This post was provoked by a discussion with a UK-based professor (let’s call her Rebecca Smith, not her real name) who mentioned on twitter that she had received an inquiry about a PhD application by email from someone addressing her as “Hey Rebecca!” Was this a faux-pas on the applicant’s part?
You may think it stuffy, but many people still feel that in more formal situations first names should be reserved for people who already know one another, however slightly. Talking about this may seem rather uptight, but it is important practical information. Whatever the rights and wrongs of it, if you don’t know how to write a formal email, you may be missing out on real opportunities as a result.
Academics are not, on the whole, especially keen on hierarchy, status and titles. In everyday life, they do not stand on ceremony and refer to one another as Professor This and Doctor That. But this does not mean that anything goes. We all know that there are some situations in life when a little more formality is required; applying for a job or PhD is certainly one of those times. Most academics feel that when initially making contact, first names are not appropriate, but applicants may not know this, or realise the impression they create when they do use overfamiliar language. After some discussion on Twitter, I decided to create a survey to get the facts. We had over 200 responses, mainly from UK and US based PhD qualified academics. The results summarised here are from the first 191 responses. These relate to a situation where someone is writing about a possible PhD, but we get similar results for academics contacting one another about e.g., an invitation to speak at a conference – something I’ve done quite a lot. The same rules apply in all formal situations and beyond academia it is a good idea to use people’s titles and avoid informal first name greetings when you are making first contact with someone you don’t yet know.
When contacting an academic you don’t know about a professional matter (e.g., a PhD or job opportunity), one thing you should not do is use first names. As you can see, these are considered highly inappropriate by most of our respondents.
A small minority of academics are untroubled about this, but most of our respondents expressed some concerns. The main worry is that the person who wrote the email is not giving much thought to the way they might be perceived. Perhaps they are not taking the situation very seriously, or perhaps they have more general issues about the way they present themselves. These might lead to problems in the academic environment – for example, some of my colleagues in Psychology work with children, parents, vulnerable groups and patients; they want to feel sure that any member of their team presents themselves as a professional and gives due respect to other people’s sensitivities and boundaries. They may be concerned that a particularly careless applicant might cause friction with other team members or with colleagues, collaborators and rivals.
“Most academics I know really don’t care about titles, but an incorrect approach just reads as slapdash and lazy – not the kind of impression you want to make”
“I’m not offended by over-familiar language, but it makes me think twice about the student/applicant — it suggests to me that they’re not taking the email exchange/position advertised seriously, and THAT is what concerns me.”
The following may be a fairly extreme response, but perhaps it illustrates just how critical these first words are to a successful application in a highly competitive environment:
“I don’t think that this is trivial at all. I’m always amazed at the number of potential students or staff members who write to me with e.g. ‘Hiya <Firstname>’ … Application binned. It isn’t so much that I insist on being called ‘Professor’. It is just that if I have 100 applications in front of me for a studentship or RA post, then why should I consider those applicants who haven’t even bothered to think about how they should address the person that they are writing to?”
So how should you begin an email when you are inquiring about a job, or PhD position? Is it “Hi Rebecca”, “Hey Rebecca!”, “Hi Dr Smith”, “Dear Dr Smith”, “Dear Professor Smith”?
In the UK, you should check the recipient’s correct title (normally on their web page) and use that. UK academics will generally have PhDs, but very senior academics (not necessarily old) may have been promoted to Professor. If someone is a Professor they will generally prefer it if you recognise this and use the correct title: “Dear Professor Smith”. If someone has a PhD and is not yet a professor they will generally prefer it if you use “Dear Dr Smith”. Neither will be gravely offended if you get the wrong title, but it may seem a bit careless.
In the USA, the title Professor is used differently, often in a teaching context (e.g., in class, or in emails between students and their teachers) and is not reserved for senior academics with PhDs etc. The majority of our US/academic respondents felt that “Dear Dr <surname>” was the most appropriate way to address a full professor – recognising their academic qualification. Some responses implied that “Dr” is seen as a higher status title (contrasting with the UK position), but there was less consensus about this and the titles appear more interchangeable in the US.
There are big cultural variations. One Swedish respondent advised:
“In Sweden, we are not that formal. We do not start with “dear dr whatever” or “dear prof whatever”. The translation feels old and if I woud see that in a mail sent to me I would think they translated an english mail with google translate. I do however use it when communicating with people abroad. If I sent an e-mail to a Swedish speaking professor, I would simply start with “Hej first name” which is equivalent to “Hello first name”. That would be the same if I approached any other person,regardless of profession or title, that I do not know (except for the King which have some other etiquette rules). This does not by any means translate to that we do not care about titles, we do! They are often used as a weight when talking to laymen or writing debate articles, kind of a creditability. This is however starting to dissociate because more and more people get titles in general and that is perhaps why we do not care so much in e-mails and so forth.”
But in Germany and Portugal, titles tend to be used even more rigidly than in the UK and US:
“I am German. In Germany, the doctor title officially becomes part of your surname and can be entered in your national ID. Most people do not use it for themselves or to adress others in everyday language except for physicians (Herr Doktor or Frau Doktor – sometimes even without the surname – similar to the use in English). Usually you don’t introduce yourself using titles, except they appear important in the situation to clarify your function. However, usually you are expected to be humble about it.
In a written communication from a student to a professor, including emails, Herr/Frau Prof. <surname>, and Herr/Frau Prof. Dr. <surname> are appropriate for first contact (well you choose either Herr or Frau based on gender)”
“I’m originally from Portugal, where these titles seem to have a higher importance than in the UK. In Portugal, anyone with an academic position is a Professor and that must be the way they are addressed.”
Bear in mind that many academics, wherever they work, will be used to the English language conventions of major international journals. Nature Editor Noah Gray advised me that his system defaults to “Dr” if authors do not express a preference.
1. If you are approaching an academic about a job or PhD position and you don’t already know them, don’t use his or her first name in your first letter or email.
2. In the UK, look up the academic’s correct title and begin your email “Dear Dr <Surname>” or “Dear Professor <Surname>” as appropriate. In the US, “Dear Dr <Surname>” is probably most appropriate, but the titles are more interchangeable, and there is less consensus about their use.
3. On no account address PhD-qualified academics as “Mrs”, “Miss”, or “Ms” in formal academic correspondence – numerous female respondents spontaneously raised this as a problem:
“There is also an extra issue for women academics. I am happy with being called Ms, though it suggests a lack of research into my real title, but I get very annoyed at being called Miss or Mrs because it seems to me to be a form of disrespect for my hard won qualifications. In some cases, when done by men of a certain age I suspect it is deliberate denigration, as if they cannot cope with the idea of a female full professor. So at all costs it is vital that students do not use a title which is not an academic one. I would rather be called by my first name than Mrs X.”
4. In many cases after the initial contact, the person you’re contacting will reply with their first name e.g., “Best wishes, Rebecca”, and this can be taken as an indication that it is OK to use first names from then on. This is my own rule of thumb for more formal correspondence, and many other academics have told me they have the same policy.
“I don’t think it’s trivial. There is sort of an unwritten rule that you address people as Dr. or Prof. on first interaction, and then wait to see how they sign off . When they use their first name you can too. Unfortunately, as this rule is unwritten, students don’t usually know until they make a mistake”
Thanks to Taliah Farnsworth (Visiting Undergraduate from University of Denver, working in my lab) and Becky Gilbert (PhD student from Minnesota working with Graham Hitch and I), for help in contacting American respondents, analyzing survey data and for interesting discussions about the American perspective.
Respondents further comments in full (pdf).