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Etiquette column: Clearing up confusion on academic titles

Emeritus is a high honor given to extraordinary retired professionals.

Friday, May 3, 2013 - 12:01 am

Times may have changed, but courtesy never goes out of style. In today's world sometimes it's complicated to figure out how to do the right thing. Local etiquette expert Karen Hickman answers your questions or helps solve your dilemmas on Fridays in The News-Sentinel and at

Q. Karen, what does the title emeritus mean? Is it something someone designates for themselves? And how would you address someone with that title?

A. Emeritus is a term used in a title to describe a retired professional in relation to his or her former position. For instance, professor emeritus, in the academic world. The title is definitely bestowed on someone at the time of his or her retirement. The title is an extraordinary designation, and there are usually certain criteria that need to be met to qualify for such an honor. The honor also may allow certain benefits for a retired individual, such as continued office space and the ability to do work without all of the other responsibilities that were required before an individual's retirement.

The title is written as “James Smith, professor emeritus” in documents, etc., to clarify the position, but is not used to address a person directly. You would address the person as Professor Smith.

Some other academic titles:

•Adjunct: Usually a part-time faculty member.

•Terminal degree: The highest degree you can receive in a particular discipline.

•Assistant professor: A full-time, junior faculty member with a terminal degree. Address an assistant professor as “Professor.”

•Associate professor: A full-time faculty member who has received tenure. Tenure is usually a seven-year process. He or she would also be addressed directly as “Professor.”

•Full professor: A full-time faculty member of the highest rank. When “professor” is used formally to describe someone, such as “professor of psychology,” it is assumed the person is a full professor. You would address them directly as “Professor Smith.”

•Doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.): The highest academic degree. Those holding those degrees would be addressed as “Doctor” when speaking to them directly. In print, you would list them as Jane Miller, Ph.D.

Karen Hickman is a certified etiquette/protocol consultant and owner of Professional Courtesy LLC. Do you have a question for her? Email, and we'll forward it to her.