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Margin Notes

Your vote: Professor vs. Dr.


University Affairs magazine is one of the last print bastions of the polite honorific, such as Mr., Ms., and Dr., and this practice is carried through on our website. We don’t use an honorific with a person’s full name on first reference, but we do use it with the surname in second and subsequent references. So, in first reference, it is John Smith, professor of such-and-such, and in subsequent references, it is Dr. Smith.

Our use of the Dr. honorific dates back to a time when many university faculty members didn’t have PhDs, so the use of this term was a nod, in a sense, to the accomplishment of having earned a doctorate. We don’t want to give up honorifics, but we’ve been told by a few professors and academic administrators that they’d prefer to be called Professor, rather than Dr. on second reference. One of them explained that these days it’s easier to get a PhD than a professorship, and Professor means a lot more to him than acknowledging he has a terminal degree. (As well, but less important to us, many physicians feel the Dr. title should be reserved for those with a medical degree.)

Before we contemplate making the change, we’re canvassing our readers for their preference through the online poll below. It’s easy to use, and I’d be very grateful if you could take a moment to respond.

Addendum, Feb. 20, 2009: Our poll is now closed. Thanks for your votes. We have a winner: Dr. it is. More on the results Monday.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Bruce M. Shore / February 11, 2009 at 10:13

    I have always preferred Prof–it is what I do, whereas the Dr is part of my education or my qualification to do what I do. I do not have PhD in my signature block, either. I also realize that there is a difference between the social sciences and humanities versus the sciences on this issue in terms of traditions. As well, “Prof” is rarely used in the USA and only for the most senior academic levels in the UK so other traditions filter in as well. Perhaps treat this as a personal preference. I have no problem with omitting the honorific. We do that in citations within scholarly works, so nobody should be offended.

  2. Catherine Tracy / February 13, 2009 at 11:43

    I don’t have a preference, and I don’t mind people using my first name, though I always hope they are not thus classifying me as worthy of less respect than are the older folks who insist on their titles.

    As regards any physicians wanting to claim exclusive use of the title “Dr” – they are bumptious upstarts who don’t realize that they stole the title from academics!

  3. Line Bonneau / February 17, 2009 at 14:28

    Please note that in Québec, only M.D’s are allowed to use the Dr. title.

    So, I guess, it will have to be Professor.

  4. Nicole Wyatt / February 19, 2009 at 15:17

    I find it interesting that this appears right above the article talking about the increasing use of part-time non-tenure track sessional instructors in Canadian universities. Many of them can call themselves Dr., but not Professor. Of course in the US many of those same non-tenure track instructors are called Visiting Professors, and in the UK and Australasia many of the senior academics may not be Professor but Reader or even Senior Lecturer. It seems to me that the vagaries of job title from country to country (and sometimes institution to institution) make an option other than Dr. or no honorific at all rather problematic to implement.

    (A side note — displaying the email with comments is an invitation to spam harvesters, and was almost enough to make me not comment at all. A change there is needed.)

  5. reuben kaufman / February 21, 2009 at 12:13

    We all have at least one automatic title: Mr., Ms., Miss, Mrs. Some people gain additional ones. Achieving additional titles does not nullify earlier ones. Any “Dr” or “Prof” who takes umbrage at being addressed by an automatic title is small minded indeed. So although the title of “Prof” is in some quarters perceived to be more advanced than “Dr.” (this is particularly so in Europe), I believe there are more important issues to fight over.

    I believe that UA should not adopt any specific policy; you should retain the flexibility to use whatever title is appropriate to the circumstance. Otherwise we’ll soon get twisted knickers over whether one should distinguish between “Asst Prof”, “Assoc Prof” and “Prof”.

    Prof. (!) Reuben Kaufman 🙂

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