I sat through a very good seminar last week. The speaker was introduced as a Professor, which surprised me a little as they were quite young (not that being young should prohibit one from becoming a professor though). When I looked up this person’s homepage, I discovered that they were an Associate Professor which is what some universities are now calling Readers. I believe that one of the reasons for doing this is that all academics in the USA are called Professors. In the UK you typically start as a Lecturer, then become a Reader (although some become Senior Lecturers) and then, if sufficiently worthy, a Professor. In the USA you start as an Assistant Professor (when you’re tenure track), become an Associate Professor (when tenured), and then a full Professor. It seems as though some in the UK think that this gives US academics more credence than academics in the UK who are at a similar level and hence want us to have a similar system here.
I don’t object to changing academic titles in the UK but I do think there are a couple of issues with this. One is a slight misunderstanding of the US system. In the US, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor and Professor are actually job descriptions rather than job titles. When I was an Assistant Professor, I was typically referred to as Dr, rather than Prof. It is possible that US academics use them as titles when in Europe, but in the US this is often not the case. Also, most academics in the the US will progress through from Assistant to Associate to full Professor. A full Professor in the US is, therfore, not especially distinguished; it just indicates where you are in your career. In fact, most US universities have an additional level called Distinguished Professor, with only a few per department. In the UK, a Professorship was typically – in the past – something that only a few in every department achieved. Not every academic with a research profile would become a Professor. These would have been equivalent to a Distinguished Professor in the US. Now, almost all academics who maintain a research profile becomes Professors.
My main issue is that we seem to want – in the UK – to have the best of both worlds. Most academics who maintain a research profile will become a Professor (a little like it is in the US), but we still pretend that this means that Professors are somehow distinguished. However, it has now become – as far as I can tell – simply a part of career progression and so can’t really be regarded as somehow illustrating that this person is “better” than a typical academic.
Personally, I’m quite happy to see the UK go the route of the US and have most academics progress to become Professors. We should just stop pretending that a Professorship means anything particular significant. We should probably also consider some kind of distinguished Professorship scheme to try and indicate who is truly exceptional and who is simply a good solid academic and researcher. I guess I just think we should be honest. Either every research academic can progress to become a Professor and it is more of a job description than a title, or we revert back to Professorships becoming rarer and more selective. We just shouldn’t (and really can’t) have both.