Professor, Dr, Mr Leather; Simon – How formal should you be?

Call me old-fashioned but when I receive an email like the one below, my first reaction is to shrug resignedly and then to press the delete button.

Website enquiry from

 hi ,

i wana know about scholar ships criteria in field of entomology kindly help me i am from pakistan n did masters in entomology

though to be fair, that is somewhat better than this one:

Website enquiry from

giv me scholarship  to study with u

 This enquiry was sent from a contact form on

The begging emails I receive are not however, all like the two above;  and some apart from a slight error in gender assignation, I consider deserving of a reply, albeit mostly in the negative.

Website enquiry from

 Dear Sir,

   I am a Research Officer of Department of Agriculture, XXX. My Research field is Entomology. I am very much interested in following a Msc. in IPM.Please be kind enough to give me a scholarship for studying in your University.


 Dear Madam,

I am MKE from Ethiopia, I am Graduated from XXXUniversity on July 15th , 2010 in BSc Degree of Plant science with a CGPA of 3.40, since then I am serving for about 9 months as expert of Biodiversity in BBB Agricultural and Rural Development Office and now I am working at CCC Agricultural Research Institution DDD Agricultural Research Center as a Crop Entomology Junior researcher-II and now I am looking for scholarship to continue my study for Master (MSc) program in field Entomology. So could you please consider me for the scholarship?

And every now and then you get an enquiry that is pretty much perfect, even to using their university email address instead of, as you often find, hotmail and gmail addresses that were set up when the inquirer was a teenager.  Do you really want a prospective employer or PhD supervisor to know that you are or or

Website enquiry from SD (

 Dear Professor Simon Leather,

 I am currently a second year student of Biological Sciences (BSc) at CCC University, and my interests lie in ecology and entomology. I have worked in LASI (Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects) for a placement previously and would like to explore my interest in entomology further.

 I was wondering if there are any current summer studentship schemes for undergraduates set up in the field of entomology at Harper Adams University? If not, would you possibly be interested in applying for a undergraduate research bursary with me for the coming summer?(

 Kind regards,


These, and the many other emails I receive daily, got me thinking about the ways in which students interact with their lecturers.  Terry McGlynn over at Small Pond Science has written about this subject but I thought that I would add my two pennyworth.

Back in the early 1970s when I was an undergraduate we, despite our long hair and flared jeans (tucked into my wellies in this picture of me doing field-work), lived in a much more formal age.

Simon 1976

We called our lecturers (at least to their faces) Dr or Professor and they in turn called us Mr or Miss even if we looked less than formal ourselves.

Simon a long time ago   Simon 1975

 When I became a PhD student in the late 1970s things were different and we addressed most non-professorial members of staff by their first names.  My PhD supervisor was very keen for us to call him Tony but to his great disappointment, the least informal we could ever force ourselves to get was Prof.  In fact it took me about seven or eight years after getting my PhD before I felt comfortable enough to finally call him Tony to his face!

Now that I am an academic I am very happy for my students, both undergraduate and postgraduate to call me Simon, although I do prefer them to wait until I have invited them to do so.  It always strikes me as a little too informal if they address me as Simon on our first meeting.  I also now know how my PhD supervisor felt when trying to get us to call him Tony.  I occasionally get students who despite frequent prompting still persist in calling me Professor Leather.   There are of course sometimes cultural barriers and in those cases I am very happy if the student addresses me as Professor Simon as that keeps us both happy.

For written communications, even if by email I feel that on first approach, anyone, student or otherwise, including me, should adopt a formal tone and address the recipient  as Dear Dr or Professor Bloggs and sign off as yours sincerely.  In an academic situation, if you are uncertain whether the person you are addressing has a PhD or not, err on the safe side and address them as Doctor; if they are a Mr, Mrs, Miss or Ms they are unlikely to be offended and very few full professors of my acquaintance are old-fashioned or insecure enough to get upset by being addressed by the title of their higher degree!

Interestingly I have noticed recently that a much more informal approach to titles is now commonplace on conferences name badges.  When I first began attending conferences the only badges without titles belonged to students.  It was a real rite of passage when you attended your first conference with the magic Dr in front of your name.  Nowadays, even the most senior professors are badged as first and second names only.   Note that I am by no means suggesting that I consider myself in this category 😉

Badge RES back

How times have changed!  I sometimes feel that all this informality must make the newly en-doctored feel a little hard done by.  After all that hard work and the trauma of submitting a thesis and being grilled in the viva voce examination and then they are given so few opportunities to display their hard-won title.  And now that most people use on-line banking they don’t even get the satisfaction of having their title on their cheques 😉

Post script

Coincidentally, just as I had finished drafting this post I was reading the Times Higher Education magazine  (31 Oct – 6 Nov number 2,125) and came across an article (page 21) on the conference badge issue; That’s Dr, if you please, by Dr Becky Lee Meadows.  Well worth a read if you can get hold of a copy


Filed under Bugbears

6 responses to “Professor, Dr, Mr Leather; Simon – How formal should you be?

  1. Emma

    Nice pics, Prof!

    The e-mail address thing STAGGERS me. I’ve seen people putting together job applications whilst still using their childishly “funny” address for contact. How brainless does someone have to be not to realise the image this presents? How much effort is it to set up a second account? I’m also pretty firmly opposed to firstname only business e-mail addresses, because a) they’re too informal, unless twinned with a personal domain … even then … and b) as an ex techie, I know the pain it’ll cause later on down the line.

    A friend would concur with you on the cheques – she said that the only reason she got her Dr. added to her bank account was because it virtually guaranteed better service wherever she was paying, even thought it was generally presumed that she was a medical doctor. She’s now one of those too, but I don’t think she’s going by Dr.Dr., unfortunately.

    On the general topic, it was interesting going back to uni in my 30s. First time around, age 18, everyone was definitely Dr. / Prof., so I found it terribly odd the second time when it was all relaxed. Mind you, as a mature student it’s easier to get hammered with someone of your own age when you don’t have to use their title. 😉

    Given the broad knowledge of English internationally, and the hope / presumption that it’s taught formally, how much (if any) slack do you cut people for dodgily txt spk style missives?


    • yes I agree. I have to remind our MSc students to use their university email addresses, even to the point of reading their emails as that is where I send course information to. Their excuse is that the university sends them too many emails to wade through!!


    • on the cheque book front – yes amazing how much more quickly you get a response from utilities companies if you add your title to your account details 😉


  2. Working in a library, we get sent all sorts of emails like this too. Often people don’t bother signing off with their names, so we have to try and work their name out from their email address.

    Great field work hat!



    • I was very attached to that hat, although it was often abused by other members of the research group – only gave up wearing it when I started working in far north of Scotland and needed something a bit more water-proof!


  3. Dr Mark Stevenson

    I recently felt the sting of joining a conference and having mu freshly won Dr title robbed from me. My only solution; booking a restaurant for a meal with my parents explicitly under Dr Stevenson…


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