Are Professors Better in the UK?

Dearest Readers,

Last week, there was a very interesting comment made while I was talking to someone new at my Scottish Country Dance class. I mentioned that one of my possible career paths, and a goal I hope to reach one day, is to become a professor.

And she said something along the lines of: “In the US or here? Because becoming a professor in the US isn’t that big a deal.”

After some initial shock (there are hundreds of applications for almost every open professor position in the US) and a bit of anger (how dare she insult some of the people that have changed my life for the better?), I realized there must be a reason for the way she was thinking.

And there is. It’s a very simple reason, actually: academic ranks are different in the US and the UK.

The title “professor” is applied to a wider range of people in the US than the UK, although that doesn’t take anything away from the ultimate goal of academics in that line of work, which is to get to the highest level.

Here’s a comparison:

Us Ranks  in Descending Order:

  • Distinguished, Endowed or University Professor – Can have other titles of special distinction depending on the institution.
  • Professor (“Full Professor”) – the goal of those on the tenure track
  • Associate Professor – mid-level, usually tenured
  • Assistant Professor – entry-level for the tenure track
  • Research Associate, Lecturer, and Instructor – usually non-tenure track positions
  • Adjunct Professor/Lecturer/Instructor – part-time, non-tenure track

Also: Clinical Professor, Professor of Practice, and Research Professor

UK Ranks in Descending Order for a Research and Teaching pathway:

  • Professor
  • Reader
  • Senior lecturer/principal lecturer
  • Lecturer, clinical lecturer
  • Assistant lecturer, demonstrator, seminar leader, associate lecturer, graduate teaching assistant, departmental lecturer

Also has some other rank systems for specifically research or specifically teaching pathways, although the research and teaching pathway matches up best with the US academic ranks.

What did you notice about the ranking systems?

The thing that stands out to me is the fact that the US ranking system has “professor” in the name of most of the ranks, while in the UK, “professor” is reserved for those at the top.

It’s no surprise, then, that the woman in my dance class thought it was not that big of a deal to become a professor in the US. Academic ranking systems aren’t something most people try to learn about other countries, so she probably isn’t really aware of the different categories of professor and that there is a distinction difference.

I also think that because of the difference in higher education in general, it’s not difficult to imagine an easier time becoming a professor in the US. We have many more schools, including community colleges, and that means many more jobs available. Whether or not there are more jobs available per capita, however, I don’t know.

It’s said that the differences between places often appear in the little things, and this, I think, supports that idea. A simple conversation about the future can lead to important discoveries about the differences in words used and the perceptions tied to those words.

For me, saying “become a professor” is mostly about getting onto the scale of academic ranks that might allow me to work my way up, not about becoming one of the people at the top, while for my fellow dancer, “become a professor” means making it to the top.

And that’s a significant distinction, indeed.

Your Bonnie Celtophile,


P.S.- Yes, the sources I link to for the academic ranks are both Wikipedia.. How very non-academic of me. Be assured that the information on the wiki pages supports what I read elsewhere.


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