Tips on How to Address Your Professor

The purpose of this page:  I have noticed that many students address their instructors in inappropriate ways.  I don't think this is intentional but the result of not being clear about the rules and conventions.  This can lead, inadvertently, to potentially condescending behavior (esp. in emails) or other uninented effects.  This page is meant to be helpful in this regard.

 

Before you write your professor, try to ascertain what rank and/or title s/he has.

General rule:  Whoever is standing in front of the class is the professor.  That should by the default way of addressing him or her, unless she or he tells the class otherwise.

However, note that in North America, "Dr." trumps "Prof."  Someone with a doctoral title is addressed as "Dr. Smith" (again, unless he or she tells you otherwise).  To ascertain what rank the instructor has, look at the syllabus or the departmental website.  If someone is listed as "Dr. Susan Smith" or "Michael Smith, PhD," these people have a doctoral title.  If this is the title of your instructor, you should use that title instead of the more generic professor.  If you don't know (or are unable to find out), use the professor title.

In email:  Address the professor with his or her title.  Common practice has become:

"Dear Dr. Smith," or "Dr. Smith:"  Don't say "Hey" or "Hi" or "Hello."  If the professor answers with any of these, it's ok to reply in kind.

Give the email a short descriptive message title.

Get right to business.  Don't lose time saying something like "I hope you're having a lovely day today" or the like.  Also attempt not to start the first sentence of the message with "I."

On style:  You are writing a letter to your professor. Write correct English sentences, both grammatically and spelling-wise.  Writing poorly or hastily reflects badly upon you.

Keep the message short, try to keep it to one paragraph.  Make it crystal clear what you want from the professor.  Advice?  An extension?  A piece of information?  Especially in asking a question about class, LOOK AT THE SYLLABUS TO SEE IF IT ISN'T ADDRESSED THERE already.

Sign off by writing something like "Sincerely," or "Best wishes," not something like "Have a good day," or "Bye," or "Take it easy."

Sign with your full name or with the name by which you want to be addressed (if, say, you are using your middle name as your default or an abbreviation that differs from your given name).

Realize that different professors have different email "behavior."  Do not, in other words, expect an answer within 20 minutes.  Some professors take longer than others. 

Now some cultural differences:  In the US and Canada, "Dr." is higher than "Prof."  In many other systems, esp. in Europe and Latin America, "Prof." ranks higher.

Also, if you write someone outside of the US, you cannot always assume that that person will be fluent in English.  Prefacing your message with something like: "Today I write to you in English; I hope you will be able to read my message." might be appropriate.