This is a reprint from Andrea Eidinger’s blog Unwritten Histories. It has been reproduced with her permission.
What do you call a professor? Professor. Oh, I’m so funny…
In all seriousness, the answer to this question is much more complicated than you might think, hence my humour flow chart. Let me explain. Most students who attend university grew up in homes that valued manners to one degree or another. So unless told otherwise, they referred to adults as Mr., Mrs., or, more rarely, Ms. This was standard procedure from their parents’ friends to their elementary and high school teachers. So when these students get to university, they end up with one of two problems. Either they don’t know what to do or they say the wrong thing. So in this post, I’m going to discuss what not to do, why the title you use is important, and how to avoid feeling like an ass. The easy answer is to just call your professor, “Professor.” It’s a good catch-all and you are unlikely to offend anyone. If you want to delve further into this topic, read on!
This first thing you need to keep in mind is that university professors are not the same as your elementary and high school teachers. In most cases, you need to have a minimum of a doctorate in order to be a professor. This can involve anywhere from 4 to 10 plus years of extra education. As a mark of respect for this work, professors can use the title “Dr.” in their names. This stands for Doctor of Philosophy. All people with PhDs are Doctors of Philosophy, regardless of the field they study. This goes back to the medieval era in Europe and the establishment of the first universities. In many cases, you can tell that someone has a PhD because their name will be listed as Dr. So and So, though some people choose to simply add PhD to the end of their name. They both mean exactly the same thing. While PhDs are not the same as medical doctors, the amount of training and expertise required is roughly equivalent. So if you’re in doubt, calling your professor Dr. So and So is a good place to start.
What about PhD students?
Not all professors have PhDs. Sometimes, PhD students will teach a course as part of their training. You can usually tell if this is the case when there is no Dr. or PhD listed with their name on the syllabus. These professors should not be addressed as Dr., unless you are vying for teacher’s pet status. These professors can either be addressed as “Professor” or by their regular title — Mr., Mrs., or Ms.
What’s in a name
Unless you have specific permission, NEVER call your professor by their first name. This is especially true for older professors, who are used to a much more formal environment. However, some younger professors, like myself, will ask you to just use their first name. This is what I do, since trying to pronounce “Eidinger,” while funny, looks and sounds painful. (In case you’re wondering, just drop the E. So you would say: I-Din-Grrr. [insert joke here])
Many students have been taught that the polite way to refer to a mature woman is to call them “Mrs.” In university, this is a VERY bad idea. Why? There are a couple of reasons. First of all, you can’t assume your professor is married. And even if they are and you can tell (wedding ring), you still can’t assume they aren’t using their maiden names. For example, I never changed my name after I got married. As Diana Gabaldon put it, I’ve been spelling it for so long that I’d hate to see all that effort go to waste. Second, many female professors are feminists, and find the title of Mrs. to be problematic. This is not only because it reduces a woman to her married status, but also because male professors are rarely called “Mr.” Our society has trained us to assume that men are of high status, and women of lower status. A great example of this is how we (often) refer to men by their last names, but women by their first names. One is formal and respectful; the other is informal and familiar. In theory, you can use the title “Ms.” to refer to female professors with Ph.Ds, but I’d avoid it for the same reasons. If you are dealing with a female Ph.D student, though, you should call them “Professor” or “Ms.,” unless asked to do otherwise.
Ms. Versus Miss
What’s the difference between these two titles? “Miss” used to be used for any unmarried woman. “Ms.” is a relatively new title, and it is supposed to be a neutral term that is unrelated to marital status. This is due to complaints that traditionally female titles, like Miss and Mrs., are based on a woman’s marital status, while Mr. is used for all men regardless of whether or not they are married. So now, “Miss” is for little girls, and “Ms.” is for grown women. Again, while many students are taught to refer to their female teachers as Miss, calling your female professor Miss So and So is generally a bad idea.
Miss versus Sir
It’s very common for polite students to say things like, “Excuse me, Miss,” when asking a question. They are usually doing so because that’s what they’ve been taught to do. This often harks back to elementary or high school, since saying, “Excuse me, Ma’am,” sounds weird. The same students, when addressing a male professor, will say “Excuse me, Sir.” However, Miss refers to little girls, while Sir is a title of respect to a senior male. Again, it’s best to just say, “Excuse me, Professor.”
Transgender and gender queer professors and gender pronouns
It’s important to remember that not everyone identifies as male or female. Unfortunately, English does not have gender-neutral pronouns. A commonly accepted compromise is the use of they/them/theirs/themselves. However, if you are not certain which pronoun to use when addressing your professor, the best thing to do is to simply ask how they would like to be addressed. If you are not able to ask, for whatever reason, use the pronoun that most closely matches your professor’s appearance and gender expression. For more information, I’d recommend checking out GLAAD’s advice, which can be found here.
Types of professors
Ever heard the term “associate professor” or “full professor” and wonder what this means? These titles are what are referred to as academic ranks. These ranks usually distinguish between professors based on seniority, and are not related in any way to their capabilities as professors. Academic rankings vary tremendously from country to country.
Here in Canada, the four main ranks, from lowest to highest are: Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Professor (also called Full Professor), and Emeritus Professor. All of these individuals are full time and permanent faculty members, and they are eligible for tenure (which is a topic for a whole different blog post). These ranks usually distinguish between professors based on seniority, and are not related in any way to their capabilities as professors.
In addition to these professors, there are also individuals who teach part time or on contract. There are several terms used to describe these individuals, including “sessional instructor” and “adjunct professor.”
In general, all of the recommendations in this post apply to anyone teaching at a university, regardless of their academic rank or position, but it’s still a good idea to be aware of these terms.
The most important takeaway is that if you aren’t sure what to call your professor, just ask! Trust me, no one will be offended! They are more likely to think that you are a considerate and conscientious student. I don’t want to give the impression here that professors are egotistical idiots with tempers. Even if you make a mistake, most professors will simply just correct you and move on. However, I also like to subscribe to the important principle of not pissing off the person deciding your grade. Have you had any positive or negative experiences with professors around their titles? Professors — any stories about your encounters with strange titles? I know I get called Mrs. Eidinger at least once every semester, which, since even my mother doesn’t use that name, refers to my dead grandmother. Awkward….
Andrea Eidinger has worked as a sessional instructor at a number of universities in British Columbia, and is the creator and author of Unwritten Histories, a Canadian history blog.