How do you refer to your professor? Do you call him or her “doctor,” “professor,” “Mr./Ms.” or even by his or her first name? How do you know which one to use?

It can be a little confusing, knowing which honorific to give your college-level instructor. So, one should pay attention to clues they may give you.

I had a professor my sophomore year on whose syllabus he referred to himself as “Mr,” and in class he expressly asked us not to call him “doctor,” which in his words is “a southern affectation.”

Many professors write their names on the board (chalk or Smart) on the first day of class, using the title they prefer. (You should always take notes in class – even on the first day!)

Look at your e-mail correspondence with your professors to see how they sign at the bottom. Sometimes they might say something like, “Sincerely, Dr. John Doe,” or, “I’ll see you in class – Professor Jane Doe.”

And if all else fails, you could simply ask your instructor what he or she likes to be called.

Sometimes the distinction comes from traditions at the institution itself.

“My impression is that the culture here calls for ‘doctor,’” says Dr. Colleen Moore of the History Department. “‘Doctor’ shows that someone has earned a PhD; whereas ‘professor’ can refer to instructors [teachers without graduate degrees]. But I answer to both.”

In some disciplines, neither ‘doctor’ nor ‘professor’ is appropriate.

“In the Languages Department, you’re not called ‘doctor,’ even if you do have a PhD,” says Professor Nancy Dotson. “In French, I’m called ‘Madame.’”

And, of course, for many college educators, the honorifics are unimportant.

“It doesn’t really matter to me,” says Dr. David Valdivia of the Math Department.

“I have no preference,” says Dr. Erica Bernheim of the English Department.

“When you don’t know, it’s safe to go with ‘professor,’” Dr. Bernheim adds. “In some disciplines, a Master’s Degree is terminal, meaning it’s the highest level of achievement in that field. So, for example, in the Theatre Department, many of them are not doctors, but they’re certainly professors. Professor is just a blanket term.”

So whether it’s “doctor,” “professor,” “Mr.” or “Ms.,” it’s all about showing respect to your teachers. No one wants to make a bad impression, especially upon someone who can give you an A or an F. Find out what your instructor likes to be called and oblige.


Photo courtesy of Florida Southern College