How Do I Address Search Committee Members?

I am hereby answering the question of the hour/day/year:  how should you address search committee members in an interview?

You know of course that I am continually railing against job candidates acting like grad students.  And addressing search committee members as “Dr.” or “Professor” XXX runs the clear risk of making you sound like a graduate student.

However, at the same time, at a preliminary conference interview, launching directly into a first name basis is a bit awkward, and may feel presumptuous.

I have given this issue a lot of thought, and revised my thinking over time.  Initially, I believed that all job candidates should refer to search committee members by their first names exclusively, to avoid the ‘stink of grad student.’

However, upon further reflection, I am concerned that this could backfire by appearing, as I say above, presumptuous and premature.

My current thinking is this (and I’d appreciate hearing other viewpoints, particularly from current search committee members):  If you have been in touch by email with any of the search committee members, and they have signed their emails with first name only, that is an invitation to use the first name.  Use it.

For search committee members you’re meeting for the first time, when directly addressing someone on a search committee, at the stage of a preliminary conference or skype or phone interview, use “Dr. XXX.”  When REFERRING to another faculty member in such an interview, refer to them by their first and last names only (“I would look forward to collaborating with Margaret Allan on a course on globalization”).

[UPDATE 1/13/13:  Pursuant to the exchange below with “Stephanie” in the comment stream, I am revising this advice.  New advice is: In general, use first names.  “Dr.” is generally despised by humanities scholars, and “Professor” makes you sound too much like a graduate student.  However, BE SMART!  Be alert and attentive to social cues.  Read the landscape.  There are always regional and institutional distinctions that should be attended to, that make any blanket rule problematic.  Use your social skills to intuit the best course of action, but when in doubt, use first names.  You’re a colleague; act like it.]

Then, when and if you arrive for a campus visit, directly address faculty members you meet as well as search committee members by their first names.  Continue to refer to other faculty members not present by their first and last names.

Deans should be referred to and addressed as “Dean XXX,” until you are invited to do otherwise.

When you use the “Dr. XXX” mode I describe above, it is also important HOW you say it.  Academics routinely use “Dr.” or “Prof.” for one another as a term of professional courtesy, and it communicates courtesy without signifying any status subordination on the part of the speaker.  It is important that you grasp that, and internalize it, as well.  You can say “Dr. XXX” and sound like a graduate student supplicant, and you can say “Dr. XXXX” and sound like a legitimate future colleague…it depends on how you say it.  Attend to the other issues of tone and body language that I address in many blog posts here, particularly the Six Ways You’re Acting Like a Grad Student post, and channel your dignified and professorial inner professor when speaking.

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How Do I Address Search Committee Members? — 28 Comments

  1. There’s another angle to this, as well. Some of the folks I’ve been in touch with during my current search are colleagues and personal acquaintances – I’m in the health sciences and my field is small. I generally take a more formal approach on my cover letter, but in conversations, we’re on a first name basis.

  2. I’ve landed a campus visit at my (undergraduate) alma mater, and am wondering if you have any advice for handling the names/honorifics issue with this dynamic in mind? From what I know thus far, the person who taught me the discipline’s Intro course in the mid-1990s is on the search committee(!). Do I just take a deep breath and call her by her first name?

  3. It is also important not to address people you know very well too familiarly. This may give the appearance to the other SC members that the assessment by these people of you is not objective, and thus less valuable. This applies even more to interviews for grant panels!

  4. I actually think that in this case, being more formal in written correspondence makes you seem less like a grad student. Different disciplines have different levels of formality in the student/prof relationship, but at least in the departments I have been in (sociology), students call profs by their first name and show up to meetings in sweats. I struggle to get my students to be more formal in public settings (I actually told one of my students to “tuck your f***ing shirt in for God sake” before a conference presentation). Formal doesn’t always mean deferential. So even when you are familiar with the search chair, I would recommend referring to them as Dr. or Professor, as lots of other people will be reading the letter and might be put off by the audacity of an informal greeting. But in-person interactions are almost always less formal, and in that case I would always use first names. But Deans are Deans; I’m a (hopefully) almost tenured professor, but I still use the title Dean almost exclusively, except when I need to impress upon the person I am talking to that I am “in” with the Dean, in which case I use first names.

    • This post refers exclusively to interview settings. It goes without saying that in written correspondence you don’t use first names.

      • Is that the case if you are emailing with the search chair and he signs with a first name?

        What do you say/write for Associate Dean?

  5. What I seem to end up doing if meeting a faculty member for the first time is to call them ‘first name – surname’ when I address them initially (As in “Karen Kelsky? My name is Claire, pleased to meet you.”). If a British person can cope with such levels of informality, I’m sure the Americans can, too. 😉
    I think the worst crime you can *possibly* commit on the matter of names is to mix up whether somebody is a “Dr.” or a “Professor”…

    • Would be most appreciative if anyone wants to weigh in on the Dr./Prof. distinction, specifically for an American context. I’m from the States but, in the course of doing my graduate degrees in Canada, the nuances have become muddled. In Canada, “Dr.” refers to someone who has completed a PhD; “Professor” to someone who holds a faculty appointment. Is this the case in the US? As an undergrad in the States, I was under the impression that “Dr.” connotes more prestige than “Professor,” but I could have been mistaken.

      • This can be a fraught thing, actually. I’ve never entirely understood it, but I believe that in the US
        “Professor” connotes more prestige for an academic than “Dr.” The reason I recommended “Dr.” in this blog post is that I fear a young candidate addressing someone as “Professor” will too easily fall into the grad student subordination trap. These lines are all very fuzzy and everything is impressionistic, though. These are at best guidelines or points of consideration, not firm rules.

  6. Same in the US (“Dr.” is someone who has completed a Ph.D./Professor is someone with a faculty appointment) but the distinctions are a little finer even than that. Professor is not just a job title; it’s most accurately used to describe someone who has a t-t position, so that in the Humanities at an R1 such as the one where I teach, a contract teacher or an adjunct with a Ph.D. would not have the title professor. Silly but true.

    What is less clear is the use of Dr, at least in my own field of English. In my own field, to refer to a professor as Dr is considered very gauche, and anyone who calls themselves Dr is quickly schooled out of it. This is not, however, the standard across the university as a whole. Faculty in Education at the university seem to relish the title. Faculty in the Humanities disdain it (and you don’t need to read Bourdieu to figure out why). Southern schools are more likely to use Dr rather than Professor, and there are other regional differences as well.

    All to say, I think it’s best not to use any title in a job interview; you probably don’t know the culture well enough to know where they stand, and though no one would hold it against you if you made an error, you don’t want any bobbles in this market. First name. You’re their peer. Just my two cents.

  7. Not the US, but I once assumed that addressing someone by their first name was alright. In western Canada I had my PhD and was working alongside a senior professor visiting from England in a biology lab for a couple of weeks when I called him “Jim”. (Something along the lines of “Excuse me, Jim…”). He got red in the face and said “It’s Professor Dr. X to you!”. It made me think less of him, as in “You pompous ass…” but since then I have been more careful. I now initially address most people as “Dr. Y”; almost all quickly ask to be called by their first name. Same goes for writing.

    It does seem to vary by region, field, generation, and individually; you never know where people have come from and what they might expect.

    I would never call anyone “Professor”. (And my adviser held that title.)

  8. Thanks so much for this! It’s very helpful. I want to ask a related question, on the cover letter, should we address the chair of the search Committee as Professor X or Dr. X? Is this an exception to the rule of not referring to them as Professor?

    In one of your replies to a comment, you’ve written “This post refers exclusively to interview settings. It goes without saying that in written correspondence you don’t use first names.”

    Does email correspondence count as written?

    Thank you again for all of your help! I’ve just secured a campus visit and have benefited so much from your insights.

    • In letters always use “Professor.” In emails, start with “Professor,” unless they have previously signed an email with their first name. Once they do that, it’s your signal to switch to first name basis.

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  10. I’m British, but have worked most recently in universities in Australia. Am a finalist for a senior post at a major US university. I know that I’ll be meeting/having interviews with the President and the Provost. Should I address them as President X/Provost Y, or as Professor X/Y? My instinct is the latter (I would never have addressed my old bosses as Vice-Chancellor Z, for example, but neither would I have spoken to them on first name terms on first meeting).

    And what about Deans, given that my prospective post is as a Dean? Part of the test, as I understand things, is to see how I get on with the other Deans? I like the advice above – “Joe Bloggs? I’m Kate.” and let it go from there. Better than “Dean Bloggs? I’m Kate”?

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  12. In my department, inside a school of medicine, but many phd-holders, we would expect a candidate to only use Dr. Soandso. First name is only for one on one or a close group of collaborators (my dept is huge, i only know about 30% of my colleagues). Not during the interview or job talk. This should be cued to you because you’ll be introduced as Dr Soandso and that’s how we address to each other (at least, in a meeting). Now I’m nervous because I’m applying for my 2nd job (I’m non TT assistant prof at R1) at SLACs. Though I think I’m so used to it that I can say Dr Soandso with a confident tone. But then again, there’s the cue, if your host says, “hi I’m Bob,” and in the meeting his colleagues call him Bob, I would definitely thank Bob (not Dr Lastname) for the introduction. In the third-person, and she’s not present, you say, Firstname Lastname, almost always followed by context …. “who published last year about Whatever in Journal.”

  13. I believe all protocols should be followed. Once you are a student, you should address your professors by their title, until told otherwise. Showing and giving respect where it is due is paramount.

  14. I understand, in emails, the ritual of using ‘Dr’ or ‘Prof’ on initial contact. I also understand that the signing of an email with a first name is my cue to switch to first name. But what happens when they always sign their emails with first and last name? Is that a cue to switch, or a request to stick to formal contact with titles?

  15. Dear Karen,

    What to do when there is no name given for the application (no Search Chair, or contact person), what does one write in the header? I see that you recommend “Dear Members of the Search Committee” as the opener, but what about the header?


    Department of X
    University of Y

    Thank you!

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