Who is Teaching This Class?

How to Address that Person Standing at the Lectern in Your College Classroom

Did you know that the relationships you build with the professors at your college can have a significant impact on your success both in your undergraduate work and in your pursuit of graduate school or a career? I’m here to tell you these relationships matter, and they matter a lot more than most students suspect.

Gallup, in conjunction with Purdue University, conducted a massive study of college student success and came up with six success indicators. Of the six indicators, three involve having strong relationships with your professors. A good way to start those relationships is figuring out how to address your professor to show respect and to show that you understand the work they have done to earn their position at the university.

With the semester beginning to heat up for college students everywhere, now is a good time to review some important information about just who is teaching your class and why understanding the role of the person at the lectern is important. This is an especially significant lesson for college freshman to master now.

Dr., Mr., Mrs., Ms., Miss, Oh My!

Let’s focus on the correct honorifics to use in addressing faculty.

First, anyone who has earned a Ph.D. should be addressed as Dr. ______(insert surname here).

So, you wonder, how do I know if the faculty member teaching my class has a Ph.D.? Just a minute or so of googling should give you a quick answer. Take a look at their faculty page on the college website by googling your professor’s name and the name of your institution. Typically, there will be a brief bio of each faculty member including their degrees. If it lists a Ph.D. in their bio, then they should be addressed as Dr. You might also see clues on the syllabus. If your professor lists their name followed by “, Ph.D.” that is the indicator that the proper address is Dr. Even more evident is when they list their name on the syllabus as Dr. _____. Then it is super easy to figure out what to call them both in class and in emails.

It is never a good idea to assume that every faculty member or teaching staff holds a doctorate degree, and it is bad form to suppose that they do. You SHOULD know the credentials of the person giving you a grade, and you should demonstrate your knowledge by addressing them correctly.

If your classroom instructor does not hold a Ph.D., then the appropriate honorific is Ms. or Mr.

This is important, so if you retain nothing else about this blog, make note of this.

Under NO circumstance should you assume a faculty member’s marital status by addressing them as Mrs. (unless you are specifically told to do so by that instructor).

I know that your high school math teacher, Mrs. Smith, may have delighted in having her marital status indicated every time a student addressed her. However, college instructors are a different breed than your high school teachers. Don’t think that the same rules apply. It is insulting to assume an academic’s marital status through your choice of honorifics.

Let me repeat, do not ever address a faculty member or teaching staff (or, for that matter, any professional identifying as a woman) with the honorific Mrs. unless you have been explicitly told to do so by that person. Instead, use the honorific Ms. (pronounced miz) to address female-identifying faculty who do not hold a doctorate degree. And please, unless you are Jane Austen, forget that the word “Miss” exists. That is as insulting as Mrs. for most professional female-identifying people.

What if I Just Call Them All Professor?

Not so fast. That does seem like a nice way to avoid any legwork on your part, but it also is incorrect. If the faculty member’s title contains the word “professor” in it, then it is completely correct to address them as Professor Jones (or whatever their surname is), but it is a bit of a stretch to call all teaching staff “Professor _____.”

In fact, I attended graduate school with Ryan who refused to allow his students to call him Professor until he graduated with his Ph.D. He considered that honorific the “prize” at the end of the long 10 years he spent working toward his doctorate degree. He also determined that a jacket with patched elbows was only allowable for the professorate, so that was another “prize” he saved for after his Ph.D. Now, I never look at elbow patches on jackets without thinking “college professor.”

What About First Names?

There are plenty of teaching assistants and adjuncts (and some professors) who allow students to address them by their first names. You should ONLY do this if the instructor has given you permission to do so (and if you choose to address them more formally even when permission is given to use a first name, then you best know what the correct honorific would be). It is rude and disrespectful to address any full or part-time faculty by their first name unless you are given the green light to do so by that faculty member (this is a case where following the lead of your fellow students who might use a first name in referring to a professor as a sign of disrespect could get you in a lot of hot water).

I realize all of this makes you want to throw up your hands and never call your instructor anything more than “hey you,” but avoiding an honorific altogether is as bad as (and maybe worse than) using the wrong honorific.

At the end of the day, if you are still unsure what to call that person teaching your class, ask them! It shows that you want to know them and want to address them properly. This is the first step in developing strong student/faculty relationships that will pay off for you as you work toward your degree.

Stay tuned for the next blog in this series that sheds some light on typical job titles for the teaching staff on campus. I can help you navigate college admissions and your first semesters at school. Contact me for a free consultation at [email protected].

Be smart!