Why I insist that graduate students call me by my first name
I insist that graduate students call me by my first name in an effort to facilitate communication. If I am wrong, I would rather hear this from a graduate student than from a reviewer who rejects my paper or proposal. In fact, I find learning that some of my ideas or assumptions are wrong quite stimulating intellectually; it impels learning and growth. When I learn that I am wrong from a graduate student, I can learn and grow without incurring the costs of rejected papers and proposals.
As a professor, I consider graduate students to be my colleagues in the research endeavor. My only advantage over graduate students is that I have more experience doing research. On the other hand, their technical skills may be more current than mine. The point is that we are in it together in search for the truth. Effective communication is the catalyst for good research progress. Thus, I want to remove any artificial boundaries on the way of effective communication between graduate students and me.
Some graduate students feel extremely uncomfortable calling professors by their first names. They tell me that this practice goes against the customary notion of respect afforded to teachers and figures of authority in their cultures. I am all for respect, but I consider calling someone “Doctor X” or “Professor X” a very superficial way of bestowing respect on a professor. In my book, working hard to derive strong research results shows respect much more effectively.
Finally, what about undergraduate students? Well, that’s where I draw the line for a very simple reason. I want to avoid a situation when the inmates run the asylum. When interacting with undergraduates, our roles are clear: I am the teacher, and they are the students. I maintain this strict delineation for their own good. I am not interested in hearing from students, for example, that a programming assignment is too hard, and as such may be inappropriate for a class of that level. What happens when undergraduate students get involved in research? This can be a difficult change of roles, particularly if a student took my classes in the past. For cases like that, I have found the middle ground by having students call me “Dr. T.” If, however, these students enter our graduate program, I’d insist that they call me by my first name.