Some U.K. universities are moving from the system of lecturer->senior lecturer->reader->professor to the American system of assistant professor->associate professor->full professor. However I don't think this is going to reduce the confusion abroad regarding the U.K. system. AFAICS in the US, most academics that stay in academia end up as full professors, where as most academics in the U.K. are never promoted to professor (it is more equivalent to an endowed or named chair in the US?). From my minimal research I'd estimate that in the US ~2/3 end up as full professor but only perhaps ~1/3 in the U.K.

This means in the U.K. there are quite a lot of older (50s/60s) academics that are senior lecturers and likely to remain that way until they retire. How are associate professors in their 50s and 60s viewed in the US system? Are they viewed, if not as "failures", then as "unsuccessful" or "second rate"?

Asking for a friend ;o)

  • @downvoter - an indication of the problem would be welcome. Jul 30, 2021 at 15:13
  • FWIW, this site suggests that only ~10% of U.K. academics (as of 2016) were professors, so I may have over-estimated the U.K. position somewhat professors.leeds.ac.uk/what-is-a-professor Jul 30, 2021 at 15:14
  • Some actual data for the U.K. hesa.ac.uk/files/pr212.png I think, judging by the scales, "other senior academic" means "reader" and equivalents, and that lecturer and senior lecturer are lumped in with lecturer (unfortunately). Jul 30, 2021 at 16:33
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    Until she won a Nobel Prize, Donna Strickland (Canadian, not American) had apparently never bothered to apply for promotion to full professor. Aug 1, 2021 at 14:26
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    IMO there is a little more “feel good”, prestige and bragging rights but my life did not change in any fundamental way when I got promoted. The main reason I applied was so that people would stop asking why I hadn’t applied. This is unlike getting tenure, which is a much more important milestone in terms of lifestyle. Aug 2, 2021 at 12:06

1 Answer 1


Some are unsuccessful, of course. Others just don't see a need for advancement and the efforts it would take to earn full professorship. If salary is good and the many perks are comfortable then it is fine to continue as you are. The frantic paper chase of young faculty doesn't necessarily hold the same appeal as you get older and comfortable.

As in the UK, some places have very high standards for full professorship and some others have an informal quota. If you have a lot of aging Full Professors it is hard to bring in new faculty with new(er) ideas. That isn't a universal, of course.

Some people don't want to participate in all of the three main parts of the university mission (research, teaching, and service). If a university thinks they are all equally important (not all do, of course), then such a person would be at a disadvantage in promotion.

I question whether "most" US professors wind up as full. Perhaps, but I'd need to see the numbers. I know some who have not. Some of them weren't seen as "team players", though, and were unlikely to see a vote to advance from their peers.

In parts of EU, also, a department may be limited to one "Full Professor" at a time. But it has a quite different meaning than in the US. Perhaps more like "head of department" or "chair". "Professor" is, after all, just a word that is interpreted, mostly, in a local context.

  • Thanks @Buffy, useful info. I was more interested in how they are viewed, rather than how the view themselves. If there is an, err, association between associate professors and not being a team player, then I think my friend would find that extremely objectionable! Unfortunately in the U.K. the salaries are (increasingly) not good and the perks diminishing. Jul 30, 2021 at 15:03
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    "Not a team player" is a bit of a euphemism for saboteur. Maybe not quite that strong, but someone who's practice diminishes the department, rather than enhancing it. Not "extremely introverted and does their own thing, though." The latter are probably fine.
    – Buffy
    Jul 30, 2021 at 15:06
  • I don't think my friend would view either as complementary (given their activity), but one is a lot less complementary than the other! Jul 30, 2021 at 15:27
  • @DikranMarsupial there are always rivalries, especially in the UK where the number of full professors is often capped. In some places, applying this year rather than next year can be a very strategic decision. Also in the UK tenure is not as definite as it is in US, so getting promoted is an extra layer of protection. Aug 2, 2021 at 12:10

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