The first graduate student I ever taught was from India. He came to the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, where I was an assistant professor of English, to study petroleum engineering. I was so excited to hear that he would take my technical writing course because I had never taught a graduate student before. He emailed me before the semester began because he wanted to come meet me in my office. I was sitting at my desk when he knocked on the door. I got up, opened it, and I saw him smiling at me. Then, he said, “Hi, Shawn, it’s nice to meet you!” and stuck out his hand for a handshake. I shook his hand, but something inside me was immediately disappointed and even a bit angry.
On the surface, this exchange sounds fine, right? However, there was no way that this first-semester graduate student from another country could have known why I was bothered by his greeting. The truth is, in the United States, many professors allow their graduate students to call them by their first names. However, this normally comes after a more formal introduction where the student says, “Hello, Dr. Higgins,” and then Dr. Higgins replies, “Oh, no need for that! You’re a grad student! Call me Shawn!”
To understand this situation better, let’s begin by considering job titles and pronouns.
There are so many possible job titles for people teaching at colleges and universities in the United States. Here is an incomplete list, loosely moving from the lowest level of prestige to the highest:
Often referred to as a “TA.” A TA is a graduate student working for a professor and helping them teach their class or run their laboratory.
This is a graduate student who has some level of autonomy over the courses they teach and those courses’ syllabi. A graduate instructor is not helping a professor teach their class. Rather, this class is their own.
This instructor or professor will only stay at this institution for a few years. Their “visiting” status means they are currently employed somewhere else and will return to that institution. It could also mean that the institution has hired them on a fixed short-term contract and does not plan to hire them permanently.
LECTURER OR INSTRUCTOR
These professors can be part-time or full-time, and their positions can be temporary or permanent. They are not on the tenure-track, meaning they are often not required to do research or serve on university committees. They might have doctorate degrees, but they might not. They may teach only one course per term, or they may teach a very full load of courses (four to five) per term.
This term may be the same as “Visiting Lecturer” or “Lecturer” depending on your institution’s usage. The difference could be that adjunct professors might have higher degrees (doctorate degrees) than visiting lecturers or instructors, but this is not always true. Most adjunct professors are not on the tenure-track.
This professor will only stay at this institution for a few years. Their “visiting” status means they are currently employed somewhere else and will return to that institution. It could also mean that the institution has hired them on a fixed short-term contract and does not plan to hire them permanently. While “Visiting Lecturer” and “Visiting Professor” may be used interchangeably, a difference could be that visiting professors have higher degrees (doctorate degrees).
ASSISTANT TEACHING PROFESSOR
This professor has a full-time, permanent position that is non-tenure-track. While tenure-track professors are expected to conduct research and serve on university committees as part of their job expectations, assistant teaching professors primarily teach courses, perhaps four to five each semester. They might not ever get “tenure,” but that doesn’t mean their titles mean anything less.
This professor has a full-time, permanent position that is tenure-track. This is the entry-level title for a professor seeking tenure. Assistant professors are expected to teach classes, conduct research, and serve on academic committees. This rank typically means the professor is in their first one to seven years of their job.
This professor has a full-time, permanent position. This rank is normally for someone who has been granted tenure and is a middle rank professor. For institutions that prize research among their faculty, earning this rank normally means they have published a book or many academic articles. For institutions that value teaching and service, this rank is for professors who have significantly contributed for more than seven to eight years.
This professor has a full-time, permanent position. This is one of the highest ranks a professor can receive and is sometimes referred to as a “full professor.” Professors have normally either significantly contributed to their fields by publishing multiple books or multiple articles and are viewed as an expert by others in their field, or they are foundational to the teaching and organization of an institution. Not all assistant or associate professors are guaranteed the rank of “Professor”; it is a title that often must be applied for and can be denied.
PROFESSOR EMERITUS OR EMERITA
This professor is retired or in the process of retiring. Professors emeriti and professors emeritae might teach occasional classes, give occasional lectures, or serve as graduate student committee members and co-advisors. However, they are most likely not working a full-time load at the university anymore.
It’s not as simple as calling your professors by their job titles, however. You would never call someone “Graduate Assistant X” or “Assistant Professor Y.” Instead, you need to figure out which title they prefer and what level of formality is needed in a given situation. Cultures of formality and collegiality vary widely from country to country and from region to region. Then, if you take factors such as race, gender, economic class, age, and other biographical attributes into account, how you interact with instructors and professors at your school can be influenced in many confusing and humbling ways. For example, I know many female professors who share stories of not being given their due respect and who attribute that to their gender in their profession. This might be because students are culturally programmed to respect a male professor and will call him “Dr. X” or “Professor X” readily. However, students seem to be comfortable cutting these titles off from a female professor’s title, resulting in simply calling her by her family name. Whereas a student might say “Hi, Dr. X!” to a male professor in the hallway, they might then two minutes later say “Hey, Y!” to a female professor. This casualness might be because that student feels more comfortable around Dr. Y because Dr. X intimidates everyone in the department. However, even if that casualness is coming from a positive feeling, the perceived message is that the student might not respect Dr. Y as much as Dr. X.
Here are some recommendations for how to navigate this confusing culture:
1.Ask your instructor or professor for their preference. Some people with doctorate degrees prefer “Dr. Y” at all times. Some young graduate instructors will want you to call them “Professor X” because it carries more power and separates them from their students. Some university professors or professors emeriti who have taught for forty years will prefer you just call them by their first names because, well, they have had enough years of formality and respect.
2.If you don’t know your professor’s preference and can’t find out, use their official title and degree by default. For example, if you know your professor has a doctorate degree because the school website lists them as “Person Y, PhD,” then call them “Dr. Y” the first time you meet them. If you aren’t sure whether they have a doctorate or not because the website simply lists “Person Y,” then call them “Professor Y” when you first meet them. “Professor” is a job title; “Doctor” is a degree earned. Not all professors are doctors, and calling a professor “doctor” when that person doesn’t have a doctorate degree might lead to embarrassment.
3.If you don’t know your professor’s official title or degree, then simply use their entire publicized name. In conversation, you could greet someone by saying their full name (for example, “Shawn Higgins?”) and by offering a physical gesture of some sort, like a handshake. In email, you could begin with a salutation and their full name (for example, “Dear Shawn Higgins,”).
a. Avoid using gendered pronouns. There is no need to call someone mister, miss, or missus in conversation or in email. Similarly, avoid sir and madam/ma’am. Do not assume that someone identifies as a man or a woman, especially if you have never met them before.
Outside of attending classes with professors, there are two other important ways you will interact with them: during office hours and when you ask for a letter of recommendation.
Professors “hold office hours” outside of class time to provide students with the opportunity to speak with them privately about a number of issues. Specifically, students can go to ask the professor about general course questions, specific skill or assignment assessment, or for clarification and expansion of topics discussed during class. Beyond this, office hours are a chance to see the “human” side of each other outside of the classroom environment. Professors often reveal much about themselves through the way their offices are arranged and decorated, including the books on their shelves and the degrees or adornments hanging on their walls and on their desks. Conversely, professors can get to know students on an individual basis in office hours.
In order to use office hours effectively, follow these steps:
1.Visit your professor during their scheduled office hours, or make an appointment for an agreed upon time in advance. Try not to show up at their office randomly outside of office hours. Professors are often in their offices preparing for classes, grading, working on research, or maybe just eating their lunches. Even though they are “in,” try not to assume that they are always “available.” If you show up during their scheduled office hours, however, you have a better chance of being welcomed into their office.
2.Come prepared with a purpose for the visit. Bring a set of specific questions or some notes you took from the lecture that you would like to know more about.
3.For more tips, visit the “Academic Situations and Scripts: In Office Hours” section of this book’s appendix.
When you apply for a scholarship, internship, graduate school, or maybe a job, you will want to ask your professors for a letter of recommendation. Asking for a letter is not a major favor, so don’t be scared to ask. However, there are some important considerations to make before asking:
1.Try to ask for a letter from someone who has a permanent position at your university. If you plan to ask someone who was a graduate assistant when they taught you as a first-year student, be careful. They might graduate from their doctoral program and leave the school before you need the letter! Similarly, if you want to ask someone who works as an adjunct professor, you need to make sure they are still employed by your university. They might have left the university for a full-time position somewhere else (hopefully), or they might not have had their contract renewed by your university (unfortunately).
2.Make sure you ask them with enough advance notice of the deadline. How much time is “enough”? There is no set number of days, but I would try to ask at least three weeks in advance. Asking for a letter on Monday for an application due Friday will not give your professor enough time to write a quality, customized letter for you. Every professor who has written letters of recommendation before can easily put together a generic letter for you. However, some professors will refuse to do this out of consideration for you; generic letters are not very effective when compared with letters from professors that are clearly customized. Ideally, you would ask the professor a month in advance.
3.Make sure you did well enough in that class for the professor to say something positive about you. This does not include just grades; it also includes your participation, your professionalism, and your impact on the class atmosphere. If you got below a B grade in the class, I would not suggest asking for a letter of recommendation. If the professor doesn’t seem to remember your name when you talk to them in office hours because you didn’t participate much in the class, I would reconsider asking them for a letter. If you received a high grade in the class and the professor remembers your name but you had a negative impact on the class, such as being disruptive or not being a productive group member for assignments, you might want to ask another professor for a letter.
4.Make sure you give that letter writer everything they need to submit the recommendation on time. If they have to submit it to a specific website, make sure you register their email address on the website in advance. If you want them to include specific information about a project you did in their class, give them those details weeks before the deadline so that they can add it to their letter. If the letter should be addressed to a specific person or agency, make sure you give it to them in advance and in the correct format. If you make mistakes with this information, then your letter writers will also make those mistakes. This will not only reflect negatively on your letter writers, making them look unprofessional, but you will probably not be awarded the thing or position to which you are applying as a result.
1.Would you prefer to take classes with a younger professor closer to your age and with less experience or an older professor with more experience? Why?
2.What kinds of questions might you ask a professor in office hours that you should not ask during a class session?
3.Are you someone who actively participates in your classes? If not, how can you make sure that your professor notices you in the classroom and remembers your name after the course ends?