What’s in a name?


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.

[More below]


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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10 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. In the U.S., I’ve found that faculty at top-tier research universities tend to (strongly) prefer being called by first name, whereas faculty at teaching institutions — particularly public universities — tend to prefer being called “Professor” or “Doctor.”

    I’ve also found that there tends to be a correlation between attire and preference. A faculty member who is wearing jeans and a plaid shirt probably prefers to be called by first name. In the case of a faculty member (or administrator) wearing a Burbank suit, on the other hand, it is best to err on the side of excessive respect/formality.

  2. Interesting.
    I would indeed expect to be called ‘Jamie’ by an interviewee, but if someone called me ‘Professor Dreier’ I would just think of it as one of those uncomfortable interview things (like the clothes). Whereas I can imagine someone who expected to be addressed as ‘Professor X’ being miffed at being called ‘Maurice’.

    A good thing for interviewers to keep in mind: make it clear in introductions what the protocol is.

  3. Hmm. Fortunately, everywhere I’ve been since undergrad has leaned heavily toward everyone addressing each other by their given name instead some title and surname. Some students don’t every really get this, but that’s ok. I try not to make too big a deal about it.

    I can’t second Jamie’s point enough: Indeed, there should be a designated host that helps interviewee’s navigate these random idiosyncratic practices.

  4. I am a graduate student from a European country with a language that allows for formal/informal distinctions not only with respct to the overall tone of the conversations, but also in all pronouns and verbs. As a result, it is very explicit how you are addressing someone.
    Professors and researchers, especially if they are course instructors MUST be addressed in a very formal way, you have to calll them by title and surname and always keep the use of formal pronouns and verbs in the dialogue – it should be noted that personal relationships tend to be more formal and sometimes detached than in othr countires I know. As an undergraduate, each student is addressed by all facuty in the same formal manner, thuough if you get to know some professors better they may start using your given name. Things may become less rigid when you study in a Phd program, but it’s exception and really depends on the particular relationship and level of mutual knowledge.
    As far as I am concerned, I would find it really hard to address a professor with her/his given name, even if talking or writing in English, where most of the distinctions in my native language are lost. Naturally, every single professor I have met signed e-mails and conversate with me and other students in the informal style, from the very beginning. Nevertheless, I always kept addressing them as Professor x and writing in a polite and quite formal way, with the exception of researchers I gradually become, during years of mutual knowledge, really close with. Nobody ever told me stop using this style and I never felt uneasy or regarded as bizarre. I think it’s o and everyone – young, older, female or male _ appreciated.

  5. Hey giulia,

    If I start informally and someone responds formally I generally ask to be addressed as I prefer, i.e., as “Bijan”. I’ve never had anyone refuse to do this, so I’d be really interested to correspond with you!

    While I think that addressing people as they prefer is important, I also think accommodating people’s preferences in general is important. So, if informality makes you uncomfortable, I can imagine negotiating a more formal interaction. (But symmetrically, formality makes me uncomfortable.)

    Hmm. I’ve just taken it for granted that we should be addressed as we prefer. But maybe not?! I may be overinfluenced by trying to change how people addressed me in high school when I shifted from a diminuative to “Bijan”. Since new teachers found “Bijan” hard to say I had other students telling the what they could call me, which I really hated.

  6. Dear Bijan,
    as you can see, I do not refuse to address someone more informally if they ask me. It’s just that almost nobody exlpicitly ask me to change my default style, the one that prima facie sounds comfortable to me. The only exception was a professor originally from my own country that now has been working int the US for quite a long time – which is curious and interesting enough…I think that if your mothertongue has salient formal/informal distinctions you can become more sensitive to the issue.
    But in the context of a job interview, or an interview for a doctoral or post-doc position, I could not avoid addressing someone formally. I guess that if they ask, I would carefully avoid using names and titles at all – in English it’s easy, you use “you” and verbs are just the same, so it would not be easily noticed that, in the secret of my mind, I am thinking of my interlocutor as Professor x, being in a formal relationship with me.
    Instead, cues such as body position, voice tone, general attitude and confidence in answering looking interlocutors in the eyes could make a big difference in an interview.

  7. Hi giulia,

    Thanks for the reply! It’s very interesting.

    I find that really interesting. As I said, I, and others in my group, regularly inform people about our addressing preferences. (Including my German colleague Uli Sattler who would have to deal with Prof as well as Dr). Of course, for a long time I wasn’t a PhD so I had to tell people not to call me “Dr.” and in the UK “professor” is just wrong for a lecturer. So it was awkward. I often get students addressing me as “sir” or “Professor Bijan”. I do tend to give people the option, “Hiya, ‘Professor Bijan’ is incorrect. I much prefer ‘Bijan’ but if you want to be formal “Dr. Parsia” would be correct.” (Uli gets “Sir-ed” a lot and hates it.)

    I’m not sure I’m completely unaware of formal vs. informal, it’s just I prefer most of my life to be rather informal and am hugely grateful for the trend to less formality in all interactions. I particularly dislike formal markers as status indicators. Pretty much the only one I can’t really get around is medical doctors, who tend to be pretty sticky about it. So I just don’t use their names (your in the head strategy but for the reverse purpose).

    Re: job interviews (interviews are a terrible mechanism for selecting people), one thing I’d be mildly worried about if one is fairly formal is that it might be read as stiff or unfriendly or the dreaded “uncollegial”.* This is why I think an interviewer host is a good idea.

    *Obviously, whatever you do in your head to make things go easier is terrific. If you have to make up insulting nicknames, go for it. If you have to imagine them as giant robots, yay. If you have to address them as Dr Prof Ms, hurrah.

  8. Applying for jobs can be so stressful. I’m not a professional with a degree, but I am skilled and often chose my employers. Going into an interview with the knowledge that I don’t know if this job or this employer is right for me (or the employer) and the attitude that there is something for me out there has always helped me be relaxed and confident in interviews so that I can just focus on the interview, be perceptive, and be with the interviewer. I always start formally when asking them what they would like me to call them. I’ve never had an employer not tell me to call them by their first name, and I’ve spent most of my 37 year working career in the service industry. Used the same protocol with professors and instructors.

  9. First, I don’t think that there is a difference in the way you should treat junior and senior faculty. Some senior faculty will want to be addressed informally, and some junior faculty formally. You just can’t tell.

    Second, I tend to address all faculty as “Dr. such-and-such” (assuming they have a doctorate) until they ask me to call them by their given name (which happens roughly fifty per cent of the time). That is opposed to the advice given above, so take it with a grain of salt. But it’s seemed to work for me, and I’ve never gotten the sense that it’s made anyone uncomfortable. I’ll just get the, “oh, please call me ______” from time to time.

    Third, I do not think you need to worry about “forgoing deference for fear of being seen as ‘weak’ and ‘feminine'”. I guess if anything being excessively formal would suggest a certain hardness and masculinity, but I don’t think it suggests anything at all. The one thing that *could* make you seem (unjustifiably) as “weak” and “feminine” would be if you were known to be forgoing deference for fear of being seen as “weak” and “feminine”.

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