What is the best way to address your professor/ colleague in an academic setting?

I have made my fair share of faux-pas when it comes to addressing people, in an academic setting. So, based on over a decade of experience living, working and surviving American academia, here are a few tips for you, to navigate this complicated landscape.

I’ll just focus on the seemingly innocuous topic of how to address your colleagues, who have a PhD.

My own faux-pas :

            First things first: American academia is known for its informality. As someone who studied in the Indian educational system, where the professor or teacher is treated as god, I grew up with certain notions of what is appropriate or not. However, deep down, I always knew that the Indian system of overbearing formality and unnecessary deference was not right.

            I rebelled, during my undergrad days and paid a price for it, in some instances. However, coming to the US for my Masters (after a few years of work in India and the Middle East) was a relief. People were a bit more relaxed here, and titles didn’t seem to matter as much, when it came to discussing idea.

Or at least I thought so. At face value, American academics are (generally) less hierarchical. This varies from institution to institution, but the rule of thumb holds true, by and large.

            There are still a few things that can tick some people off : when someone resorts to informality or calling others by their first name, when they haven’t been given that permission.

Image courtesy : Syracuse University www.syr.edu

            However, given some recent developments (wrt how women are treated in the academy) etc.

There has been a focus on giving people the respect they deserve. I am familiar with this debate and agree to that women and minorities are often not accorded the respect they deserve in some instances. As an example, see this OpEd in Wall Street Journal a few months back, that questioned the credentials of the first lady, since she is not a medical doctor. There is another article here, that explains why this OpEd is disrespectful. Give it a read.

Some tips for you to navigate your own institution:

  • Read the room – see how people address others. If there is a rigid system of referring to each other as “Prof. so and so” or “Dr. so and so,” then, just follow that. In a few academic panels, it is funny to observe 5 or 6 professors calling each other professor X, Professor y and so on. But it is how it is, so get on with the program
  • See how they sign their emails. Email signatures are an indicator. If someone signs off as “Dr. X”, then when you write to them, address them as “Dr. X,” unless you are personal friends. Not doing so can be considered rude
  • How formal/ seriously do they take their titles : This is related to points above. I know of Deans and others, who sign off as “Dean X,” so the smart (and right thing to do) is to call them as such. Don’t try to be informal when they are not so informal with you.
  • If in doubt, resort to more formality, not less. It is ok to keep calling someone Dr. So, and so, and wait for them to tell you take it easy, rather than the other way round…as my mother would say, it is better to be more formal (and over-dressed) in any situation than be under-dressed and less formal.

As for me, I am quite ok with you calling me by my first name, Sabith. But don’t assume everyone has already given you this permission.

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