academic rank titles: a rough summary

This table summarizes how I’ve been describing UK & US English differences about academic titles in my recent conversations about this with both Americans and Brits.  I wonder if anyone reading this disagrees with my summary, beyond the fact that these are only approximate correlates, since the UK doesn’t have the tenure system that is so closely (but not completely) tied to the American distinction between Assistant and Associate.  And there are other subtleties I’m glossing over, like the messiness of what “lecturer” means in the US, as well as things like the apparent distinction (at least at Oxford) between a post-doctoral researcher and a post-doctoral fellow, which is why I’ve just put “post-doc” here.  Anyway, if you do disagree with this I’d be curious to know if it’s because of what part of the UK you’re in/from or if it depends on the university you’re at, or what.

Of course, there’s always Wikipedia:, which just goes to show you how overly simplistic my table is!


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26 Responses to academic rank titles: a rough summary

  1. KenM says:

    I’ve also noticed, as a US student in England, that using “Professor” as a term of address in, say, an email, especially to a lecturer or reader, is considered a lot more formal. At least, that’s the impression I got. It seems that it doesn’t exist here as a kind of general term for “college teacher,” which I am under the impression it does in the states. Of course, I haven’t so much researched it as gotten one or two awkward replies back from lecturers I emailed, so take my intuition with a couple grains of salt.

    • vocalised says:

      Thanks for your comment! And you’re right, it’s not only too formal, it’s actually technically incorrect, because of these differences…

  2. Lucy Jones says:

    Ooh, well. I agree with all except ‘Professor’; I’m not too sure about the distinction between ‘assistant’ and ‘associate’ in the US, but in the UK a ‘Prof’ is typically somebody who does less teaching, more research (as is a Reader), but also it’s quite an honour to get up to that ranking, as it’s the highest you can go as a researcher/teacher without taking on a managerial role. Most lecturers won’t become professors, whereas in the states that’s the typical goal as it’s when you get tenure, right? But in the UK, a lecturer and a senior lecturer are both permanent positions (‘senior’ usually dictating the amount of experience and responsibility you have – I’m not sure if that correlates directly with ‘associate’ as opposed to ‘assistant’ Prof in the US), a Reader is somebody who mostly researches because of their track record, and, as I say, a prof is quite a grander thing. The fact that it involves an inauguration perhaps illustrates its significance over in these parts. I’ve had US people call me ‘prof’, but that’s inaccurate as, whilst it’s technically my job title in the US system, it’s not a formal title I’ve earned (unlike ‘dr’).

    Hope that helps, rather than confuses!

    • vocalised says:

      I hope others will also reply to your comment (thanks for it!), but Full Professor in the US is indeed a big deal (though maybe not as big a deal as here, I dunno). Getting tenure typically correlates with a promotion from Assistant to Associate. Americans use the term ‘prof’ for all levels because it’s part of the term for each level, but it doesn’t mean that they think everyone’s a Full Prof. For some people, the label ‘professor’ is even considered more humble than ‘dr’ because of the preference to use ‘dr’ only with medical doctors!

  3. elinor says:

    I agree with the previous post. ‘Professor’ in the UK does not properly correspond with ‘Full Professor’ in the US…the latter is more common, and (at least my impression) almost an inevitability if you stay in the career long enough and do all the right stuff, not so in the UK, where it is reserved (in most unis) as a special honour. But it does vary from university to university. Also, lecturer does not correspond with assistant professor. i guess in the uk an assistant prof would be roughly equivalent to a lecturer who hasn’t got a permanent contract or not yet passed the probationary period. in some places (e.g. oxford) there is no distinction between lecturers and senior lecturers – everyone is a lecturer.
    Basically, there is no uniform use of the terms in the UK… sorry!! 🙂

  4. Lucy Jones says:

    Ah I see – that explains a few things!! It’s definitely confusing that the terms are so similar but yet relate to quite different things!

  5. elinor says:

    didn’t mean to imply that full prof is not a big deal… My impression is that there is a more uniform career progression in the US, so that it is more typical that someone will reach full prof there than being made professor here. Professors used to be pretty rare things here (more or less limited to the Chair of a Faculty), but is has changed quite a bit, partly from pressure of parity of recognition with US colleagues. But because practice varies a lot in the uk, my guess is there are people who stay lecturer all their career in the UK, but would be full prof in the US.

    • vocalised says:

      I see, thanks, that explains some things I’ve been wondering about (like why professors here are always “Professor of” such-and-such). It seems, then, that the UK could use a special term for “a lecturer who hasn’t got a permanent contract or not yet passed the probationary period”. How about Newbie Lecturer? Haha! (Of course I only say that in a soon-to-be-self deprecating way!)

  6. Larry says:

    At Ahmadu Bello University, in Nigeria but (I think) following a mostly British system, they had Lecturer 1 and Lecturer 2, in a fairly automatic progression, a bit of a jump to Senior Lecturer, and then, few people got to Reader and eventually Professor. In fifteen years there, more than half of the time, I was at Senior Lecturer, and, if I had stayed, I think I had a reasonable chance at Reader.

  7. Alan A. Lew says:

    It is indeed very complicated, and highly variable from one country to the next, from institution to the next, and even within a single institution.

    In the US everyone from the Asst. to Full Prof. rank is called “Professor” as a general title — though nowadays, first names are becoming increasingly common, instead. (When I was a student at the U of Oregon over 25 years ago, *everyone* used first names only — it was considered very abnormal for anyone to be called “Professor Smith”. Over the past fiver years or so this practice has become common at my NAU, though still not as ingrained as it was at Oregon.)

    In the different British system countries that I am familiar with, however, the only people who you would call “Professor” are the full “Professors”. I think this reflect the more class-status tradition in the UK versus the US.

    How easy it is to become a Full Professor in the US varies a lot among schools. In some schools, like mine, it is seen as the *only* way to give people pay raises after many years of work because our state legislature is so stingy (controlled by the Tea Party). For that reason, it has becomes comparatively easy to get promoted on teaching with minimal research — though this still varies from one college to the next even within the university. Universities who are trying to compete for ranking on a global scale, however, have fare more stricter criteria — like an average of 2 or more refereed publications a year — just to advance from Asst. to Assoc. Professor. (I review a lot of promotion applications.) So generalizing even about the US on this is tricky.

  8. Alan A. Lew says:

    BTW – I think your table is accurate. as I said above, there is tremendous variation between schools/universities and colleges/faculties within schools, but in general it works.

    Looking at the Wikipedia link you provided, I think the like the title of “Extraordinary Professor” (South Africa) the best! That is what I would want on my headstone. (Ha! — not really!)

    • vocalised says:

      Thanks, Dad! Haha, that title is indeed pretty, um, extraordinary. Looks like they have it in the Netherlands, too. Maybe it’s an Afrikaans thing?

  9. Damien Hall says:

    I’ve often had to explain the gross difference between the UK system and the US system (assuming for a minute that each place has just one!) – mostly to Americans. I think your table is pretty accurate, except that it doesn’t make clear that, where there are ‘Readers’ and ‘(Senior) Lecturers’, a Reader is senior to a Senior Lecturer.

    I can definitely relate to the embarrassment shown to / experienced by your first commenter when they called UK Lecturers ‘Professor’. Easy to do! Also, I think Elinor’s comments are spot-on: there are people called ‘Lecturer’ in the UK who don’t get a different title because there isn’t one at their institution, but who would possibly be Full Profs in the US. In fact, I remember in 1996 (my final year at Oxford) when there was a sudden influx of Professors; all of them deserved the honour, of course, but there _was_ still the rumour that it had been done for parity of recognition with their US colleagues …

    I’ve found that a useful explanatory metric (which I made up, so feel free to shoot it down!) is that, in the US, ‘professor’ is a job-title, like ‘engineer’ and ‘maintenance worker’, though it can also become a salutation; in the UK, it’s just a salutation. The job-title that Professors would use for themselves is probably still ‘(university) lecturer’ (I know this is true for at least one of them)!

    A professor in France who recently wrote a reference for me is a ‘Professor of the Universities, Exceptional Class’!

    • vocalised says:

      Several years later (!), I just wanted to add a follow-up comment here that points to what Elinor first mentioned in the comments above, which is that there is tremendous diversity between UK institutions. So, for example, the distinction between Reader and Senior Lecturer here at Edinburgh is currently in transition, but while there is still a difference in prestige, the salary grades are now identical. The prestige might also level out, over time, but we’ll see.

  10. Katrina says:

    Coming late to this, but my understanding was that Reader (UK) is more equivalent to full Prof in the US (a promotion generally requiring a second book), and that Professor in the UK is more like a very senior, endowed chair-type professor in the US. I think (at least at research universities) that proportionately fewer people in the UK achieve “professor” rank than those in the US who make Full Prof.

  11. T_Thomas says:

    “I think (at least at research universities) that proportionately fewer people in the UK achieve “professor” rank than those in the US who make Full Prof.”

    Aren’t all UK universities institutions that do research? I thought it was part of the definition.

    • vocalised says:

      Very belatedly, Katrina might have been referring to the difference between ‘pre-1992’ and ‘post-1992’ universities (See, e.g., Academics at the latter set of institutions do conduct research, but my understanding is that teaching and administrative commitments are relatively higher and therefore less time is available for research-centred activities).

      • John says:

        Yes, I work at a post-1992 university (UWS), and yes research is pursued, but at a lower intensity compared to the older institutions, sometimes by a long way. The reason for that is resource, pure and simple, there are relatively fewer staff, and much less funding available to support research. Compare the turnover of my institution (2013 £92M) with Edinburgh (the largest in Scotland (I think about £750M). We educate 14,000 students with 450 academic staff, and I think Edinburgh more (>30,000?? with 6k staff), but even taking this into consideration there is more resource available to develop great research. Best stop this, at it is a very different conversation!

  12. American Associate Professor says:

    My understanding is that the British “Professor” title requires a level of achievement significantly higher than that of most full Professors in the United States. I base this mainly on published data that show the percentage of faculty/academic staff in each rank, and on my casual understanding of the usual retirement rank(s) in the US and the UK. Many American full Professors would be Readers in the UK.

    I would tend to equate the British “Professor” title with the American “Distinguished Professor” (or named chair) title, partly because of the level of achievement required, but partly because both require at least some political savvy. An American full Professor, no matter how accomplished, will not become a Distinguished Professor if the senior administrators hate him or her, and I get the impression that the same is true with the Professor title in Britain.

  13. Geoff Barton says:

    Interesting discussion! I am in the UK and I wrote something about the meaning of the terms Reader, Professor and so on in the UK a few years ago.
    It is not a comparative analysis with the USA though. See: . I wanted to add a comparison to the USA in the next version which is how I came across your blog, but having read it I may just avoid the topic!

    As to titles: In the UK the only people called Professor are people who hold the job of Professor. This is a senior post and there are relatively few in each institution. Everyone else (Lecturers, Readers) are called Dr if they have a Ph.D. and Mr./Ms. ( or whatever the person prefers) if they don’t.

    In most academic institutions in the UK first names are used by everyone (and I mean everyone!) except undergraduate students when they are communicating with staff, though even this is relaxing now.


  14. John says:

    I’m also here in the UK (in Scotland), and contributing way after the beginning of your conversation, so perhaps no one can hear me…? Anyway, I was trying to make sense of the comparitors between the US and the UK, and came across Geoff’s article. That really is a useful thing for budding academics to read, to be recommended- thanks for that Geoff. Then I found this discussion.

    There are also differences from the UK to European systems, for example my impression is that in Belgium and perhaps in Greece, pretty much everyone is “professor”, that at it’s basic level equates with “Lecturer”. The confusion that can be generated on hearing that someone is Professor there, can spark a curiosity to exactly what got them the promotion; the big grant, the Nature paper? A colleague in the Netherlands recently commented to me that the criteria we have for Reader here, equates pretty much to Professor anywhere else. That would suggest that UK professor equates with the distinguished professor in the US. However, that depends on where you are and what the local standards are, so not always. The professor title really designates the start of a certain pay level, that in principle does not have a ceiling. The pay may reflect the individual’s standing and track record, and certainly the same local conditions.

    Now, in the UK some universities are even encouraging academics to use the US style titles. Some academics use it anyway. That can be confusing, as it appears that the comparisons might not be exact.

  15. Katherine says:

    This is an interesting discussion. I’m currently doing some research on professional designation and can we map roles titles in the UK to internationally job roles. For example what would be equivalent of a senior lecturer in UK be in Malaysia for example. I agree Geoff’s article very useful. thank you.

  16. Sabri Klein says:

    To fully understand those titles you have to link them to the degrees earned. for example in Tunisia the following applies;
    1. Assistant: you have an MA and you’ve got a full contract for maximum 3 years (usually referred to as lecturer in many arab countries)
    2. Maitre Assistant (Assistant Professor): you must have a PhD or pass the “Assistanat” examination after completing the literature review of your PhD dissertation and after publishing a number of articles in international journals (that would be more logical to refer to this title as senior lecturer)
    3. Maitre de Conference (Associate Professor): you must have a PhD and pass the “Habilitation” exam
    4. Professeur (Full Professor): you must have a certain number of publications after number 3

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