Updated 12/13/20

Choosing the wrong forms of address is the fastest way to make a bad impression over email. However, it is one based on norms and therefore is not typically explicitly taught.

In the general case, we can capture how you should choose the form of address via flow chart:

                        --------    
                        | Prof.|
                        --------
                           /
                          /
                     Yes /
                        /
---------------------- /
| Has "Professor" in |/                 -------
| title or job desc. |\                 | Dr. |
---------------------- \                -------
                        \               /
             No/Not sure \         Yes /
                          \           /
                    -----------------/                -------
                    | Has Doctorate |                 | Mr. |
                    -----------------\                -------
                                      \                /
                           No/Not sure \           He /
                                        \            /
                                        ------------/   She    -------
                                        | Pronouns | --------- | Ms. |
                                        ------------\          -------
                                                     \
                                  They/Other/Not sure \
                                                       \
                                                       -------
                                                       | Mx. |
                                                       -------

If you do not know the answers to these questions, take a minute or two to search the internet to try to find out. If you are still unsure, pick the most formal title that is appropriate given the context. For example, in a university setting, choose “Prof.” If you are writing to someone who works in a field that has many people with doctorates, choose “Dr.”

Prof. vs. Dr.

This one can cause some confusion: not all folks who have doctorates work in universities, and not all folks who work in universities have doctorates.

Outside of a university, you may start by assuming that anyone who does industrial research has a PhD and thus should be referred to as “Dr.” Inside a university, you may assume that anyone who teaches should be referred to as “Prof.” Some people who teach in a university may have the title “Lecturer” or “Instructor.” If you don’t know the culture of forms of address at the institution of the person you are addressing, default to the most formal form and let the person you are writing to correct you.

How students should address professors

When unsure, students should always choose the most formal form of address. This is a sign of respect; not adhering to this rule sends a signal about a lack or respect or an assumed familiarity that the recipient may not be comfortable with.

In computer science, students are often encouraged to refer to faculty by their first names. This practice may not carry over to other disciplines.

If someone refers to themselves using a different name or title in response to an email, you should feel comfortable using that name or form of address in future emails.

How professors address each other

A professor may refer to another professor by first name. As mentioned above, in computer science, it is normal for everyone to be on a first-name basis. However, in the general case you should not assume the form of address one professor uses to talk about another carries over to students.

I will generally address other professors/lecturers/instructors at my home institution by first name. I will also address professors/lecturers/instructors in computer science at other institutions by first name. However, I will generally use titles when addressing professionals at other universities who are not in my discipline. This is done to signal deference and a lack of familiarity with other disciplines’ cultural norms.

Why forms of address matter

It can sometimes feel like forms of address enforce a heirarchy or about “showing off” credentials. If you feel this way, ask yourself: why?1

As mentioned above, forms of address are signs of respect. They are also about setting boundaries, and communicating expected boundaries. For example, if you address me as “Ms.,” I assume that you know little to nothing about me, professionally. The only people who call me “Ms.” are trying to sell me something. :)

There are many groups of people who have historically been excluded from higher education, from having the possibility of earning titles like “Prof.” and “Dr.” When folks (especially students!) fail to use these titles, it can feel like they are diminishing the person’s accomplishments. UVM’s own Dean2 KC Williams has written about the deleterious effects of this lack of respect in academia on her, as a Black woman:3

Some students will refuse to address you respectfully, but they will do so with a smile. They may even attempt to call you by your first name after you have introduced yourself to them professionally with the expected “Dr.” or “Professor” preceding your last name – on the first day of class, writing it on the board and in the syllabus.

How you should address me

If you are a graduate student, or we have connected in a research capacity (e.g., have met at a conference), you should feel free to address me by my first name (Emma). If we have never met before and you are a student (esp. if you are a student reaching out about a class), you should refer to me as Prof. Tosch in your first email. If we have never met, and you are reaching out outside a university/education context, I am Dr. Tosch in your first email.

When to use Mrs.

In a professional setting? Never. Just don’t.

Footnotes

  1. I serendipitously wrote this post the day before the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece on why Dr. Jill Biden should not be referred to with the “Dr.” title. For a full discussion of the context surrounding that news event, see this Vox explainer

  2. Dean” is a title in academia. 

  3. Black women area demographic group in the US who have historically been excluded from higher education, and who today still face systemic barriers, and often discrimination once they arrive in academia.