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I am always puzzled about how students address a professor in America. Perhaps "Professor + Last name" is the most formal way to do. Here are my questions:

  • What if the last name of a professor is very long?
  • Is it common that students use the nickname or the first name of a professor?
  • What if the teacher is a lecturer instead of a professor? How should the student call him/her?
  • Is it formal to write "Prof." instead of "Professor"?
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Per this question, they changed Mr Dumbledore to Professor Dumbledore in the US edition of Harry Potter, so you can assume it's normal in the US to use that title. Don't address anyone by a "nickname" unless you're either on very friendly terms with them, or you've already noted that everyone else is doing it. You could just sidestep the issue and call him "Sir". –  FumbleFingers Sep 22 '11 at 16:53
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I wouldn't go with "sir" as a replacement, as a good number of your professors are likely to be women, and "ma'am" (the female equivalent) isn't likely to be appreciated in the academy (if it still is anywhere). –  onomatomaniak Sep 22 '11 at 18:43
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Note that these answers won't (because it's not what was requested) cover etiquette in English, or I imagine, other English-speaking universities. –  Marcin Sep 22 '11 at 22:51
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Most of my professors told the class what they wanted to be called as part of the first-day drill. It was quite common to call them "Professor [first name]", but some preferred that students use their last name. When in doubt, ask. –  zzzzBov Sep 23 '11 at 6:03
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Institutional culture is important, so learn about it. It's usually easy to catch on. I went to the University of Virginia, where the culture is that the instructors are not addressed as "Dr." because the founder, Thomas Jefferson, did not hold a doctorate. Instructors are addressed as "Mr.", Mrs.", or "Professor," though some may go by name. (I always liked this - it's less intimidating.) I think the overall theme here is that the local culture gets you started and the instructor's preferences will tell you the rest. –  Surreal Dreams Sep 23 '11 at 20:50
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5 Answers 5

up vote 26 down vote accepted

So, the preferred method of addressing a professor in the US is not entirely consistent. Variations from university to university or even department to department occur, however, at the three universities/departments I've attended/been employed by, the following is true:

  • If the professor holds a doctorate, calling him/her Dr. Lastname is the most common in my personal experience, but Professor Lastname is also very common, especially in departments that have faculty with a lower percentage of doctorates (since with Professor you don't have to know whether they hold a doctorate)
  • If the professor does not hold a doctorate, Professor Lastname or Mr./Ms. Lastname are common
  • In the US, the difference between professors and lecturers is not as clearcut as in other countries, especially to students. In many cases, they may not actually know whether their instructor is one or the other and so, in general, the same rules apply as to professors. As an example, when I worked as a visiting lecturer, I was referred to frequently as Professor, even though that wasn't my actual title.

A few other notes

  • The length of the last name of the professor doesn't really change things. If it's hard to pronounce or spell, you may wish to avoid it by simply saying 'Professor', but it doesn't entitle you to switch to the first name or some nickname.
  • Some instructors may prefer being addressed by either their nickname or first name. However, you should only do this after being explictly told to. I've had professors who preferred Professor Firstname or just Firstname, and they'll usually say so on the first day. However, I've also had professors get offended when students referred to them using a more informal form of address.
  • Using Prof. as an abbreviation of Professor is fine if you're merging it with their name, just like Dr. is for Doctor.
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One thing to add: it may be acceptable in the case of liong difficult names to refer to just the first inital of their last name "Doctor G" etc. In my college days, we had small classes and often were able to address teachers by first name. The teacher sets the tone though. –  horatio Sep 22 '11 at 16:59
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This answer is 100% correct, especially as regarding addressing lecturers as "professor". As a side note, a lot of professors hate getting e-mail addressed to "Hey" or "Hi". –  nohat Sep 22 '11 at 18:32
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One CS instructor (no doctorate) once told our class: "Don't call me Professor, I'm not a professor. I can't make a radio out of coconuts." –  BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Sep 22 '11 at 20:32
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Dusty's answer covers the general rules. I want to emphasize that you need to learn what the local practice is and what the professor's preference is.

Where I got my undergraduate degree most professors had a PhD but some had only a Master's degree. The ones with a PhD were addressed as "Dr. Lastname". The ones without a PhD were addressed as "Professor Lastname".

I went to a more prestigious university for my graduate work. All professors had a PhD there. All were addressed as "Professor Lastname". In my area the graduate students commonly addressed their advisor by his first name, but don't expect that to be the practice at very many places.

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When in doubt, ask. It's always a good rule of thumb. –  Zoot Sep 22 '11 at 20:39
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@FumbleFingers comment is really almost a complete answer.

I (and most people I know) was RARELY on good enough terms with a professor that I called him/her by a nickname. It's a level of informality I never reached with mine. Some professors will give you a nickname to call them anyway.

To your question, a professor should be given the professor title, a TA (Teacher's assistant, which is what I think you intended by "lecturer") can be called Mr. or even simply just called by their first name.

If someone is a PhD, it is usually advisable to refer to him/her as Dr. Not all PhD's are weird about this, but many are, so it's usually the safest bet.

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I don't think he's referring to TAs when he says lecturer. In the US, it's usually an academic title for a faculty member indicating the person is not tenure-track and has no research obligations (although, like most things, it can vary from institution to institution). TAs are normally graduate students (or older undergraduates at some universities). –  Dusty Sep 22 '11 at 17:02
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"Lecturer" sometime (often) means an adjunct (professional level, but non-tenure-track) instructor. Actually the job postings for those positions often say "instructor" as well. As they are generally PhDs I'd go with "Doctor" until you know their preference (a holder of a Masters degree will likely not be insulted, afterall). –  dmckee Sep 22 '11 at 18:51
    
Ah, thank you both for the clarification... :) –  Rikon Sep 22 '11 at 21:03
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This also varies depending on the academic field. Particularly in medical departments and some other scientific fields -- my experience here is with a School of Public Health -- "Doctor" is used to refer to the majority of PhD-holding faculty and "Professor" is used only to refer to "full" professors. That is, Assistant and Associate Professors are called "Doctor", and only the most senior/distinguished faculty are addressed as "Professor".

So while in many American cases "Professor" is used to avoid the formality of "Doctor" (and the issue of whether an instructor holds a PhD), there are other cases where "Professor" is a term of particular distinction and should not be used more generally.

As I said, it depends on the academic field and the school or department involved.

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I have attended both two and four year colleges, and I've noticed a difference between the two institutions in regards to communication with instructors.

At my four-year College/University, I tended to use "professor" in both formal and written conversation when speaking to professors, unless the professor specifically stated otherwise. The department of Modern Languages tended to be different, as often the professor will request to be addressed in the language of instruction, such as "Madame LaRoche".

In Technical Colleges, the term professor is not as liberally used, as instructors often have the title of "teacher" or "instructor" instead of "professor". Many of my teachers in this setting have indicated a preference to be called by their first name for all communication both via email and in class.

As jimreed mentioned in a different response, if you don't know how to address the instructor, ask them. Not all professors (or colleges) are alike!

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