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What Should You Call a Professor?

Dr Harry Hothi
What do you call a professor?

As you progress through your higher education at university, you’re going to come across many different academic job titles. Most you’ll have heard of already, some you won’t have; our guide on this will help you better understand what each of these mean.

Another thing you’ll soon realise is that within STEM subjects at university, virtually all of the academics delivering lectures and supervising undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD projects have PhDs or similar research degrees such as a DPhil.

If you take a look at their university profile pages, some academics have Dr. in front of their names whilst others have Professor (sometimes shortened to Prof). This can start to get confusing, especially if you’re planning your first one-on-one meeting with the academic, perhaps to start a research project under their supervision; what do you call them? How do you address them?

Let’s say your supervisor’s name is James Bond and they have a PhD; should you call him Mr Bond, Dr Bond, Professor Bond or simply James? The easiest way to definitively answer that question would be to just ask your supervisor what he’d prefer (he’ll probably correct you if you get it completely wrong anyway!).

It is important though that you have an understanding of the significance of these different terms and why formally you might call someone with a PhD a Doctor, whilst someone else who also has a PhD could be a Professor.

To help you with this, I’ve written a list of answers to the most commonly asked questions I’ve heard around the subject.

If someone has a PhD, are they a Doctor?

PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy. If an individual holds a PhD degree, common terminology dictates that they have a doctorate, doctoral degree or a PhD in XXXX (fill in the blank here, e.g. PhD in Materials Science). PhD holders are entitled to write doctor (shortened to Dr) in front of their names and so may be called Dr. Surname. An individual with a PhD is not a Medical Doctor unless they also hold a medical degree, such as an MBBS in the UK.

How do you to address someone with a PhD?

Someone with a PhD can use the title Dr. Surname and your safest bet as a student would be to use this term when meeting a PhD holder within a formal academic or research setting; they may ask you to just use their first name or tell you that it’s actually Professor Surname! In job environments where a PhD is of less direct significance to the office environment (e.g. a Maths PhD working in banking), it’s less likely that an individual would use the doctor title in their name and you may not even know that they hold a PhD.

Do you call a Professor with a PhD a Doctor?

The distinction to be clear of here is that the title of Dr. is used to denote a PhD degree holder (or a similar doctoral degree) whilst the title of Professor is an academic job title given to an individual employed by the University as a Professor. If an academic uses the title Professor, then they should be called Professor Surname even if they have a PhD, which most STEM Professors will. It’s accepted that the title of Professor is higher than a Doctor.

Who can be called a Professor?

An academic should only be called Professor Surname if they hold the job title of professor at a university. Some universities in the UK and elsewhere also employ academics as associate professors, typically the equivalent to senior lecturers, in addition to full professors. However usually only full professors are addressed as Professor Surname.

Do you need a PhD to be a Professor?

In most STEM subjects, holding a PhD or equivalent doctoral degree is essentially a pre-requisite to becoming a professor. However, you do not always need a PhD to be a professor in other disciplines; there are certainly very successful professors within the area of modern languages, for example, that hold Master’s level degrees but not doctorates.

Is a Professor higher than a Doctor?

It is widely accepted that the academic title of Professor is higher than a Doctor, given that the job title of professor is the highest academic position possible at a university. Remember that the Doctor title here refers specially to a PhD (or equivalent doctoral degree) holder and not a medical doctor. There are certainly many examples of medical doctors holding both their medical degree (e.g. MBBS) and a PhD; these are clearly highly motivated, research minded doctors, many of whom balance their clinical work with work as a senior lecturer or even go on to become a professor themselves.

Fun Fact: A male medical student, named James Bond, could start with the title Mr Bond, graduate as a medical doctor and become Dr Bond, then qualify as a surgeon and take on the title Mr Bond again (as is tradition in the UK for surgeons), then earn a PhD and eventually become a professor, taking on the title Professor Bond!


This post should answer most, if not all, of the questions you had about the use of Professor and Doctor titles within a university setting. Do check out our article on the hierarchy of academic job titles in the UK and feel free to get in touch if you have any more questions.

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