Addressing College Instructors- Should You Call ‘Professor’ or Their Name?

Last Updated on August 5, 2022 by David Shaw

Now that you’re in college, addressing your instructors by the appropriate honorifics is taken more seriously than compared in high school. Many instructors in college with certain titles and job positions pride themselves in the work they do to get to where they are, so you should always practice addressing them appropriately while around campus.

Generally, is it acceptable to address your instructors as ‘professor’ especially in 4-year universities. However, you should be mindful and avoid misusing the wrong honorifics to address instructors especially those with professor titles as some might find it disrespectful.

Properly addressing university instructors with the right honorifics in college is the general etiquette to show your respect towards them. Incorrectly addressing your instructors can have serious consequences and leave very bad first impressions. Though many college students entering college aren’t briefed or given a heads up about this unspoken rule, we’re here to help you understand the right way to address your instructors in any college or university.

Also check out our article on 9 Helpful Tips to Make a Good First Impression in College

Understanding the Job Titles and Honorifics Used in Universities

You might’ve already known terms like ‘lecturer’ and ‘professor’ are most commonly used in college as opposed to ‘teacher’ when addressing instructors. In order to understand the differences, you should first understand that they’re job titles and rankings in the higher learning industry in universities.

Academic ranks (Top to bottom) Notes
Teaching AssistantsHelpers to Professors to grade, teach
Instructor (Lecturer)Usually teach, grade, and administers the operation of classes on their own
Assistant ProfessorBeginning-level professor
Associate ProfessorMid-level professor
Full ProfessorTasks in research projects, departmental, and delivering lectures only
Umbrella term for professor

You will hear the term ‘lecturer’ used extensively in colleges and universities is because it a broad and more general term used to address all kinds of instructors of different rankings in a university.

So depending if your university has a higher share of lectures with Doctorate Degrees, it will determine whether you will hear the title ‘lecturer’ or ‘professor’ more.

Putting the ‘Professor’ Job Title and Honorifics Together

Now that you know ‘Professor’ is actually a job title for instructors in college, let’s further understand the meaning and application of this term in the context of honorifics.

An honorific is a title like Mr, Mrs, Ms, Sir, Madam, and the title ‘Professor’ is often also considered an honorific in the higher-learning industry. This is the reason why you will hear the term ‘professor’ very commonly used interchangeably both as an honorific and job title in college.

Why Are Most Instructors in My University Addressed as Professors?

Most 4-year universities in the US preferably want to hire and retain individuals with Doctorate Degrees and eventually steer towards promoting them up to the professor rank. That makes the majority, but not every instructor in most universities mostly of with a professor ranking.

Nonetheless, the job of instructors with professor rankings is not mainly responsible for delivering lectures but rather involves devoting a larger portion of their time to researching projects and supervising junior colleagues. If you attend a well-known university, you will see that professors usually only bear the responsibilities of delivering lectures and conducting exams, while leaving the rest of the work like grading, tutoring, and conducting study groups to teaching assistants (TA).

In short, instructors with professor job titles in universities often make up most of the faculties. Hence, this is why the term ‘professor’ is very commonly used than supposed to ‘lecturers’.

Correctly Addressing Instructors That Have a Doctorate Degree

Out of the all university instructors with different titles or rankings, I would suggest you be very mindful when addressing lecturers with Doctorate Degrees. As a good common practice, it is always better to address any instructors you come across in college with “Professor (Name)” instead of using Mr, Mrs, Ms, Sir, or Madam.

The ‘Professor’ title is typically awarded to individuals employed by universities with a doctorate degree (Ph.D.) or post-doctoral experiences. If the size of a university is large and prestigious to some degree, you can expect a large percentage of instructors, especially those above the age of 30 to be at the professor ranking.

Some professors went through a lot of hardships and effort to earn their Doctorate Degree, which is reasonable when some prefer to be strictly addressed by their professional title. Otherwise, if an instructor is not of a professor ranking, and does not have any Doctorate credentials, you can address them in whichever way that is preferred by them.

Being Casual With University Instructors in an Appropriate Setting or Environment

I’ve seen all kinds of professors in college who are very particular about being addressed appropriately, including some that are totally cool with just being addressed by their first names.

Occasionally, you will also come across some professors that allow you to address them more casually when outside of campus, just so the boundaries between instructor and students are respected and well established in the appropriate setting.

How to Find Out the Title of Your Instructors

Usually, a simple search on Google leading you to the lecturer’s biography on university websites should tell you about their job title, experiences, as well as their academic achievements. Alternatively, looking at an instructor’s course syllabus where their titles should be listed and shown next to their legal name.

Of course, the easiest way is just verbally asking them politely, it can be as easy as saying “Hi Professor, how should I address you?” or “How would you prefer to be addressed?”. Addressing instructors as ‘professors’ during your first encounter without prior knowledge of their title is totally fine and usually what students do.

The Safe Word to Use While Addressing Instructors in College

At this point, let’s not convolute things further with the rankings, terms, or other academia-related jargon, because they must be an easy way out for this right?

To save you all the trouble, it is definitely OK to address all instructors you’ll come across in universities as ‘Professors’ given that majority of lecturers you will encounter in college will likely have a Doctorate Degree.

In my undergrad years, I almost always address all my instructors as ‘professor’, while adding their last names sometimes, and never found myself in a bad position even without prior knowledge about their professional titles.

I later realized that even most instructors without a Doctorate Degree won’t even bat an eye when you address them as ‘professor’ because they understand students do that out of respect. And in my personal experience, some of my instructors didn’t bother correcting me even when I incorrectly assumed and addressed them with the ‘professor’ title.

Regardless, instructors who prefer or allow students to address them more casually by their first names or nicknames usually explicitly make it known when they first introduce themselves.

Can instructors without a Ph.D. teaching in a university become a Professor?

That is absolutely possible, although it might be very rare. Universities tend to promote lecturers as long as they continue teaching, and it would only be disadvantageous for instructors if they don’t accept the offer of any ranking promotions.

Addressing Professors in Emails

Now we previously said not all instructors in college have a professor title, so how should you write emails if you don’t have any prior knowledge or information about an instructor’s title when writing an email?

Even when writing emails as short as 5 sentences, I always my write my email in such format:

  1. Addressing the instructor appropriately on the first line
  2. Fill in your message or query
  3. Express gratitude and leave your name

It should look something like this:

Example of an email format to university instructors

Simple steps like 1 and 2 are simple yet essential elements when writing a good email to professors, as it leaves a good first impression of you virtually. Though, the manner and choice of words you use also contribute to writing a good email, just be mindful that some professors can be particular about how you properly open and end your emails respectfully!

More Resources

Best Easy-A Classes to Boost Your GPA in College

9 Helpful Tips to Make a Good First Impression in College

9 Helpful Benefits Students Get From Summer Classes

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David Shaw

I graduated college with a Computer Science degree and enjoy blogging about the college experience as a hobby. I like spending time learning about the latest happenings in the tech and entrepreneurship world. With my prior experiences and knowledge, I hope my college lifestyle brings help to people

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