November 21, 2007

Professor, Dr. or Mr./Mrs./Ms.?

ScienceWoman discusses an unsubtle sexism in academic address, namely the fact that:

A significant portion of my students address me as “Mrs. ScienceWoman” despite my repeated email signatures, etc. to the contrary. On the other hand, the lecturer with an M.S. next door to me is constantly addressed as “Dr. Lecturer.” Guess what gender “Dr. Lecturer” is?

FemaleScienceProfessor had a similar post a while back:

There were 4 Female Science Professors and 1 Male Science Professor at the meeting. The discussion was interesting, but after a while I realized that the student was calling us FSPs by our first names and the MSP (with whom she works much more closely than any of us FSPs) as “Dr. X”. This MSP is quite happy to be addressed by his first name by students, but for some reason this student, who has been in the graduate program here for several years, wasn’t comfortable calling him by his first name.

The good Dr. Free-Ride wants to know if, once you get the sexism out of the picture, does it matter how an institutional culture evolves?

The convention at my undergraduate institution (reinforced by how the instructors were listed in the course catalog) was to refer to the faculty members as Mr. Lastname, or Ms. Lastname, or Miss Lastname, or Mrs. Lastname.

Commentary to the post further demonstrates that practices vary tremendously from the individual, to the institutional and apparently to the country level.

I don’t really have anything profound to offer on the topic, just my personal approach. I love the informality of address that is common in our business. To the extent that I may possibly be insulting to others who would wish I used “Dr.” and “Professor” a bit more. I try, somewhat, really I do. I use the honorifics when cold-emailing people although one little opening like a return signoff with a first name and I’ll dump the honorifics as quick as I can. Study section, I really should use the honorifics but it is just such a waste. When I’ve heard before that someone is “formal”, I’ll remember but otherwise?

I did come by this honestly so it isn’t entirely my anti-authority bent. I spent a few years in a prep school which had a good deal of first-naming of the teachers, not to mention out-and-out nickname use. Then I went to a SLAC which trended toward first name use for some of the professors. Not all, certainly and there was no consistent pattern or enforced semi-formal tradition. But still. Grad school was mostly first-name as well.

When I think about the reasons we have a tradition of informality in science I realize, however, that it goes deeper than personal preference for a laid-back profession. It really is fundamental to our business. How so?

One of the essential underpinnings of what we are trying to do in science is that nobody is an authority beyond what his/her data and inspired interpretation support. No, we do not attain this purity of outlook in real practice but this is the way it is supposed to work. The lowliest undergraduate should be able to point out to an octogenarian Nobel laureate where his thinking is going astray. The humblest graduate student can design an experiment that eviscerates 10 years of thinking of a greybeard professor. This equality of standing when creating and interpreting data in our business is a powerful advantage in making progress.

I think a certain informality of addressing “senior” members of the scientific community is in part driven by a recognition of this pivotal aspect of the scientific professions.

7 Responses to “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”

  1. physioprof Says:

    Great post. I handle honorifics identically to you.

    I am actually particularly horrified if any of the trainees in my lab try to call me “Dr.” or “Prof.” Why is this?

    Because if they do not feel comfortable calling me by my first name, I worry that they will not feel comfortable calling me on my own bullshit, science-wise. Every PI needs more deeply than *anything* from their trainees that every trainee feels completely comfortable telling the PI things that the trainee knows the PI might not want to hear. Anything less than this is a recipe for disaster, including, at best, wasted time and effort and, at worst, retracted publications and fraud allegations.


  2. lvnWiFi Says:

    but what about u-grads? respect improves ability to teach, right?


  3. physioprof Says:

    Respect for wisdom and competence improves ability to teach; respect for authority does not.


  4. Pattu Says:

    great post. I especially like your take on the need for informality in the field of Science. However one thing I noticed over the time is that sometimes students have not yet fully grasped how to be informal AND respectful. This is especially true in India, I think. An informal way some times leads to crossing the boundaries (personally not professionally), especially in opposite sexes. But in spite of that, I still insist that my students are informal with me.


  5. drugmonkey Says:

    What I don’t understand about the commentary on AiES and SciWoman is the whole institutionalized “Mr./Mrs./Ms.” axis thingy. Personally I could do without being called “Mr” for the rest of my life, it doesn’t really mean anything. at least with the “Mrs” thing it actually gives some information (whether marital status is relevant is another issue….). But “Mr.” or “Ms.” for someone who is a “Dr.”? Pfah. If one of these hippy colleges wants to preserve some sort of egalitarianism for those non-doctored professors, well, what’s wrong with FirstName LastName? Why not “professor”?

    I’ll go PP one better and suggest that it is not just important that one’s lab members feel free to call bs. letting ourselves argue lazily from our credentials (aka “my experience shows that…”) is a pernicious habit and it bears stamping out. the more people shine our shoes with honorifics and respect our credentials over our arguments and data, well, the more we ourselves start to believe it. a BadThing to believe your credentials make you right…


  6. physioprof Says:

    I say we all just call everyone “Dude”.


  7. Piled Higher, Deeper Says:

    perhaps it is just that those who are, say, egotistical enough to think the world needs to hear their opinion on various topics (biiiiig grin!) are not overly concerned with being “respected” by the minions….?


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