What should your students call you? Instructor? Professor? Doctor? Or do they just go with your first name? This guide will serve as an answer to the question of “instructor vs professor” in how to style yourself, whether the title or scholarly rank really matters, and what to expect of your students and how to communicate your title to them.

Instructor vs. Professor: What are the rules?

There are rules and criteria for academic titles—these general rules apply to higher education in the United States. Most of the time, “professor” refers to a tenure-track professorship appointment. “Instructor,” similar to “lecturer,” covers everybody else who teaches in universities, with jobs that are contract, full time or part time.

For most universities and colleges, an assistant professor is the first rank. She or he will be able to call themselves ‘professor’ but must achieve tenure within a set number of years (usually a maximum of seven) to rise to the next rank. An associate professor is someone who is promoted when they achieve tenure; the title of professor is then granted to somebody when their university has decided they are distinguished within their discipline.

On the other hand, adjunct professors are not part of faculty, but depending on their school’s policies, they may able to use the title “professor” as a courtesy title—namely, one that doesn’t carry any legal weight. Adjuncts are paid per course taught instead of a salary: instructors can be salaried and have formal positions, but often aren’t eligible for tenure.

Graduate students leading laboratory or tutorial sections of a course are not considered instructors.

In Canada, a rough equivalent to adjuncts are “sessional” instructors who have teaching responsibilities, occasional admin roles, but no research responsibilities and are contracted to teach on short-term contracts. These individuals are not awarded the title of professor, courtesy or otherwise.

If you have earned a PhD or doctorate, you are entitled to call yourself “doctor,” regardless of whether you are a tenure-track or part-time employee. For some, that is a preferred in-class title (more of which later).

Beyond this, colleges have their own guidelines about titles and faculty positions, and like many institutional policies, they can be complex. Cornell University, for example, operates with 40 approved academic titles, including “professor-at-large.” Private institutions may have somewhat different rules from publicly-funded ones.

Instructor vs. Professor: Does it really matter?

Some people hold great store in attaching the appropriate honorifics. Others feel these distinctions pale in comparison to the quality of your teaching. According to online educator Errol Sull “it’s your attitude and your teaching ability that [students] will ultimately react to, not your title.”

Let’s agree, though, that title differences are more than semantic, in that the working lives of tenured faculty and contract faculty are quite different. In the “adjunctified university,” writes Rebecca Schumann for Slate, “what to call professors is more confusing than ever,” and perhaps more contentious.

Instructor vs. Professor: What students expect… and what they do

The average undergraduate, of course, has no clue about the workplace culture and politics of academia. Here’s one of my students, at the front of my classroom, raising her hand. “Excuse me, Miss…”

I am a veteran instructor and subject matter expert—a forty-something mother of two who is wearing, if not a suit, something “put together.” The course syllabus states my full name and doctoral credentials. Let’s just say “Miss” strikes me as wildly inappropriate.

For many years, I have politely corrected students who insist on calling me “Miss,” and for just as long I’ve let it slide, weary, and not wanting to interrupt the flow of a lecture or to derail a discussion. Though “Miss” peeves me, I am generally tolerant about how students address me. I usually suggest they simply call me by my first name.

Going on a first-name basis

Judging by the debate that erupted over an Inside Higher Ed article, this is a popular but contentious practice. In the article, Katrina Gulliver, a faculty member at the University of New South Wales, laments the “epidemic of familiarity” among undergraduates who are inclined to call her by her first name. Gulliver suggests that her authority in the classroom is being undermined by the first-naming that is going on over email, in her classroom, and in others’ classrooms. “For those who are going to slam me for being uptight,” she writes, “watch your privilege.”

For me—a straight, white woman occupying contract positions in the academy—I acknowledge my privileges and disadvantages. I am conscious of the disturbingly gendered and racialized perceptions of students, as they crop up for instance in teacher evaluations. And while I have certainly experienced challenges to my authority, I don’t believe they would have felt any better with a “Doctor” attached to them. Would they have been prevented or lessened had I insisted on being addressed more formally? Classroom authority, of course, is not the only factor to consider in the name game, but some feel it’s still important.

Interestingly, some students I teach insist on using honorifics even when I ask them to call me Karen. Some of these students calling me “doctor” or “professor” try to use the title as a form of flattery: “Please, professor, may I submit this essay late, professor? It is up to your good judgment, professor, but please, spare my grade.” My response might have been to point out that, strictly speaking, they should not be calling me professor.

Instructor vs. Professor: Is ‘doctor’ a good alternative?

Last semester, my first one at a particular institution, I tried something different and asked my online students to call me ‘Dr. K.’ I spent the semester feeling uncomfortable about that decision. It felt like I was pushing my credentials in everyone’s faces, using my first initial in an attempt to compensate for mandated formality.

In this case, my students were accomplished adult learners who owned companies and were raising families. I think I felt the need to insist on my expertise, for fear I had nothing much to offer them. It turns out I did have a lot to offer them. That came out in our interactions over the course of term, through my hard work in providing feedback and facilitation.

There is no shortcut to respect in an academic career other than teaching, and your worth as a teacher is not about the title on your business card or curriculum vitae.

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