How to address other academics by email?

Provides suggestions on the best way to address academics by email

You have done your hard work of networking at conferences, and now you want to write to some of the people you met. Or you have read someone’s work and want to alert them to some of your work, without of course resorting to mass email.

How do you address fellow academics

But how do you address them? It is quite important to get it right as the wrong form of address can be very off-putting to some people.

  1. As in “real life”, the first rule of thumb is that it is better to start out too formal than to start out too informal. Few people will take offense at a formal way of address, unless of course you had become best friends at the conference. In that case they might well wonder what went wrong.
  2. The second rule of thumb is that the less face-to-face contact you have had with the person before, the more formal your manner of address should be. So for someone you have met at a conference, you might use a less formal way of address than for someone you have never met before.
  3. The third rule of thumb is that more junior you are and the more senior the person you are writing to, the more likely it is that a “formal” form of address, such as “Dear Professor [Family Name]” or “Dear Dr. [Family Name]” would be appropriate. If you are a PhD student and the person you are writing to is a Professor in their fifties, “Hi Peter” or “Hi Anne” would probably sound a little strange even for someone who normally doesn’t insist on formalities.
  4. The fourth rule of thumb is to adjust to their expectations. Different cultures expect different levels of formality or simply different ways of address. It is hard to give hard and fast rules on this, but the piece I did on how to address your teacher might give you some clues. The problem is that most academics address people in the way they address their compatriots. I receive many emails from Indian students addressing me as Ma’m, or from Dutch students addressing me as Mrs. Harzing (my least favourite way of address!).
  5. A fifth rule of thumb is specific to academia: use the official title more often than you would in other situations. In many countries Professor and Dr. are not seen as a signal of hierarchy, they simply acknowledge someone’s seniority and expertise. That’s why, although to Western ears it might sound a little odd, the solution that many Asian students use when the lecturer wants them to use their given name – Professor [given name] or Dr. [given name] – is perfectly appropriate.
  6. A sixth rule of thumb is to pay equal respect where equal respect is due, a Professor is a Professor regardless of their age or gender. I am sure I am not the only woman to have been introduced without title and with her given and last name or even with her given name only, whereas my male colleagues were invariably introduced as Professor [Last Name]. Interestingly, someone has even done research on the effects of this tendency (Why Curie's no Einstein).

What if you are more senior yourself?

In many ways it can be more difficult to decide how to address someone if you are a bit more senior yourself. Using a very formal way of address might lead the recipient to mistake you for a student, especially in Anglo and Nordic countries, where the use of first names is common. On the other hand, if you are addressing a senior academic you want to signal that you are respecting their position and knowledge.

For me the fourth rule of thumb is paramount. I will rarely write to Asian academics using only their first name until I know them very well. For Brits and Nordics, the person would need to be quite senior for me to use a formal way of address. If unsure, I use a compromise with a dual form of address, e.g. “Dear Professor Smith, dear Peter,”. Another compromise that I have seen other people use is “Dear [given name] [last name].”

Ensure you get someone’s name right!

Whatever you do though, make sure you spell the name correctly. Spelling errors in an email are annoying, but spelling errors in someone’s name are really unforgivable. So check and double-check before you send your email. My given name for instance is Anne-Wil, not Annewil, Ann-Wil, Anne-Will, Ann-Will, Annwil, Annwill, or Anvil [yes, I do really get them all!]. I’ll forgive you Anne, but Ann is really stretching it! Oh… and one final thing. If you don’t know what part of someone’s name is their given name and what part is their family name, look it up! Otherwise, you might end up being very disrespectful quite by accident.

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