“Doctor” or “Professor?”

By Sean | November 13, 2013

Who are these people and what do you call that person standing at the front of your classroom?

Probably one of the biggest sources of anxiety (and the least openly talked about) is what to call the people who are teaching you. In high school you probably had it easy: “Mr.” for the men or “Mrs.,” “Ms.,” or “Miss” for the women. For the most part you could suss out what to call someone right away.

College is a bit different.

Usually your college teachers will let you know on the first day of class. And take our advice: you’d be well advised to listen to them. If they’re younger they may let you call them by their first name – after all, you are supposed to be an adult. If they’re older, they may want to be referred to as “Doctor” or “Professor.”

But if they don’t tell you? To understand the answer to this question, it’s important that you understand the concept of “academic rank.” Let’s break it down:

  • At the top of the heap is the Distinguished Professor. This person is usually someone special, a scholar considered to be tops in their field because of their research and publications.
  • Most senior faculty members not holding endowed positions are usually Professors (also known as “Full Professors”). These people have typically been working in academia for at least 12 years and most likely are tenured (meaning that they can’t be fired for anything short of shooting a student).
  • Next in line are Associate Professors. These are typically less senior faculty members who have been granted tenure, but are still working on building their careers and reputation.
  • When people are first hired full time to teach and do research at a college or university, they usually come in as Assistant Professors. Assistant Professors are typically not long out of graduate school and are working on getting tenure.
  • Some people may teach full time but for one reason or another are not on the track to get tenure. Often these people may be referred to as “Lecturer,” “Instructor,” “Clinical Professor,” or “Professor of the Practice.” For the most part these folks have obtained their teaching positions not because they’ve spent the best years of their lives cooped up in academia, but because their skills and knowledge come out of years of achievement in the “real world” professions they had before turning to teaching.
  • At the bottom of the heap (financially, at least) are the Adjunct Professors. These folks typically teach part time (maybe one or two classes per semester) and typically hold jobs outside of the college. Believe us: you’re going to encounter a lot of them.

The safest route to take if you haven’t been told otherwise is to refer to them as “Professor” or “Professor LastName.” While their ranks may matter to their peers, they’re never used in normal conversation. Whether Adjunct or Distinguished, they’re all “professors.”

So, you may be asking, why not “Doctor?” While “Doctor” may be fine if the person has indicated that that’s what they want to be called, it’s also a little risky. Most full time faculty usually have a “terminal degree” in their field (the highest degree possible), but “terminal degree” doesn’t automatically mean “doctorate.” In some fields – especially creative fields like art and writing – an “MFA” (Master of Fine Arts) degree is the pinnacle of academic achievement and people with Masters Degrees should never be called “Doctor.”

Just remember: if you’re talking to someone at a college who teaches and you don’t know what to call them, “Professor” is never wrong.