I am a young, female graduate student who was raised in a community where politeness, tact and formality were the norm. One’s elders and superiors (bosses, teachers, etc.) were always to be addressed as “Dr.” or “Ms.” and disagreements were to be minimized and handled with as much politeness as possible. The standards applied across the board to young people of any gender. As a result, my general inclination is to address everyone with respect and formality unless explicitly instructed to do otherwise and to avoid open disagreement in all but the most casual of conversations. I am entering the job market for the first time this year (with a dissertation defense scheduled for the early spring) and am worried about navigating the tricky territory of transitioning from student to colleague (or, in the case of interviews, potential colleague). Should I forgo deference for fear of being seen as “weak” and “feminine”? Will professors take offense at being addressed as an equal by someone who is still a student? Is there a substantial difference in position between “graduate student near completion” and “jobless PhD holder”? Should there be a difference between the way someone in my position addresses junior and senior faculty? This last issue is particularly confusing as I have experienced some junior faculty who insist on formality with graduate students and others who seem irritated by it. Help in this very practical matter is appreciated.
This is tricky because so much depends on local conventions, so I better speak only to what is most familiar to me: the conventions in the discipline in the US. I hope others better acquainted with other regions will chime in.
There is a standard rule in general etiquette for how to address people: Call people what they wish to be called. The reasoning is that honoring individual preferences here is a form of respect. This rule readily handles the sorts of cases you describe, in which a junior professor prefers formality and a senior one informality.
The standard rule is some help, but since people’s preferences are typically unknown in the job-seeking situations that most concern you, you should opt for whatever seems to be the prevailing local convention. In the job-seeking context, my sense is that the form of address that will seem most natural to most in the profession (in the US) is the use of first name and so using it at the outset is unlikely to appear disrespectful or be startling. (My department has made several hires in recent years and I can’t recall a single job candidate using more formal modes of address.)
The one exception to leading with the first name might be written communication – say, a first e-mail contact with a hiring committee chair. In such instances, using “Professor X” may seem more polished, though in all likelihood any answering e-mail will be signed with Professor X’s first name (signaling that from there on out this is what you should use).
None of this gets at the internal dynamics you describe. First, to reassure you, given how common using first names is in the profession, I doubt anyone will think you an insolent upstart for being a student/applicant addressing hiring faculty by first names. I do, however, share your worry that if you use greater formality than is the norm, this may indeed signal a deference unhelpful to your candidacy. That’s neither fair nor right, but even subtle verbal gestures that emphasize your student/junior/younger status may incline your interlocutors, consciously or not, to see you as less colleague-like than is desirable. That may well be aggravated by your being a woman as well.
When you are on the job market, you may feel like a student but it is as potential colleague you will be evaluated. I tend to think that our practices influence our attitudes, dispositions, and orientations toward others, so I would hope that calling hiring faculty by their first names might incline you to see yourself less as a student and more as a potential colleague. You’re unlikely to offend them by doing so and you may subtly influence yourself to feel more confident and colleague-like, always a plus in job-seeking. Perhaps seeing that as your aim may allay the feelings of oddness and awkwardness that arise from having been reared to use more formal modes of address.
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