When I started my PhD program, I did not know how to refer to other PhD students when addressing them at other universities. Also, it seems rather strange if you are a college student to address PhD students if they are your Teaching Assistant (TA) as professor. It just did not seem right. Over the years, I have learnt how to refer to PhD students under different roles.
If you are referring to PhD students, it is ok to address PhD students as Mr., Ms., or Mx. However, if they are your instructor, you might want to address them as professor as a way to show respect. If they are your Teaching Assistant, you can address them as Mr., Ms., or Mx., and, Sir or Madame. If they are more informal, you can use their first name, but ask their permission first.
I am sure that you are much like me – not knowing what to do, but not wanting to mess up. We have all been there. Academia is often strange for those of us who did not grow up in an academic family, so don’t feel bad about knowing any of these issues. I did not grow up in an academic family, and I bumbled my way through.
By the way, I need to point out that if you make a mistake with anything, don’t worry about it. Mistakes with names and professional designations are common. I used to worry about this stuff a lot (I still do), but just cut yourself some slack. Mistakes happen, and its OK. It’s called being human. If and when I make mistakes with these kind of things, I just send a nice polite email apologizing for the mistake, or I make fun of myself, or both. 🙂
Oh, I just point out that I got my doctorate in Strategic Management back in 2011, and now an Associate Professor at a pretty well known school in the South Eastern States. If you like this post, you really should read this post on what are the differences between undergraduate and graduate education (there are some pretty big differences).
Why do you want to address PhD students in a formal way?
Basically, you want to show respect to those that are just ahead of you in the academic system. They are not only a few years ahead of you, but it took a lot of work to get to where they are. They also had to pass several rights of passages, such as actually getting into the PhD Program, which is often difficult to do.
Many PhD students have professional degrees, particularly in Business Schools where I am, like engineering, economist, MDs, accountants, or an attorney. Indeed, it is extremely common to find PhD students with these professional degrees that would otherwise command respect in industry. Just as a way to be nice and show respect to others, you might want to error on be more formal first. Over time, as you get to know the PhD student, you can address them more informally by their first name, if that is OK with them.
Watch this video if you are confused about what is the difference between a PhD student and a PhD candidate:
Do you address PhD students as Dr (Doctor)?
Generally, no. PhD students have not earned the terminal degree yet, so they are not technically suppose to be called Doctor. It’s kind of like putting on the marathon medal before you won the race. I even feel weird about wearing the race shirt during the race – you are just not quite finished yet. I would avoid doing that until they earned the degree. (You might like this post on what is the PhD journey, and why it matters).
Can a PhD candidate be called Doctor?
Again, no. I would just say
Sir or Madame.
Or, whatever they want to be called, but you should ask – it’s OK to ask.
To distinguish PhD candidates from PhD students, you can just say that they are ABD (all but dissertation). Many people will even put ABD on their academic resume (Vitae).
What if you called a PhD student as Doctor or Professor by mistake?
Don’t worry about it. It’s kind of flattering for the PhD student. They will love the fact that you called them Professor or Doctor. I still remember when people started calling me that.
It took me years to get used to the title of Professor or Doctor, and it still seems really weird to say that. To me, I am still the same boy that played in the sandbox when I was 5 years old. The only difference is that other people see me differently. At the end of the day, the only reason I use the term Dr. or Professor is to command a bit more respect, because people often mistake me for being really young. (This happened this year – I am 40 years old. It’s kinda like getting ‘carded’ when you buy a drink).
How do you refer to a PhD student in an email?
Like the question before, I would just say Mr., Ms., or Mx. So and So. I would definitely be polite and nice if you don’t know them. If they are your instructor, you might say “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madame” in the email.
I would not write “Hey, Mr. X,” that just comes across way too informal. Instead, just write “Dear Sir/Madame.”
Here is a helpful video about emailing a Professor (or PhD Student) that you might want to see:
Here is another video that I did about PhD abbreviations:
In general though, I would just think about giving other people respect in these circumstances. Starting out formally is better than starting out informally. You can always come back to being more informal once you get to know someone a bit more. Just be nice, and good things will come.
Are you curious about more difficult questions like this? You might want to read this helpful blog posts: