a professor with whom I’ve had fairly friendly dealings whether she preferred being addressed by her first or her last name; she didn’t respond at all (though she did reply to the email), which left me uncertain. So I generally don’t address her, or indeed any of the professors, as anything, if I can possibly help it (most professors seem to sign emails by their initials — unhelpful.)
For my part, I always find it odd to be addressed by my full name, without title: it seems stilted to me, though sensible. When I taught a class, my students initially tended to address me as Professor [lastname]. I discouraged them from doing so some persisted) and asked them to call me by my first name (which I thought especially appropriate since some of them were older than I was), adding that if they felt uncomfortable with that, ‘Mr. [Lastname]’ would be the most appropriate, since I didn’t have a doctorate and wasn’t regular faculty. A few did use ‘Mr.’, which I found weird, but most didn’t (that was in the US; when I taught in England, I was initially addressed as Dr, I think, but addressed by my firstname after stating that I preferred it).
I don’t know enough to comment on the gender issue here — save that my _impression_ is students seem to adapt much more easily to addressing female grad students by first name when asked to, than they do male grad students, though initially they don’t differentiate. This may not be accurate though.


nick s 03.01.06 at 12:30 am

Is there any kind of justifiable social purpose for elevated terms of address such as “Doctor” and “Professor”?

When there’s a student-teacher relationship, I think it’s worthwhile to use titles as a way of establishing who’s in charge. Especially if your students are emailing you from their addresses late at night to ask about stationery supplies.


josh 03.01.06 at 12:35 am

John Holbo’s (Dr Holbo’s? Professor Holbo’s?) solution seems sensible to me.
An addendum to the above: most faculty here refer to students by first name, of course. I had one professor who addressed (grad) students in class as Mr/Ms. Lastname (which we the students felt constrained to do as well). This was a tiny bit awkward at first, particularly as it was a fairly international class, and some of the Polish, Indian and Thai names were hard for some of us (including the Professor) to manage. By the end of the term it was working fine, but there were a few uncomfortable/funny moments early on.


heretic 03.01.06 at 1:08 am

I’d like to see a title which means “I do not know how you prefer to be addressed but I mean to address you with every courtesy and respect, regardless of gender, education or kitchen sink preference” ;)

“Dear * Lastname” might work. It could at least avoid the ultimate deathtrap: calling someone “Ms” when they “ARENOTAMIZZZYOUMORON!!!”. Not that I’m scarred by any specific experience.

On a different note, “Miss Firstname” can be a respectful form of address (at least in intent). I’ve only heard it used by students addressing their female teachers.


dr ngo 03.01.06 at 2:14 am

Just a couple more data points, with no great insight (and nothing whatsoever in the gender line, alas):

I used to teach in Hong Kong, with frequent research trips to the Philippines. The former, as a former British colony, bestowed much greater respect on Professors than mere Doctors, so when I felt I needed a little extra clout I used “Professor” as soon as I was entitled to do so. (E.g., phoning up the Estates Office to complain about the plumbing.) In the Philippines, however, there were many academics who had been promoted to the top of their profession without a doctorate, so those who wanted to pay me respect always called me “Doctor” rather than “Professor.” I just had to remember which country I was in …

And one of the best lines I have heard about (though, fortunately, not heard directly) on being introduced to someone as “Doctor So-and-So”: Oh, how nice! Are you a PhD, or the kind of doctor who actually helps people?


Belle Lettre 03.01.06 at 3:43 am

I’m late to the game, but I just wanted to add my two cents–

I went to law school, where everyone–adjuncts (most of the clinical professors), lecturers (like the 26 year old research fellow), tenure-track and tenured professors was addressed as “Professor”–it didn’t matter if you had a PhD (most don’t)or what title you actually held. Technically, Juris Doctors hold doctorates, although there is no title to be addressed by. So when lawyers come to give talks (as they often do), we have to go to Mr. or Ms. And in law school, at our conferences, there was greater chance for a mix-up about who was a professor and who was a practioner. But even with the younger academics (the junior hires are all 33-38, the senior faculty are all 45-60+) I never heard of calling the women “Ms.” and the men “Professor” when the titles were clear–even the most misogynistic and condescending male students/senior faculty had the wherewithal to call them “my colleague” or “Professor.” What is up with these 18 year olds that presume to call professors by their first name and have to be “gently corrected”? I would have thought that most students wouldn’t presume that level familiarity–the impudence!


doctor zweety 03.01.06 at 4:13 am

In the Netherlands any academic staff would be addressed by anyone in personal contact with either mrs or mr. Regardless whether what kind of prof. you are. Maybe full professors are sometimes addressed as prof, but using dr. in a personal communication is just a do-not overhere.


Chris Williams 03.01.06 at 5:08 am

I love Americans, who invariably refer to me as ‘Professor’. My title is actually ‘Doctor’, but I tend to disown it unless I’m trying to be rude to someone who’s called me ‘Mr’. When in hospital for any reason, or travelling on public transport, I always put my name down as ‘Mr’, to avoid any potential for confusion.


ab 03.01.06 at 5:32 am

Just to be safe, I call simply EVERYONE ‘Herr Doktor Professor so-and-so’.

Actually, the correct order, in German at least, would be:

“Herr Professor Doktor So-and-So”

It’s a bit more complicated for female professors. The female word for Professor is Professorin. So you might think it would be “Frau Professorin”, but in fact it’s mostly “Frau Professor”. The same is true of Doktor and Doktorin.

Of course, most German doctors would also indicate the field of their doctorate and whether or not they hold the second doctorate, the Habilitation. (In Germany, until recently at least, you needed two doctoral theses to become a professor).

Dr. phil. is a Doctor of Philosophy, which basically applies to all humanities and social sciences.

Dr. rer. nat. is a Doctor of Natural Science.

Dr. med. is a Doctor of Medicine.

Dr. habil. phil. is a Doctor of Philosophy with a Habilitation.

So the fully written-out title of a German professor in, let’s say, history or philosophy would look like this (the firstname wouldn’t be used on such occassion):

“Herr Professor Dr. habil. phil. Lastname”


Dave F 03.01.06 at 5:49 am

88 comments on Dr Hargittai’s problem about how the hoi polloi addresses her. That says it all about this outcrop of academia.


Daniel Rubin 03.01.06 at 7:27 am

I agree it is not fair. It reminds me, though, of a story from my college advisor. She told me that ph’ds tend to use ‘doctor’ in inverse proportion to the quality of the institution that dispensed their degree. hers was from yale, so she used her first name socially and professionally. she also said the only truly appropriate time to address yourself as doctor is when trying to make restaurant reservations. i’d think that would raise expectations.


rea 03.01.06 at 9:11 am

“Most of the time when someone contacts me and says “Dear Dr. Hargittai” or “Dear Professor Hargittai” the first line of my response is: “Dear X, please call me Eszter.” So the status marker that comes with these is not what’s of interest to me.”

But of course, nothing is more high status than a conspicuous rejection of status markers. Napoleon knew this well–he always made a point of dressing in a simple uniform, to stand out from the crowd of gaudily dressed marshals, generals and aides surrounding him. You’re dong the same thing-after someone properly acknowledges your status, you graciously demonstrate that you’re too secure in your high status to need to insist on status markers.

Not that you’re not entitled to all the status markers (not to mention actual respect)in the world, Professor Hargittai.


Doug 03.01.06 at 9:24 am

ab, woe should that person also have an honorary degree. That yields Hr. Prof. Dr. habil. phil. Dr. h.c. Familienname.

Woe also to interacting with cultures in which the family name is written first, as I am sure Hargittai Eszter can appreciate. The Hungarian cases as easy as anything in a Finno-Ugric tongue is, the Bavarian cases rare (Maier Sepp excepted), but what to do with Supachai Panichpakdi? Especially as said person may have had so much contact with the Western approach as to adopt it, but maybe not. Of such things are assistants’ gray hairs made.

(It’s been fairly well covered, but the southern usage of Miss Sally or Mister Louis really is reserved for children. Interestingly, I think that Polish has something similar, where it is often used among colleagues at work. So you are still using the formal forms of the verbs, but people are, say, Pan Michal or Pani Magda.)


paul 03.01.06 at 9:25 am

Another odd datapoint: I’ve spent most of my career as a reporter working for publications on the border between lay and learned; as a result, a significant chunk of the correspondence I’ve gotten has been for “Dr.” (and occasionally “Professor”) even though I have no advanced degree at all. I wonder if this might be an artifact of expectations about print on paper as opposed to visibility on the net.


"Dr" Ted To 03.01.06 at 9:39 am

I have some recent but related research on the use of titles. My coauthor and I have a theory that is applicable to whether or not academics use a title when referring to themselves ( We test this theory using data we collected from voicemail greetings and undergraduate course syllabi in economics departments in California’s state universities. One result of our analysis (which we do not discuss in much detail because it is peripheral to the point of the paper) is that female faculty members were more likely to use a title than male members (fn 28). The rationale for this may be very much related to Eszter’s observations about how female academics are often addressed differently than male academics — because people often choose not to address female academics as Dr or Prof, women may be less inclined to be “modest” about advertising their PhDs. Eszter pointed out (in an email) that this might have an unintended consequence that women who do so may be perceived as being obnoxious.


Laura 03.01.06 at 10:02 am

There’s also a regional component to this. In New York City and I’m sure in other brie-eating cities, “Mrs.” is a slur. People would rather be addressed as “Ignorant Slut” rather than “Mrs.” While I was teaching, there might have been some fumbling over whether to call me Laura or Dr. Lastname or Prof. Lastname or even Miss Lastname, but never “Mrs.”


eudoxis 03.01.06 at 10:22 am

rea: “But of course, nothing is more high status than a conspicuous rejection of status markers.

In defense of Eszter, I don’t take this away from her post at all. It is a lament about a public that misuses titles in ignorant or sexist ways. If someone is going to use a title at all, it should be the proper one.

Laura, I’m surprised that Mrs. is a slur. I think you’re probably right that there is a regional component to that. Age may have something to do with it as well. One sort of grows into the Mrs., or it loses its sting.


timna 03.01.06 at 10:27 am

The one place I want to be addressed as Dr. is in mailings from the phd institution alumni’s mailings. At least until I finish paying off the student loans.


Fiona 03.01.06 at 10:32 am

My experience is that American students and Asian students tend to call me Professor (even though I have not yet completed my PhD even!!) whereas European students call me Mrs (even though I’m not married) and my Irish students call me Fiona, which is what I tell them to call me. I do think there’s a cultural thing: in UK and Ireland for sure we tend not to put much prestige in the US title “Professor” because EVERYone is either associate professor or professor – in other words the system of AP and then P tends to have undermined the prestige of professorship in US institutions.

Anyway, I’m not sure there’s always an element of gender in this – it’s mostly cultural. There’s certainly some element of gender and sexism in certain situations, but not always I don’t think


David Brake 03.01.06 at 11:23 am

Three notes:
1) To my amusement I am consistently upgraded to a doctorate because my email is d.r.brake at LSE (first and middle initials).
2) It’s nice to know that even here in the UK academic status trumps (pseudo-)hereditary titles – eg Professor Lord Layard.
3) I used to think that people who called themselves “Dr” so and so when they weren’t medics were putting on airs. Then I started my own doctorate… Now as far as I’m concerned anyone who has paid those dues is entitled to swank a bit. I wouldn’t default to “professor” though – as others have noted, you have to be a pretty big wheel to be a “prof” here in Yurp. Calling you “Mrs” when they don’t know your marital status just seems weird to me. For what it’s worth I’m a “Ms”-er for all women unless I know they are married…


Ben 03.01.06 at 12:00 pm

Here (Oxford) I know at least one Dr who repeatedly had to tell American students not to call him Professor, and one Professor (GAC) who had to tell someone not to call him Dr…

The undergraduate tutorial secretary from my college calls me Dr whenever I book a room for teaching. Generally I’m fine with Ben though.


wan 03.01.06 at 12:28 pm

Re belle letter, #87 (“What is up with these 18 year olds that presume to call professors by their first name and have to be ‘gently corrected’? I would have thought that most students wouldn’t presume that level familiarity”),

nick s, #83 (“When there’s a student-teacher relationship, I think it’s worthwhile to use titles as a way of establishing who’s in charge.”),

h.e. baber, #80 (“About half also called us “Mr.” and “Miss” which I’d do with my students if I had the guts”),


matthewb, #60 (“my wife, an assistant professor in her late 30s, is still struggling with how to gently correct 18-year-old students who automatically address her by her first name.”):

There is a simple solution here. Address the *students* with the title to which, as (young) adults who are not your intimates, they are entitled (viz., Mr. or Ms.). In response, I get ‘Professor,’ ‘Dr.,’ or ‘Ms.’ (occasionally ‘Mrs.,’ which I take as a clumsy attempt at politeness).

The problems here are not only sexism, sometimes unconscious, and academically arcane practices and levels of distinction, but also the fact that students need some help learning to figure out what roles and courtesy call for in terms of address in professional contexts. We do them no favors by hiding these requirements behind the pretense that we are (and everyone ought to be) beyond such distinctions.


Nicholas Whyte 03.01.06 at 12:57 pm

The whole Mrs/Ms/Miss thing is circumvented rather neatly here in Belgium by calling all women Mrs. The fact that hardly any women change their surnames on marriage makes things even more different from the US/UK/France.


Bill Hooker 03.01.06 at 2:56 pm

Meanwhile, “sir” and “ma’am” are now almost exclusively used by service workers to get the attention of customers. I don’t think I’ve ever heard either of those used in a friendly way.

I address all strangers as “sir” or “ma’am”, and mean only to convey common-or-garden variety respect. I thought this was fairly standard practice.

A few comments above lead me to wonder whether I have misunderstood “Ms”. I use Ms Lastname for any woman with whom I am not on a firstname basis, but for whom I do know the surname she uses — whether or not she is married. That is, I use “Ms” as a marital-status-neutral term, exactly equivalent to “Mr”; I’ve never had anyone say “actually, it’s Mrs” or “actually, it’s Miss“.


Gina 03.01.06 at 4:57 pm

I’m interested by the face-to-face use of the title Mrs. versus Professor for a woman in with her Ph.D. I’m also interested by the fact that many posts alluded to the fact their authors didn’t “look like a professor.” How, exactly, does a professor look? More precisely, can a woman professor wear a smoking jacket and grow a long, white beard? Of course, I’m being playful, but I can’t help but think some of the F2F uses of Mrs. over Professor or Doctor has something to do with gender stereotypes.


Kath Lowney 03.01.06 at 8:48 pm

Ah — thanks for writing this. I have it worse — I am a PhD who kept my own family name, so while I am married, I am not “Mrs.!” Students get very confused when I cross off the Mrs. yet they know that I am married.

And yes, male colleagues I know who are not PhDs are always referred to by students as “Dr.” or “Professor” but rarely the women.

But it’s pretty handy for telemarketers — I can say that the “Mrs …” isn’t here and be totally honest!

It’s frustrating…..


Michele Tepper 03.01.06 at 9:35 pm

As a New Yorker, I have to disagree with the contention that the honorific “Mrs” is considered a “slur” here. Rather I’d say with Bill Hooker that I, and most people I know, would default to “Ms” as a marital-status-neutral term, and find either “Miss” or “Mrs” less appropriate in most instances. (Indeed, even most of the married women I know use their birth names, and so would not be properly called “Mrs” as I understand the title is supposed to be used.)

I will admit, however, that possibly my favorite thing about having a Ph.D. — besides, of course, the groupies — is being able to answer questions like “Miss? Mrs?” with “Doctor.” It’s the only time I ever use the title.


rea 03.01.06 at 9:51 pm

“I use Ms Lastname for any woman with whom I am not on a firstname basis, but for whom I do know the surname she uses—whether or not she is married.”

It could be particularly useful when writing business letters to women of whose marital status you are unaware. If opposing counsel in a case at law is Emily Smith, does a letter to her begin “Dear Miss Smith”? Or “Dear Mrs. Smith”? Or, neutrally, “Dear Ms. Smith”? It would be nice to have an established convention for this situation so that one could be sure of not unintentionally giving mortal insult . . .


Craig Swenson 03.01.06 at 10:12 pm

Boy did this one generate a lot of responses. A bit sensitive aren’t we all? When I finished my doctorate, my committee chair, after saying “let me be the first to congratulate you ‘Doctor'”, suggested that I get one of the other small metal trash cans, put it over my head and yell my new title and name 100 times. “Get it out of your system,” he advised. Never call yourself doctor and don’t be upset if don’t. Life will be a lot happier if you don’t develop ‘doctor’s’ disease. You’re not really that big a deal.” It was good advice then and it’s good advice now–“Don’t take yourself too damned serious.”


H. e. baber 03.01.06 at 10:59 pm

I don’t understand the hesitancy of pulling rank. As a woman it’s been tough to get recognition of my position. When I first started teaching , as the only woman in my department, students and people delivering male, invariably took me to be the departmental secretary. Even now I have to fight for all I’m worth not to be ignored, dismissed or patronized.–I need that “Dr.” to be taken seriously, something that might not be so important if I were male, or if I were just taller, slimmer and more “professional-looking.” These professional titles and credentials just provide the bona fides lots of us need so that we don’t have to continually fight to establish outselves.


Daniel 03.02.06 at 2:40 am

Especially if your students are emailing you from their addresses late at night to ask about stationery supplies.

“Dear Crooked Timber, I never thought it would happen to me, but late at night while checking the stationary supplies I received an email …”


Chris 03.02.06 at 3:34 am

As an undergraduate, I (and most of the other students) addressed faculty members as, “Dr. Lastname”.

When I became a graduate student, I (and all the other grad students) switched to addressing most faculty members by their first names. To me, at least, this emphasizes the collegial nature of the relationship between faculty and grad students (as opposed to the giver of knowledge/receiver of knowledge relationship between faculty and undergraduates).

In fact, the only professors I regularly addressed or referred to as “Dr. Lastname” were ones I didn’t like very much.

As a (male) teaching assistant, I’ve never provided my students any guidance on what to call me. I get addressed as “Professor” or “Professor Lastname” quite a lot, “Dr. Lastname” somnewhat less often, and very occasionally “Mr. Lastname” or Chris.


Doug 03.02.06 at 5:28 am

In re: 106, I think that in American usage “Dear Ms. Smith” is the neutral business salutation. I can see people from a non-native English background stumbling a little as they translate (as German from Frau=Mrs and Fräulein=Miss), but it seems the kind of thing one would learn quickly.

On the other hand, perhaps Germans wonder at my troubles figuring out who gets “Sehr geehrter Herr Schmidt” and who gets “Lieber Herr Schmidt” in professional settings. Hmm.


Kath 03.02.06 at 7:25 am

I get this all the time, when male colleagues with less degrees get called “Dr.” But in my case, it’s even more interesting. I kept my family name, so I am married but not a “Mrs.” Try explaining that sometime in the deep South!!! :)

Does all this title stuff bother me? Sure. But I try to use it as a learning experience. I gently call students on their double standard. Most don’t realize it and so they see — at least for that moment — how culture has effected them. Maybe that’s enough – those quiet moments of showing that there’s another way.


ab 03.02.06 at 8:55 am

…my troubles figuring out who gets “Sehr geehrter Herr Schmidt” and who gets “Lieber Herr Schmidt” in professional settings.

Which opens up another problem, especially in emails:

“Hi Professor Lastname” (too informal?)
“Dear Firstname” (too intimate?)

Hi (or variations like Hey, Hiya) seems to be the most widespread among my students.


Jenny D 03.02.06 at 10:42 am

I have endless thoughts on this! It’s an interesting topic that touches on many important issues about manners, status, gender, etc.

1. I always have a handful of first-year students (disproportionately the product of Catholic schooling!) who call me Mrs. Davidson out of a sense of politeness. I’m not married, and that’s not my name, but if that’s what makes them comfortable, it’s fine for now, and they will soon pick up the more standard etiquette.

2. I am the product of Quaker education that made me deeply uncomfortable about either calling or being called Professor X. “Professor Davidson” sounds slightly over-the-top. I like the full name thing as a way around the whole Europe-US difference, junior-senior, etc. Yes, it’s slightly stilted, but receiving a professional e-mail (a request for a reader’s report on a manuscript, say) addressed “Dear Jenny Davidson” seems to me the most appropriate out of an awkward lot.

3. I am often mistaken for a graduate student, and once I had a long and interesting conversation with a group of Japanese music grad students at a party (we were all Columbia-affiliated); when (late in the conversation) they realized I was an assistant professor rather than a graduate student, they literally stepped back en masse and _bowed_. It was an interesting literalization of the kind of manners-shift you often experience when someone–it can be a grad student or a tenured faculty member–realizes they have mistaken your status & wants retroactively to adjust their manners.

I have had several different groups of students, both undergrad and grad, end up calling me “Professor Jenny”! Which seems to me endearing.

The most important thing here is to guard against our own gender biases. The thing I hate is seeing, say, a panel of distinguished speakers (a mix of male and female) and the moderator in the discussion period inadvertently referring to the female speakers by their first name and the male ones as Professor X. This again shows why the full name convention is so useful–if we get in the habit of using it, we are less likely to end up with an awkward revelation in public about our own mental categories.

Sorry to go on so long; you’ve really touched a nerve here.


Steph 03.02.06 at 12:52 pm

Very interesting, Eszter.

I couldn’t get through all the comments–why is there so much unwillingness to just say “Wow, I’m sorry to hear that people are such sexist jerks to you.”

Instead the converstaion gets into how to call cashiers and what happens in norway and the south and there’s discussion about these silly side issues.

Sometimes people are just sexist jerks! And that’s interesting and blog-worthy. And I’m sorry to hear about your recent experiences, but thanks very much for bringing them up here.


Martial 03.02.06 at 6:16 pm

I, male, was recently asked by a friend to speak to her graduate class at Tufts. Every single student who spoke to me after addressed me as Dr or Professor. Yes, I had just presented something like a lecture, but I had been clearly introduced as a practitioner in a field – the same field the students are in or entering – which tends to top out at a Masters. It was odd and, yes, I corrected them.


Laura 03.04.06 at 3:29 am

What is going on here? I can’t believe nobody’s quoted Lucky Jim yet:

“no other professor in Great Britain, he thought, set such store by being called Professor.”

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