Hear ye, hear ye: the prophesied UK–US higher ed comparison post has arrived. It is long and yet still incomplete, but I hope it provides at least a sense of the two systems and can serve as a jumping-off point for more specific conversations. Basically, I wanted something like this to exist when I started this job and was told nothing did, which seemed to be correct, so here is my stab at fixing my own and with any luck a few other people’s future problems.
The bottom line, from my perspective, is that one system is not better or worse than the other. Both US and UK academia have serious advantages and drawbacks as career paths. And, they are extremely different. Which is right for you, if you have the luxury of choice, will depend on your professional priorities and financial situation. For me, the research situation is more amenable here in the UK and the teaching situation less so, and that’s a balance I weigh in my head every day as I ponder my trajectory. The information here is intended to help you assess both the UK and US with eyes wide(r) open.
Caveats, as always: I write this as someone who did all of my formal schooling in the United States minus a semester abroad. I’ve worked at a UK Russell Group uni for the past year, as my first job post-PhD. Thus, my exposure to the UK system is more limited, and I’ve tried not to make sweeping generalizations. As someone on a research and teaching contract, I’ve had access to more flexibility in my work than my teaching-only coworkers. As a white woman, I do more unobserved emotional labor, on average, than my white male coworkers and less than my coworkers of color. And having come straight out of grad school, I do not have a lot of money. This account, like all accounts, is partial. It’s a tool and I hope it’s useful.
I intend this post to be helpful to grad students in both the US and UK, but for consistency’s sake I’ve written it from a US perspective and used US terminology as the default. That means when I write “faculty,” I mean (in UK terminology) research and teaching staff; in US terminology, I mean professors. I’ve included brief parentheticals for other terms that might need translating, but if I’ve missed any, just let me know and I’ll be happy to clarify.
Last thing: I’m a political scientist, so this post is obviously mostly about political science and will be most relevant to political scientists. Please don’t show up and say “you have no idea what you’re talking about because things are not like this in MY lab,” because of course they aren’t. We don’t have labs. Kthanks.
Types of UK institutions
*with thanks to my peers in the Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education for walking me through this!
The first thing you should know is that all universities in the UK are technically state institutions. This means they are all dependent on government funding and buy into government standards for research, teaching, and so on. Thus, there is less differentiation across universities than in the US—but, of course, some are still richer, more prestigious, etc.
There are broadly four kinds of UK institutions: the “golden triad,” the Russell Group, the post-92s, and further education colleges.
- Golden triad: Oxford, Cambridge, and sometimes Imperial College London. The University of Durham also likes to think of itself as being in this group. This is the UK’s “Ivy League.”
- Russell Group: 24 research universities that work together, ostensibly, to promote their members’ interests. Despite consisting of only 24 schools, faculty at Russell Group unis control about three-quarters of UK grant income. In the US system, these would be your Michigans, Wisconsins, Berkeleys…basically, pick your discipline and its best state schools, and that’s the Russell Group. Examples would be Manchester, UCL, LSE, Nottingham, Birmingham…
- Post-92s: These are former polytechnics that were upgraded to “real” universities in 1992, hence the name. If there are two universities in a city, the “University of” is probably the Russell Group uni, and the other one is probably the post-92. (So in Nottingham, Nottingham Trent University is the post-92.) Post-92s engage in excellent research and teaching but are comparatively under-resourced, lower-ranked, and generally considered less “good.”
- Further education (FE) colleges: More vocationally-oriented, designed for working adults, and aimed at those with less traditional paths through education. They’re kind of like community colleges.
There are no meaningful equivalents of liberal arts colleges or small private universities in the US sense.
Structure of the job
contract · salary · benefits
Unlike most US faculty jobs, UK faculty contracts are 12 months. While that does mean you are on the hook for your employer every month out of the year, it also means that you get a paycheck every month of the year. To me, after six years of having to scramble to find work during the summer, this trumps everything.
Yes, salaries are lower, especially if you are used to the rates at big-name US R1s (research-intensive universities). They are roughly standardized nationally, and you can Google these. (If you find things about “spine points,” yes, this is how UK higher ed jobs are structured—it’s not dissimilar to the US government General Schedule if you’re familiar with that—but it is also super confusing and you can find general info for lecturers/assistant profs, senior lecturers/readers/associate profs, etc.) My starting salary was £36,914, which is about $44,000 at the current exchange rate. So it’s not great, but it’s livable, and it will go up every year. And some of it shows up every month, which, again, trumps everything for me.
UK faculty jobs are structured like many non-academic jobs in ways beyond being a 12–month contract. You get vacation days (annual leave)—a lot of vacation days. (I get 30.) You get sick days. You get healthcare—even though migrants will pay a lot upfront when applying for their visa, it will still average out to less than you’d pay for a subsidized insurance premium in the US. Because of standardization, contract negotiation is much harder to do, so startup equipment, research budgets, etc. are probably set at whatever you’re offered.
Last but not least: tenure, as understood in the US, does not exist in the UK. Instead, faculty are hired on either permanent or casualized contracts. The former group functions as US-style tenured faculty; the latter functions as VAPs (visiting assistant professorships) or adjuncts. There is really no in-between.
What are the perks of this? Well, new assistant professors (lecturers in UK parlance) don’t have to worry about a tenure review. They face less pressure to churn out as many publications in as many (arbitrarily) high-ranked journals. This is not to say they don’t face any pressure—promotion requirements are things, as are REF standards (more on that below)—but it is simply not the anxious workaholic environment of a tenure-track job at a US R1. It just isn’t.
For me, this has meant having room to breathe in my first year and assess where I’d like to place my energy, within reason. I’m not very good at doing this; it turns out that R1 socialization runs deep, and I am terrible at saying no to things regardless. Nevertheless, I don’t have to worry about meeting research benchmarks that I think are unrealistic at best and exploitative at worst. And I don’t have to worry about losing my job in seven years if a group of senior folks don’t like me or my work. I might not get promoted, but I’ll take not getting promoted to being unemployed any day of the week.
Now, those faculty on casualized contracts definitely do not have this security, and much like the adjunctification of US higher ed, the casualization of UK higher ed (same idea, different long-ass words) is a negative trend that harms the well-being and basic security of about a third of faculty. But if you are lucky enough to get a permanent position, you are pretty much set for life* if you want to be, potentially right out of grad school. That counts for a lot.
My overall assessment: If you are on a permanent contract (a tenured contract in US parlance), the structure of UK faculty jobs is preferable to the structure of US jobs, with the forceful caveat that salaries are lower and this could be an issue if you have dependents, etc.
publications· grants· substantive focus
You can’t talk about research in the UK without mentioning the REF. The Research Excellence Framework is a government evaluative program that runs on a 7–year cycle. Every university and department participates. The REF is complicated to explain, but basically a department’s publications, grants, and “impact” (public engagement and consulting in US parlance) are assessed on a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 being the best, and based on these results the REF spits out nationwide rankings that affect funding, hiring, reputation, admissions…the list goes on.
Clearly, REF results are important to departments in a host of ways (whether or not they should be is a separate question; you can guess my opinion on that issue), and departments pour a lot of resources into the REF accordingly. The REF, and where we’re at in any given REF cycle, also affects whether departments are willing to hire junior vs. more senior scholars (senior = more likely to produce “high quality outputs” that will positively affect a department’s REF results). Beyond your initial hire, though, the REF is unlikely to have a direct impact on your day-to-day work. Why? Because if you publish two articles in general subfield (or general disciplinary) journals, or one book with a university press, in seven years, you are meeting REF benchmarks. If you are US-trained, you are almost certainly doing way more than that anyway (as are most UK-trained folks).
In a nutshell: you can publish less, in journals that are not the APSR (American Political Science Review) or AJPS (American Journal of Political Science), and still be considered top-notch. This is a good thing, because gatekeeping stunts the field and quantity does not equal quality. You may be expected to do more work in other areas—we’ll come back to that—but in general, there is more space for you to work on what you want to work on, at the pace you want to work on it, using the epistemologies and methodologies you want to use. This assessment may come as a surprise to my UK coworkers, but I firmly believe it is true.
Another perk, at least for people like me, is more widespread acceptance and celebration of qualitative, interpretive, and broadly critical approaches. For example, UK IR is still dominated by old white men, and it’s still Eurocentric, but it is far more common for undergrads to get an intro to feminist and postcolonial IR as a matter of course. Undergrads! My US mind boggles. Your average UK political scientist has little to no training in statistics, though this is starting to change. It’s expected, instead, that you’ve read your Gramsci and Foucault and those kinds of folks. Can you imagine Gramsci in a grad IR seminar at a US R1 outside of maybe Northwestern or Chicago? BOGGLES, I tell you. Anyway, I think this is super cool on the whole and gives us richer, more nuanced work, provided we read many non-white men and non-sexual predators too. I digress.
Where things get more dicey is the UK grant culture, which sucks. No two ways about it. In short, there is more pressure in the UK to win high-dollar (pound?) grants. This pressure comes at the university level and so is true across disciplines. I know of UK colleagues with records that would easily get them tenure at a US R1 who were nevertheless denied promotion because they had not won a large grant. Others got promoted without having won a large grant, but my sense is this is becoming less and less common. Obviously there is variation across universities, and there is always tomfoolery when promotion is concerned, but judging from the amount of workshops offered and support staff on hand, grants are a huge part of the job. This part honestly scares me, as my work doesn’t require six figures’ worth of money and I’m not particularly interested in research buyouts (course releases), so I lack intrinsic incentives to put in the massive amounts of work required to write grant bids. Couple that with the weird interdisciplinary work I do that involves yelling “white supremacy” a lot, and funders tend not to be overly enthusiastic. But, we’ll see.
My overall assessment: I feel more able to do the kind of work I do in the UK than in the US. The REF is annoying and neoliberal but neither a burden nor an impediment day to day. And, the grant culture is terrifying and I do not like it at all!!
workload · flexibility · training
There is variation, but on average, the UK academic year consists of two teaching terms. These are shorter than at US institutions: at my institution, for example, there are 11 weeks of classes per term. I find it most helpful to think of this like the US quarter system but with only two quarters.
Before my UK coworkers appear with their pitchforks: technically, terms are longer than 11 weeks because exams, and sometimes final paper due dates, occur outside of the teaching term. This is not like “finals week” in the US. In the UK, students will finish their classes before Christmas, get a holiday break of a few weeks, and then enter a multi-week “exam period.” Instructors will then grade fall term assignments, sometimes at the same time that they are starting spring term teaching. Meetings and such will also occur during this period. So, while I do not have to be in a specific physical location for most of January, I am still on the clock, so to speak, full time. Personally, the flexibility works really well for me, and we get so much longer to grade here than I am used to in the US—more on that in a moment.
On the whole, I think the teaching load for the average permanent staff member is lower in the UK than in the US. (This may not be true for staff on teaching-only contracts—these are like “Assistant Teaching Professor” jobs in North America.) I base this on the fact that I teach the same number or fewer classes per term than I would at a US R1. Because TAs (teaching assistants) are less common in the UK and so faculty members do much of the work that TAs would do in the US, it’s not quite accurate to translate things into US terms, but I’d say I teach about a 2:1 or a 2:2, which is immensely reasonable, IMO.
If you are a US faculty member used to having TAs, the grading (“marking”) load in the UK may take you by surprise. But, friendly reminder, most faculty nationwide in the US do not have TAs—this is a generalization from PhD-granting departments that is inaccurate—and there are fewer graded assignments per class, on average, in the UK. It is the norm in the UK for most of one’s grade (mark) to come from one or two assignments (assessments); thus, grading is very lumpy. And this may be a Nottingham thing, but I get three weeks to grade here, which feels like a lot based on what I’m used to. We are required to write a lot of feedback, but I did this anyway, so not a huge change for me. And we do “second marking” and “moderation” and “external examining,” which is a lot of nonsense marketed as quality control (read: cop shit) but does take more time. On balance, I feel like I spend less time grading here. I’m waiting for a union rep to pop out from behind the bushes and smack me, but this is my honest assessment.
Workload aside, I enjoy teaching less in the UK than I do in the US. This has very little to do with the students and a lot to do with bureaucracy. This could be a post in itself, so I’ll summarize with a few pet peeves. There are centrally decided restrictions on what kinds of assignments I can give (though there is some maneuverability depending on what one calls things) and how much they can be worth. These assignments have to be decided and approved over a year in advance, such that you may come in as a new faculty member and be saddled with an assignment structure you can’t change for your first year. I am supposed to mark students down for silly things like font size and page numbers that don’t matter. There are grade distributions I have to hit. Extension requests are decided centrally—I can’t help a student who comes to me in crisis. I hate this the most because it’s rigid and unkind. Ungrading? Fuhgeddaboudit.
Put simply, I can do a lot of things in my classroom, provided I figure out how to “sell” them to decision-makers and provided I have enough familiarity with a class to have some sense of what activities/assessments will/will not work. And, there is a lot I can’t do, which runs up against both my hope for creativity (and let’s be honest, control) in my classroom now that I’m no longer the TA and my commitment to a pedagogy of kindness. Coupled with teaching in the pandemic, this has sucked a lot of joy out of my favorite part of this job, and it is honestly the thing I come back to most frequently when I assess whether I am happy enough to stay in academia for the foreseeable future.
One silver lining of the UK approach to teaching is that there is some commitment to actual pedagogical training, such that what we do in the classroom, however constrained, might be well thought through. As a requirement of their contracts, all UK faculty engaged in teaching are required to complete at least part of the Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education (PGCHE). This is a three-class (module) master’s level qualification that, in its full version, includes education theory, teaching observation, and some independent study. It is far from perfect, not least in that it attempts to teach an enormous range of faculty across disciplines and levels of experience, but my benchmark from the US is zero pedagogical training (and zero resources or time devoted to it) at any point ever. So even in ways that the PGCHE falls short, I’m glad we have it, and I’ve appreciated having an external incentive to reflect on my teaching practice, especially in my first year.
My overall assessment: Teaching in the UK takes less time than in the US, but it may take more mental and emotional energy to deal with all the hoops, hurdles, and solid walls. In short, it is not a student-friendly environment to work in.
Administration/service (a relatively quick note)
First things first: the UK uses “administration” (sometimes “academic administration”) where in the US we would use “service.” Thus, to use the word “administrator” in the UK context is to make very little sense, since everyone is kind of an administrator.
In many UK permanent contracts, research, teaching, and administration are divided equally, such that you are expected on paper to spend equal amounts of your time on all three. Of course, this never works out in practice, but it does point to the very real fact that service loads in the UK are on average higher than in the US. This is especially true if your comparison point is a US R1. (And, I am told, admin really does matter for promotion, though I have not personally experienced this one way or the other yet.)
Why is this the case? Many university functions controlled centrally at US institutions, or by specialized professional staff, are the provenance of faculty at UK institutions. For instance, UK undergrads apply to specific degree programs, not an overall university per se, such that it is the department’s responsibility to take care of most admissions activities for undergrads (in the same way that a US PhD department is responsible for its own PhD student admissions). As mentioned, requests for extensions on assignments are decided centrally, and the person or people who decide are faculty members. Every department has its own ethics review committee (IRB in US parlance), and faculty members serve on that. And so on. tl;dr: There are a lot more service/admin roles for faculty members to take on in the UK than in the US. In my department, every single faculty member has one, regardless of rank, unless they are on sabbatical.
How much time this all demands varies widely, and this is to say nothing, of course, of the unacknowledged additional labor done by non-cis men and/or faculty of color. It is not an equitable system by any means. But it is worth knowing that admin will take up more of your time in the UK system.
A final note on industrial action
It would be irresponsible of me to discuss the UK system without mentioning multiple ongoing labor disputes. Unlike in the US, there is one national union for faculty and staff, called the University and College Union (UCU), and it is far more active than any similar union in the US with the possible exception of a few graduate labor unions. The union has been engaged in longstanding disputes with the government and various university governing bodies since before the pandemic, and these are likely to continue for some time. Thus, if you are entering UK higher ed, you are entering a swirl of labor activism and action that will structure your experience even if you do not participate, though of course I hope that you do.
The disputes are complicated, and you can read more about them here. (Pro tip if you Google for further info: Times Higher Ed is an anti-union publication.) Crash course: there are two major strands. One is about pensions and pension cuts—new rules passed last year mean that I will receive about 40% less in my pension if I stay in the UK until retirement—and the other is called the “Four Fights,” broadly dealing with pay, pay gaps, and casualization. During the last academic year, staff at dozens of UK institutions were on strike for 20 days throughout the year, and at some institutions, staff ended the year with a marking (grading) boycott. A ballot for further action will begin soon, so as I said, this is unlikely to stop in the near future.
Part of me wishes US higher ed would get off its ass, organize at the faculty level (grad students are doing incredible work in this space already), and engage in far more industrial action. Another part of me knows firsthand how exhausting, not to mention financially difficult, striking is. In my mind, striking is less a choice than a collective responsibility to our community, but whichever way you lean, it’s important to know that this is part of the UK higher ed landscape right now.
Other quirks you should know if you’re from the US and applying to jobs in the UK
-If you thought racial and ethnic diversity in US higher ed was bad…do I have some disappointing news for you. Some have pointed out that US academia has put a fair amount of effort into increasing the representation of white women; the UK is behind even on that front. There is a lot of talk of EDI (DEI in US parlance) but very little concrete, meaningful action. That part, at least, is familiar. My strong suspicion is that a lot of this has to do with a) the UK class system and its construction as a singular rather than an intersectional apparatus, and b) minimal national conversation/reckoning regarding colonialism, but other people know far more about this than I and you should listen to them.
-It is far more common, dare I say expected, in the UK to do a postdoc or be a “teaching fellow” before landing your first faculty job. If you went straight from your PhD into a faculty post, as I did, you will be looked upon favorably, but the assumption is that you did something else first and people will be momentarily confused until you clarify.
-“Professor” is a title reserved for those who have attained the rank of full professor. If you are a lecturer or senior lecturer (assistant professor or associate professor in US parlance), the appropriate form of address is “Dr.,” not “Professor.”
-UK doctoral programs are wild and light years away from the norms of US doctoral programs. That’s a different post, though, and since I didn’t attend a UK PhD program, I’m probably not the best person to answer questions (though I’m continuously learning from PhD students in my department).
*As in the US, however, there is a risk of being made “redundant,” entire departments being shut down, and other nonsense. See, e.g., https://www.wandsworthguardian.co.uk/news/20165073.roehampton-university-academics-mass-redundancy-threat/.