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“Professor,” “Dr.,” and Geography

January 16, 2019

One of the curious features of modern academia is how academic titles are used so differently in various countries.  This isn’t really a posting on early Christianity, but I thought it might be informative (or even amusing) nevertheless.

In the North American setting, practically anyone teaching courses in a college or university is a “professor”.   As in a statement such as, “All my professors in my university are good teachers.”   And the term “Dr.” functions as a way of specifically offering deference or respect to one of them.

In the UK, on the other hand (and other side of the Atlantic), “Professor” is a title conferred solely by the university or college in which one is appointed (NB:  it’s capitalized).  Formerly, the only individuals given this title were those who held “established chairs” in given subjects.  So, for example, there might be one Professor of Ancient History, the other academics in that subject holding the status of “Lecturer” or “Senior Lecturer”.  My appointment was to the established chair as Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology.  Those who hold posts as Lecturer or Senior Lecturer nowadays will typically be addressed as “Dr.” (given that practically all contemporary UK academics have earned a PhD).

More recently, many UK universities have begun awarding the title “Professor” on the basis of conferring on individuals “personal chairs” in a given subject.  So, for example, in Edinburgh we now have two Professors in the area of New Testament and early Christianity, Professor Helen Bond and Professor Paul Foster, each with her/his particular chair title.  (Foster now occupies the chair in New Testament Language, Literature and Theology, and Bond’s personal chair is in Christian Origins.)  The difference between “established” and “personal” chairs is this:  When someone leaves or retires from an “established” chair, any successor will be appointed to this professorial level.  When a “personal” chair is vacated, however, any successor will likely be appointed at a more junior level, e.g., as “Lecturer”.

In Germany there is still a third practice.  Those who are appointed to university chairs are all given the title “Professor”,  but, given that they also typically have earned their PhD, they tend to be designated as “Professor Dr.”.  Typically, to be considered for an appointment to a regular teaching post/chair, German scholars have to complete a PhD, and then a second major research project that leads to what is called a “Habilitationsschrift“.  While working on this second project, they are typically appointed in a given university as a “Privat Docent” (effectively, a post-doctoral post), which may involve some teaching as well as the primary work on their Habilitation project.  So, in Germany only those awarded a proper “chair” are addressed as “Professor”.

Just goes to show you that academic culture and practice and language take different forms in different countries.  It helps to know this in addressing individuals in those different contexts.

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10 Comments
  1. Andrew permalink

    Just as a slight correction about Privat docents: In Germany you become a Privatdozent only after you have the Habilitation, but have not yet been appointed to a professorship. “Posts” as Privatdozent are not actually paid, though you are required to teach once a semester usually in order to maintain your “license” to lecture. Those who have a doctorate, are working on a Habilitation and are being paid to teach are usually wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiter. But you are also a wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter if you are not yet Dr. and are being paid to teach while working on a doctorate.

  2. Craig Beard permalink

    My university a School of Medicine as well as academic schools and departments. Some of those who do research and teach in that school AND have have “M.D.” after their names insist that THEY are “doctors” and those who have been awarded mere PhDs are not (they are “professors”).

    • Hmm. Well, in the UK surgeons insist that their proper address is “Mr.”, and that only other physicians are referred to as “Dr.”.

  3. Donald Jacobs permalink

    How do we address emeritus and retired professors is there a difference?

    • If the college/university awards the “Professor Emeritus” status, then the formal address is “Professor X”.

  4. Kevin Boyle permalink

    So, as an American, how should I address a UK academic with whom I do not have a prior relationship? For example, should I address you as “Professor Hurtado,” “Dr. Hurtado,” or something else? What about addressing someone with the title lecturer?

    • If the academic holds a professorial chair, and so the title Professor, then, Professor X would be correct. Those who hold posts of Lecturer or Senior Lecturer would be addressed as “Dr.” X. That’s for the UK.

  5. Martin permalink

    I once took a university course where the lecturer sternly informed us that “We aren’t teachers, we are researchers with a pedagogical commission.”

    • Well, yes, the crucial difference between “teachers” (as in a high school) and a university academic post is that nowadays (though not always earlier) the latter carries the expectation of being an active researcher, contributing to one’s field of knowledge. In the UK this is especially so, given the financial stakes for universities in the periodic assessment of research activity.

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