October 12

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What is the Difference Between a Professor and Teacher?

By Gordon Gaffney

October 12, 2021


What is the Difference Between a Professor and Teacher?

A common question I am asked is what is the difference between a professor and teacher?

The answer is that ‘Professor’ has a different meaning in American English and the American educational system than it does in British English where there is a very old and traditional system in British and Irish universities.

First, British English:

A Professor is the highest rank that you can achieve in academia, or in education. Many British and Irish universities are very old institutions, for example Trinity College in Dublin, where I studied, was founded in the year 1592, making it over 400 years old.

Oxford and Cambridge are probably the 2 most famous universities in the UK, and possibly the world. Oxford were teaching students from around 1096 and Cambridge from 1209. 

In 2020 Oxford is ranked number 1 and Cambridge number 3 university in the world according to Times Higher Education.

These 2 universities are so well-known and closely related to one another that they are informally called ‘Oxbridge’, if someone studied at one of these institutions but you are not sure which, you can say “they studied at Oxbridge”. 

Many famous people in British life in media, politics, business, entertainment studied there, you can read about Oxford here and read about Cambridge here.

The structure of most of these older universities will be very, very traditional, and even newer universities such as Dublin City University in Ireland, that was founded in 1975, will follow a similar structure.

When you see that somebody is a ‘Professor’ in a British or Irish university you know that they have achieved the highest position possible in academia. The head of a department will almost always be a Professor, they will probably have conducted a lot of research and had these results published in respected journals. This job title is called ‘full professor’ in the USA.

You can see the differences in terminology between American and British universities here:

What is the Difference Between a Professor and Teacher?

Now, American English:

In American English, ‘Professor’ is a more general term. The person who teaches you in a regular class in university is probably officially called an Assistant Professor but usually shortened to just ‘Professor’.

I was watching the series “Unabomber: in his own words” on Netflix and there was a photo of the Unabomber Theodore/Ted Kaczynski from around the time he was an Assistant Professor in Berkeley University outside San Francisco. 

What is the Difference Between a Professor and Teacher?

As we can see from the image in British English the person who teaches you in university is called a lecturer, the assistant professor in the USA. 

In the Irish system this lecturer could be an ordinary person with very few formal qualifications but with a lot of practical experience in their industry, however, this would be unusual.

In smaller British and Irish colleges a lecturer may just have a bachelor degree, but in general the bigger and more prestigious the institution is then the more academic qualifications the lecturers will have. To use the example I am most familiar with, in Trinity College most lecturers will have a PhD, so they would be known as a doctor, although some may only have a Masters.

Again in Trinity College Dublin every undergraduate student is assigned a ‘Tutor’, this is one member of staff who is there to look after your general welfare and development. 

You can think of it as a friendly member of staff who can help and advise you about any difficulties or problems you might have. I think myself that not having to see your tutor is the optimum situation, as it means you are not having any problems!

Again in America and American English a ‘Tutor’ is another name for a person that teaches you, this can be a member of staff of the university who gives the class, or it may be someone you hire as a freelancer to help you if you feel you need extra tuition.

While writing this post I noticed this article from the news in Ireland, this provides context and use of the vocabulary. University College Dublin or UCD is the second highest ranked University in Ireland, Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin is well known in Ireland as she won the ‘Rose of Tralee’ festival in 2005 and dated one of the most famous television and radio presenters in Ireland, Ryan Tubridy. 

What is the Difference Between a Professor and Teacher?

A Dra. Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin

The Rose of Tralee is similar to a beauty pageant but is more about the overall personality of the contestant known as a ‘Rose’ it is a very popular, traditional and wholesome event here in Ireland.

In this article her job title is described as assistant lecturer, so she probably taught the classes and perhaps helped out a tutorials which are where students practice what they have learned in a lecture. 

The man, the convicted harasser which can be known as a ‘stalker’, in this case is called a Professor, so we know immediately that he is very senior and has reached the highest possible level in Irish education.

You might have noticed the accents on her name, Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, this is an name in Irish or Gaelic, Ní Shúilleabháin is O’Sullivan in English.

You can discover here about common erros students make and read here about 5 essential resources you may need when learning english.

You can also discover here why English is an international language.

So, did you already know these differences? Or did yo learn right now? Leave a comment in below!

Gordon Gaffney

About the author

Gordon is The Irish English Teacher, creator of this blog and many products to help all students learning English as a second language, but with a focus on Portuguese speakers.

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