Thursday, January 29, 2009

Graduate student -- faculty relations

In certain Ph.D. programs in the South, graduate students are expected to call their professors 'Doctor', while the faculty of course refer to the graduate students by their first names. This can't make the students feel good, and I can't help but think the practice inhibits their development into professionals who view themselves as their professors' equals. Are there other ways in which graduate faculties create distance between themselves and their graduate students? More generally, how were (or are) the relations between faculty and graduate students where you got (or are getting) your Ph.D.?

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

At least until they earn their Ph.D., graduate students aren't their professors' (professional) equals.

Anonymous said...

Whether you end up being treated as an "equal" after you earn your Ph.D. will depend very much on whence that Ph.D. is earned. I am an assistant professor at a no-name school with a Ph.D. from an unranked program. In the caste system that is our profession, this pretty much makes me an untouchable (or would those be junior college professors - or do those poor souls even count?). As a rule, "colleagues" from big-name schools and/or those who earned their degrees from ranked programs tend to be very condescending toward me and my ilk. How odd that a profession filled with so many self-proclaimed "leftists" would be so remarkably unegalitarian.

Third said...

I don't suppose you meant anything in particular by singling out the South, did you?

At the Southern school where I got my Ph.D., a professor I respected quite a bit actually seemed hurt when I called him "dr". I meant it as a sign of respect, and I didn't want to appear too familiar, but it didn't feel that way to him. As far as I could tell, only one person preferred to be called "dr", and that was only in school settings. Off campus, she was much less formal.

And FWIW, I was in a Ph.D. program in the Northeast for some time too. Department rules didn't require us to call the professors "dr", but Department culture sure did, at least until a student was well into his dissertation.

My sense is that not much turns on this issue in particular. But I do think there are good reasons for letting students (even grad students) know that they are students. As Anon First said, grad students aren't their professors' equals. This is so in many ways.

Anyway, acknowledging these differences seems like an important part of the process of turning someone from a student into a colleague.

Anonymous said...

I got my PhD from a department out west. We addressed our professors by their first names and that practice was very entrenched in the culture there. (New students sounded silly and obsequious addressing a professor in a more formal way. They quickly stopped.)

Philosophers giving talks on campus were of course addressed much more respectfully. And there was a general "easing-into" the practice with Visiting Professors.

There was no sense that we were treating each other "as equals". Clearly, we weren't professional equals. The atmosphere was just relaxed and quite friendly.

Fred Garvin said...

When I was in the Midwest, it was common for us to address our professors as "Doctor so-and-so". When out West, I found that most students referred to their professors as "Professor so-and-so".

slipping on the ice said...

at my new england institution, it was always "Professor So-and-so." only twice during my studies do i recall faculty telling me to call them by their first names.

i preferred the formality as it reminded me that doctoral work is, well, work.

an ominous moderator said...

Huh. I had been under the impression that this was a distinctively southern thing. Guess I was wrong.

Dr. Killjoy said...

General etiquette for students (graduate or undergraduate) is to address faculty as Dr. or Professor until told otherwise ("Please call me Bob") or a certain reasonable familiarity is established. In most cases, the Dr. Prof thing lasts for all of the first social interaction. Likewise, this goes both ways, grad students ought to be addressed as Mr. or Ms. until otherwise told or familiarity is established. Look, if you didn't know Robert Stalnaker, you wouldn't address an email to him, Dear Bob, so why would you begin by calling him Bob or even Robert in person? Normal social cues should resolve these things, but for the denser among us, just err on the side of caution until explicitly told otherwise.

Anonymous said...

I expect this comment to be contentious and inflammatory, but true and not explicitly about "the South" or any other geographic region within the U.S.

In the U.S., roughly, with few exceptions, the less prestigous and competitive the school, the more likely people at the school are to put the letters "PhD" beside their name if they have a PhD, and the more likely people at the school are to list their title as "Dr. such and so".

Similarly, in the U.S., roughly, with few exceptions, the more prestigous and competitive the school, the less likely people at the school are to put their highest degree after their name, and the less likely people at the school are to list their title as "Dr." if they have a PhD.

This is a common phenomenon. It involves things like inferiority complexes and various ignoble character traits. Establishing yourself as "Dr. such and so" and indicating that you have a PhD has certain effects on people at uncompetitive and lower quality schools. Establishing yourself as "Dr. such and so" and indicating the you have a PhD is much less likely to have many or most or all of those effects at competitive and prestigous schools. This is no accident.

You may need to have experience of a few top 10 or 20 U.S. institutions of higher education in order to recognize these patterns.

Anonymous said...

anon 6:56 sounds like a pompous dumbass, if I may say so. Coming from a top five department, I will say that there is a certain circle of profs who all generally expect to be addressed by their first name after you get to know them a bit. There is also a circle of profs who expect to be addressed as Dr. or Professor so-and-so. It would be extremely rude to address them otherwise, and this is most definitely not because they feel the need to emphasize their own qualifications. Indeed, at least one of them doesn't have a phd, but unless you are his student and have known him for years, you'd be a fool to not call him Professor.

when I was in england and referred to someone as Dr. so-and-so, my fellow students' jaws all dropped, and they quickly informed me that this person was not 'merely' a Dr., he was Professor. This distinction between ranks using those two terms does not seem to occur in the US.

Anonymous said...

In Britain, 'professor' is a more lofty title, since it indicates that not only does a person have a PhD, but also an academic position.

Anonymous said...

the distinction between Dr. and Prof. is alive and well in the US. It's true, undergraduate students do not typically grasp the distinction, but those with some familiarity with academic culture generally do. And being a professor is by and large thought to be more distinguished than just having a doctorate.

the remarks by anon 6:56 seem to me to be besides the point (they don't directly concern how grad students address their professors), but not obviously false.

Anonymous said...

Here is how I see it. Call your professors by their first names, and they will assume you are their colleague and end up treating you as such. Or call them Prof. X and Prof. Y, and they will treat you as more of an undergraduate. It's completely up to you. (Obviously this doesn't apply the most hardened old school types, so use some discretion.)

Also, I understand exactly what 6:56 means, though I don't know if it has anything to do with prestige. Sometimes I'll see an email from a someone in another department and the person will sign his name, "John Doe, PhD." I'll assume that person is an idiot from that point on, and I can't help it. It's like wearing your Tom Petty shirt to the Tom Petty concert. We already know you're a TP fan--we all are, that's why we're here!

Anonymous said...

Where I did my PhD in the midwest, if someone said "Dr. So-and-so," the rest of us looked around for someone with scrubs and a stethoscope.

Anonymous said...

In the UK, a professorship is not just any academic position - it's roughly equivalent to the status of a named chair in the US and average tenured faculty aren't professors. So I suppose if you're insisting on using titles, the Dr v professor dsitnction is important. But, for what it's worth, almost all the Oxford dons I know go by their first names to undergrads as well as grads. I'm not sure what that proves, but it certainly means that I'd tend to assume that it's ridiculously pompous to get offended if you're not addressed by your title in informal situations...

Anonymous said...

I've been a prof in high ranking Depts in different parts of the country for over 20 years. I suppose it is polite for a PhD student to address a prof in the same Dept as "Professor" when meeting for the very first time.
In the U.S. anyway, any Prof who does not immediately go to mutual first names is a jerk. [it is sometimes different in languages that mark a familiar formal distinction.]
And those who prefer Dr. to Prof are especially pathetic M.D. wannabes.
Many undergrads seem to enjoy using the title, it is perhaps best to humor them, but there is a big difference between undergrads and those doing research in a PhD program.

Anonymous said...

I got my M.A. in Canada, am working on my PhD in the midwest, have attended quite a few conferences, and otherwise had the opportunity to meet a lot of faculty members from various departments. Not once have I met anyone who preferred being called Doctor or Professor. When I meet someone, I do say, "It's a pleasure to meet you Professor whatever" and they always reply "Call me whatever their first name is".

Indeed, in many instances after I called someone "professor", the person gave me the grin that says, "silly you, calling me professor, such quaint formality". The only time people haven't looked at me funny when I call people "professor" is when I referred to people in that manner when responding to their questions at conferences. Then again in that case most faculty members call each other "professor" unless they happen to be friends.

With all of that said, I agree with the folks who think that if you don't know someone, you should refer to them as "professor" until told otherwise. It just seems more polite.

Anonymous said...

P.S. In my department the relationship between faculty and graduate students is quite friendly and collegial.

The Pillsbury Doughboy said...

Regarding the faulty assumption about "the South," I do think the use of differentiated titles has greater importance in Southern culture, generally. But I don't think this makes academics in the South significantly more predisposed to adopt the practice, especially given how much Americans, in general, and academics, in particular, move around.

Moreover, I don't think the phenomenon is unusual once one looks outside the U.S. In Germany, for example, the use of differentiated titles is arguably encouraged not only by a language which distinguishes between formal and informal forms of address; it's also encouraged by a system in which academics write not one but two dissertations (i.e. 'Doktorarbeit' and 'Habilitation'), in addition to the expected distinctions in employment status. As the number of distinctions in academic status increases, so do the opportunities for using the corresponding titles (e.g. "Herr Doktor Professor Frege..."). I should add that the practice of addressing someone as, e.g. 'Herr Doktor', is not restricted to academic circles.

The Pillsbury Doughboy said...

As a matter of pragmatism, it's safer to err on the side of caution and address faculty members by either 'Dr.' or 'Prof.'. It's my impression that even some of the faculty who are happy to license a first name basis nevertheless find it presumptuous if an incoming grad student just assumes a first name basis from the outset. And then, of course, there are faculty who aren't inclined to license a first name basis, at all. Do you really want to piss off those prospective letter writers?

I also suspect this question of etiquette may play out differently for female academics. If some male grad students are inclined to accord less respect to a junior faculty member on account of her being a woman, then not licensing a first name basis may be a useful corrective. I know of one case in which the only female member of a five faculty team-taught course was introduced to the class on the first day by her first name (and not by her choosing). Granted, she was the only faculty member who hadn't yet defended. But she believed, correctly IMHO, that she had less credibility as an instructor simply on account of how her colleague had introduced her.

On a different matter related to the etiquette issue, what I don't get are faculty who are oblivious to the fact that this issue is important to some of their colleagues and, thus, something of which grad students have to be mindful. I once had a professor express annoyance that I was addressing him politely, despite the fact that he'd never before invited me to address him by his first name. I was like, "What the fuck?! I'm just trying to be polite, because I don't know you're not like your colleague." It's on such occasions that I think even seemingly perceptive faculty have forgotten what it's like to be a grad student.

Anonymous said...

I want to express agreement with 6:56. I was trained at a top 10 program and have interacted with faculty over the years from such places, and I don't recall anybody signing their emails "John Doe, PhD" or whatever. But I now work at a lower 2nd tier program and it is not uncommon to find faculty throughout the University putting "PhD" after their names. I suspect this is partly due to feeling like one has earned such a thing, but also partly owing to the fact that some faculty at the university are only have an MA, or were hired before completing the degree, etc. So I think people may feel there is something to be gained from this practice. For my own part I find it unnecessary.

Anonymous said...

Is this blog over?