Have you ever been unsure of how to address your professors when you email them? Are you unsure of what to call them? You are not alone. In this post, Sarah Nell provides a few stories and some advice for how to avoid awkward communication so you can get this important communication right.
When my nephew started college, he told me he overheard a peer say, “The professor insists that we call her doctor, but she doesn’t even wear a white coat. I don’t get it.” While I didn’t have the chance to help this student get it, I do have the chance to help you. It may seem like a small, insignificant detail, but trust me: it is worth getting this right.
I have received too many inappropriate emails from students. I don’t think most students mean any disrespect, but not knowing proper greetings has made for some uncomfortable electronic communication. I have gotten emails from students, that begin with “Hey Sarah” or even worse, have no greeting at all. Hopefully this explanation will help you develop a positive professional relationship with your college professors by avoiding some common communication blunders.
I understand that, probably, most of the teachers you’ve had throughout your pre-college education have been women that you called Mrs. Last Name. Because that was her name. You likely also called male teachers Mr. Last Name. However, the people who teach you in college hold, more often than not, doctorates in their fields of study. I will give you the benefit of the doubt here. Maybe you don’t know how people become college professors or that you are expected to call them something different. I think it is worth explaining, and important for you to know who is teaching you.
When In Doubt, “Professor” is a Safe Bet
You can look up the data for your own university – usually on the “fast facts” section of the school’s webpage—to find out how many professors on your campus have Ph.D. degrees. At my university, where we have over 750 teaching faculty, 80% have terminal (also known as doctoral) degrees. If you are taking five classes, statistically, at least four of your professors will have a Ph.D. and should be addressed as Dr. or Professor unless they tell you otherwise. And they might tell you otherwise. Some faculty members are very straightforward and will let you know what to call them, many prefer to go by their first names. Others are not so clear. I admit to being one of them, in part because I don’t always know what I want to be called. For me, it depends on the relationship I have with students. In small, upper level classes, I don’t mind going by my first name. But in large lecture classes where I can’t possibly know everyone’s name, much less be on a first-name basis, I prefer to be addressed by a more formal title—Dr. or Professor.
What about Mr. or Mrs?
You might be wondering—isn’t “Mr.” or “Mrs.” a more formal title than a first name? Technically, yes. But this formality is complicated by gender. As Deborah Tannen writes, “Women can’t even fill out a form without telling stories about themselves.” Whichever box a woman checks reveals her relationship to a man or something about her values. For men, selecting “Mr.” does not indicate anything other than that they identify as male; it says nothing about his relationship to a woman or whether he has more conservative or liberal values. The titles Miss and Mrs. indicate a woman’s marital status. “Miss So-and-So” is typically a single (read: available) woman while “Mrs. So-and-So” is not only married, but also chooses to be identified by her husband’s name. “Ms. So-and-So” does not indicate a woman’s marital status, but as Tannen suggests, it does “mark her as either liberated or rebellious, depending on the attitudes and assumptions of the one making the judgment.” The context in which you email your professors is a professional work context; their marital status matters not.
The context in which you will be emailing your professors is a professional work context; their marital status matters not.
For me, being called “Mrs.” is actually more offensive than being called by my first name. At least my first name is accurate. Being called “Mrs.” reflects the cultural assumption not only that a woman my age probably is or should be married but also that she has taken and goes by her husband’s last name. To me, those three little letters—MRS.—send me into a feminist fury. I am not a Mrs. But even if I was a Mrs., my relationship to a man is completely irrelevant as your college professor. Yes, completely. When you call your professors Dr. or Professor, you avoid all of these pitfalls.
If you are contacting your professor, then you want something from them; either information, help learning something, or maybe an extension on a deadline. By addressing your professors in ways that they will appreciate, you give yourself the best chance of getting what you want from them. Respectful communication also fosters a professional relationship between you and your professors, which is vital to your academic success. When in doubt, call your college teachers “Professor.” This shows respect and an appreciation for the years of study that led them to your classroom.
- Make a list of your professors for this semester. Find out what they want to be called. You can find clues of this on the syllabus, on their faculty email page, or by asking them. If you have professors who prefer that students call them by their first names, ask them to explain why.
- Do you notice any difference in the gender, race, or age of the professor? What difference might these statuses make in what they prefer to be called? Does your university tend to have a norm about this?
- Look up the Fact Facts about your university. What percent of faculty on your campus have a terminal degree?
- Below are some examples of real emails I have received from students (I have replaced their names with characters from The Hunger Games, because why not?). Examine and critique the sample emails. Can you rank them from least to most appropriate? What features of these emails show (or lack) respect? How do these compare to the emails you write to your professors? Try to re-write the ones you deem inappropriate to be more respectful.
- Hi Sarah,
I need to leave town early and can’t make the exam at the scheduled time? When can I make it up?
- do I need to buy the book for your class? cuz i am broke.
- Hey it’s haymitch, what should i study for the test?
- Hello Professor,
I was recently hospitalized due to an injury and have missed a few classes. I have a note from my doctor and would like to set up a meeting with you so that I can get caught up on missed work. I will stop by your scheduled office hours Monday. Please let me know if I can do anything in the meantime.
- Hi Sarah,
 Tannen, Deborah. 1994. Talking from 9-to-5: How Women’s and Men’s Conversational Styles Affect Who Gets Heard, Who Gets Credit, and What Gets Done at Work. Morrow Publishers (p. 111).