I understand that a 'Chair' is a traditional title of a professor in the UK.

Nowadays, what is the difference, if any, between a Chair and a Professor in the UK?

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    @RobbieGoodwin Having worked in both North America and the UK I can confirm that there really is a different usage, which avid's answer below seems closest to capturing
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 22:57
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    @YemonChoi : I think Avid's answer only deals with the Professor/Professor-with-a-chair question, and not the Professor of Maths/Chair of Maths which Paul Garrett also covers. It's not clear to me which problem the OP is asking to be solved. As he says "A Chair, a Professor" I'd assumed he meant the latter; the former is about "a Chair, a Professorship" in normal usage. Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 10:25
  • Specifically, my interest was why a professor position in maths in the UK would be advertised as a chair, but I am absolutely happy with a lively discussion which the question initiated. I think it links nicely to British traditional, complex and slightly confusing way of doing things (just think of cricket). Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 11:38
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    OK, that would be a Chair (or Professorship) of Mathematics. The holder would be have the title "Professor", one wouldn't call him (unless for some other reason) "Chair". Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 11:53
  • Yes, exactly, and I wonder why call it a Char in the job ad? Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 11:58

5 Answers 5


It is the difference between the role or job and the person who is doing that job.

The person has achieved the status and title of Professor. That person can take the position of the "Chair of Computer Science at the University of Somewhere".

Sometimes a particular Chair will have been endowed or funded at a University and then a Professor is recruited to take that Chair. That person could have moved from another Chair at some other University.

Some of the Chair endowments are quite old, like this example from 1702 in Cambridge: https://www.ch.cam.ac.uk/alumni/new-name-our-oldest-chair

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    Fun fact: up to some years ago (I cannot recall exactly when or if it was a gradual thing), also in Italy there was this distinction between the title and the position, but the professor was said to hold a Desk (Cattedra in Italian) rather than a Chair. Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 11:29
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    @MassimoOrtolano In academic Latin as used (rarely now, much more frequently in the 17th century - example) here in the UK, a professor's "chair" is "cathedra", so I'd guess it all has the same root (and probably originates in some sort of analogy with a bishop's throne). Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 16:43
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    @DanielHatton This is interesting and forced me to better check the meaning of cattedra on a dictionary. And even though cattedra is commonly understood to be the desk, it actually denotes the desk and the chair (and, yes, also the bishop's throne), and archaically a chair. So, I've learned also something about my language :-) Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 17:20
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    In the days long gone in Russia, I think a professor was receiving a "кафедра" (= cafedra) which is the same word as for both a department, and a tribune from which that professors addresses the students. And indeed, one of the meanings of the same word seems to be some kind of Roman chair... Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 17:34
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    Does a "chair" have additional administrative duties that a professor wouldn't? In the US, a chair is an administrator at least part time, often half.
    – Buffy
    Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 23:00

As the other answers demonstrate, this is one of those terms that has a variety of different meanings in academia, depending on institution and context.

Historically, British universities had very few professorial positions; typically a university would have one for each broad field of study. These positions were created within the framework of the university's statutes, and are/were known as Chairs. Each Chair exists independent of any particular individual occupying the position, and the university statutes prescribe the procedure for appointing a new holder if the Chair becomes vacant. Sometimes the Chair is associated with the name of a particular individual or benefactor: hence Oxford has (say) the Regius Professor of Hebrew, established by the king in 1546. Many of the positions created in this way continue to exist, and occasionally new ones are added.

In modern times (particularly since the 1990s) universities have sought to award more people the title of Professor, and it has become a job title within the standard framework of career progression. However, most such jobs are not 'written into' the university's statutes in the same way as the traditional Chairs: when holders leave, the position ceases to exist.

Thus, a hypothetical university might establish two chairs: the [University] Professor of Ancient History, and the [University] Professor of Modern History. They might also hire a number of other historians, and give them the title of Professor - but these jobs would have less prestige than the chairs.

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    I fear the third paragraph conflates three processes that need to be kept distinct: the creation of personal professorships (which are still called "chairs"); the invention, in the 1990s, of one university's "titular professors" (I don't think titular professors are said to have "chairs", but I'm happy to be corrected by someone at that university); and the very recent decision of one other university to phase out the title "reader" and replace it with the time-consuming-to-say "professor (grade 11)" (there's no way to know yet whether professors (grade 11) will be said to have "chairs"). Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 0:55

"Professor" is a 'rank' (next up from "Reader" iirc), whereas "Chair" is a specific job-role - they do not mean the same thing.

In smaller fields, there will only be one Professor, who will be said to 'hold the chair'.

In larger fields, there may be more than on person who holds the title of Professor, but only one can be the head, or 'Chair' - have a look at the definition of "Emeritus Professor" for more.

For comparison, think of "Princes" - in the UK, Charles has the rank of Prince, so is known as "Prince Charles", but so is "Prince Andrew". However Charles holds the position of "Prince of Wales" (meaning first-in-line to the throne) which is necessarily unique.

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    Can there really only be one chair per department? I'm not familiar with the British system, but I thought there would be a distinction between the "department chair" (i.e., head of department) and an "endowed chair" or named chair (usually assigned to a distinguished professor).
    – cag51
    Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 17:06
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    @cag51 The phrase "department chair" does not seem commonly used in UK departments, at least in my discipline, while I had the impression it is standard usage in North America for instance.
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 22:59
  • Interesting, thanks. Though in this case, it seems even less intuitive that each department would have exactly one chair.
    – cag51
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 1:14
  • @cag51 - the reason it seems odd is because department is pretty ill defined - for example, you might have a "Chair of computational biology" in the biology department - they're not the head of the biology department, but they are in charge of the computational biology bit. It's an archaic position now, though - mostly used by places like oxford and cambridge (and probably durham etc..)
    – lupe
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 11:47
  • @cag51 I didn't mean to imply that each dept had exactly one chair; rather that a dept (however that is defined - e.g. "School" vs Department) could technically (though completely unlikely) be staffed entirely by Professors, while the number of Chairs available is strictly limited - some smaller departments won't have a Chair at all.
    – MikeB
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 12:05

Although my observation of the UK system is only "from afar", at Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Bristol, Warwick, London, and other serious places, one can look through the faculty list ... and see that (as in other answers) "Professor" is a title, more senior than "Reader", etc. There are also "department chairs", who will almost always have the title of "Professor", and are administrative heads of departments, but this sense of "chair" is quite different from, e.g., "The Savilian Chair in Geometry" (or whatever), within a math dept. The person (almost surely a "Professor") holding the Savilian chair is probably not the head-of-department, although certainly has a very senior position, and perhaps is only answerable to administration outside the math dept.

In fact, this is generally parallel to the U.S., where "the dept chair" is "dept head", and is not necessarily any special honor, but, rather, entails much administrative responsibility. There are also "named chairs", like "University Chair in X"... Confusingly, sometimes there is "University Professor in Math" or similarly. In the latter usage (not uncommon in the U.S.), the usage of "chair" and "professor" have merged.


"Chair" is to "Professor" as "Throne" is to "King"/"Queen".

ETA: the cutesy analogy seems to have proved unpopular. The substantive point of my answer was to express the view that "chair" is synonymous with "professorship". Although I still believe, on balance of probabilities, that to be correct, I'm less sure of it than I was, because I found an oration from a University of Cambridge honorary degree ceremony, which is supplied in both English and Latin, and in which "chair" and "professorship" are rendered as different Latin words ("cathedra" and "proueheret" respectively).

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    Is it though? All queens have thrones (at least in theory), but I don't think all professors hold a chair (though maybe they do in Britain, I am not sure).
    – cag51
    Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 17:04
  • @cag51 Oxford Dictionaries' Lexico site has, as defintion number 3 of the noun "chair", 'a professorship'. It doesn't specify a particular type of professorship. Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 20:20
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    I am not sure that a dictionary is more authoritative than the experience of those who actually work in UK academia...
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 23:00
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    @YemonChoi That's reasonable. It looks like four of the five answerers (including me) are UK-based academics (not that there's anything wrong with the remaining answer). (Although actually, as per the discussion Massimo, Evgeny, and I had on Brian's answer, it looks like the usage is widespread across Europe rather than specifically British, with "chair" and its Italian and Russian equivalents being vernacular versions of the Latin "cathedra".) Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 23:39
  • I am quite fond of the imprecision of this poetic answer, in the sense that to get on a throne = become king / queen, to get a chair = become professor. Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 11:45

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