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In the United Kingdom a lecturer is usually the holder of an open-ended position at a university or similar institution, often an academic in an early career stage, who teaches and also leads or oversees research groups.
This contrasts with the practice in North America: the United States, Canada and other countries influenced by their educational systems, where the term is used differently. It generally denotes academic experts without tenure in the university, who teach full- or part-time but who have few or no research responsibilities within the institution where they teach. In most research universities in the United States, the title of lecturer requires a doctorate or equivalent degree.
A lecturer in UK universities usually holds an open-ended position that involves carrying out both teaching and research. After a number of years, a lecturer may be promoted and become a senior lecturer. This position is below reader and professor.
It is also common for temporary lecturers to be appointed to cover specific short-term teaching needs; these positions are by-definition fixed-term and non-renewable, and are distinguished from open-ended lectureships. Some universities also refer to graduate students or others, who undertake ad-hoc teaching for a department, as lecturers or sessional lecturers. Some are very low paid (as little as £6000 p.a. in 2011-12). This can cause confusion, especially for academics from outside the British system. Thus it is important to define exactly in which sense the term lecturer is used.
In addition, in the UK certain positions such as research lecturers, when open-ended, are the equivalent in rank of full lecturers and senior lecturers, but reflect the research-intensive orientation often seen in fields such as medicine, engineering, biological and physical sciences. Lecturers/ University Lecturers are more common in fields where faculty distribute their time equally between teaching and research. Teaching fellows may also sometimes be referred to as lecturers - for example, Exeter named some of that group as education and scholarship lecturers (E & S) to recognise the contribution of teaching, and elevate the titles of teaching fellows to lecturers. All this causes immense confusion for non-UK academics.
The position of open-ended lecturer does not map easily into the North American system. In terms of responsibilities and recognition, the position of a newly appointed lecturer is similar to that of an assistant professor in the United States, for instance. But, many lecturers in the UK are experienced researchers with many publications, and their position is more equivalent to that of an associate professor in the North American universities and those modelled on them.
Simply, if a person at a UK university has an open-ended position; is termed lecturer, reader or professor and can form a research group; can apply for externally funded research as a principal investigator and also teaches, then these positions are equivalent to the assistant/associate/professor systems of North America. (Some lecturers may be equivalent to professors. In traditional universities such as Oxford, professors are those who lead a group of other academics, equivalent to department chairs in North America- all the other academics are classified as a lecturer).
Historically in the UK, a senior lectureship reflected prowess in teaching or administration rather than research, and the position was much less likely to lead direct to promotion to professor. In the early 21st century, promotion to senior lecturer is based mainly on the demonstration of significant research achievements, at least in research-intensive universities, and is an integral part of the promotion path to a full chair. Promotion to reader is sometimes still necessary before promotion to a full chair; however, some universities no longer make appointments at the level of reader (for instance, the University of Leeds and the University of Oxford). Senior lecturers and readers are sometimes paid on the same salary scale, although in many departments, readers are comparatively senior staff. Readers in pre-1992 universities are generally considered at least the equivalent, in terms of status, of (full) professors in post-1992 universities. Many academics consider it more prestigious to have been a reader in a pre-1992 university than a professor in a post-1992 university.
Most open-ended lecturers in the UK have a doctorate and often have postdoctoral research experience. In many fields a doctorate is now the prerequisite, although historically this was not the case. Some academic positions could have been held on the basis of research merit alone, without a higher degree.
The new universities (that is universities that were until recently termed polytechnics) have a slightly different ranking naming scheme from that just described. Their grades are lecturer, senior lecturer, and principal lecturer, with the last corresponding to senior lecturer in the pre-1992 institutions.
The University of Warwick decided in 2006 to use the terminology assistant professor for lecturer, and associate professor for senior lecturers and readers. They said this was to make it easier to appoint staff from the US, but there are still significant differences. In the US "assistant professor" generally refers to a non-tenured position, while at Warwick, it is an open-ended position (subject possibly to probation). Both readers and professors in the UK would correspond to full professors in the US. Nottingham has adopted the same convention. At Reading, job advertisements and academic staff web pages use the title associate professor, but the ordinances of the university make no reference to these titles. They address only procedures for conferring the traditional UK academic ranks.
There is no US-style concept of tenure or faculty in the UK. Lecturing staff on open-ended contracts can be made redundant like employees of any other organisation. In 2012 lecturers began to be fired, notably at Queen Mary university. It now has a stated policy of firing and replacing underperforming open-ended teaching staff. As a result of the 2008 Ball vs Aberdeen tribunal decision, the distinction between teaching and research staff is blurring. Many researchers do occasional lecturing work and also secure legally equivalent open-ended contracts at some institutions. It is noted although select UK institutions (Oxford is a prominent example) have the use of the word "tenure" for lecturers who are "reappointed to the retiring age". This is essentially similar to a US tenure decision - references are sought from world-leading academics and a committee meets to decide the "tenure" case. There is normally no title elevation is such instances - tenure and title are independent - however, lecturers who are not reappointed to the retiring age can be taken off payroll with a short notice (unlike the 5-6 year period in US Universities).
In the Church of England, a lecturer is typically an assistant curate serving in a parish. It is a historic title which has fallen out of regular use. Several churches in the UK have clergy identified by the ancient title lecturer, including many London churches, St. Mary's Church, Nottingham and Carlisle Cathedral.
As different US academic institutions use the term lecturer in various ways, there is sometimes confusion. On a generic level, the term broadly denotes one who teaches at a university but is not eligible for tenure and has no research obligations. At non-research colleges, the latter distinction is less meaningful, making the absence of tenure the main difference between lecturers and other academic faculty. Unlike the adjective adjunct (which can modify most academic titles, from professor to lecturer to instructor, etc. and refers to part-time status), the title of lecturer at most schools does not address the issue of full-time v. part-time status.
Lecturers are required to have at least a masters degree and quite often have earned doctorates. For example, at Columbia University in New York, the title of lecturer requires a doctorate or its professional equivalent; it is the second-highest ranking title (other than senior lecturer) in the special instructional faculty category. This includes "persons whose responsibilities are limited to offering instruction or who are otherwise participating as instructors in specialized programs" during a stated term. (Columbia University, Officers of Instruction, 2013)  Sometimes the title is used as an equivalent-alternative to instructor, but schools that use both titles tend to provide relatively more advancement potential to their lecturers.
Major research universities are more frequently hiring full-time lecturers, whose responsibilities are primarily undergraduate education, especially for introductory/survey courses that involve large groups of students. These tend to be the courses that tenure-track faculty do not prefer to teach. It is also unnecessarily costly for the university to have tenure-track faculty, at their comparatively higher salary rates, teach such classes. When a lecturer is part-time, there is little practical distinction in the position from an adjunct professor, since neither has the potential related to being on the tenure-track. For full-time lecturers, many institutions now incorporate the role quite formally, managing it with performance reviews, promotional tracks, administrative service responsibilities, and many faculty privileges (e.g. voting, use of resources, etc.).
An emerging alternative to using full-time lecturers at research institutions is to create a parallel professorship track that is focused on teaching. It may offer tenure, and typically has a title series such as teaching professor. This is analogous to the research-only faculty tracks at some universities, which typically have title series such as research professor/scientist/scholar.
In some institutions, a lecturer, especially "distinguished lecturer," may also refer to a position similar to emeritus professor. Also, in some schools, it is a temporary post used for visiting academics of considerable prominence—e.g. a famous writer may serve for a term or a year, for instance. When confusion arose about Barack Obama's status on the law faculty at the University of Chicago, the institution stated that although his title was "senior lecturer," the university uses that title for notable people, such as federal judges and politicians, who are deemed of high prestige but lack the time to commit to a traditional tenure-track position.
In Australia, the term lecturer may be used informally to refer to anyone who conducts lectures at a university or elsewhere, but formally refers to a specific academic rank. The academic ranks in Australia are similar to those in the UK but there is one additional rank. The academic levels in Australia are associate lecturer (academic level: A), lecturer (B), senior lecturer (C), associate professor (D), and professor (E).
The position is equivalent to Assistant Professor in the US system. The term is not universally applied, with some universities preferring the Lecturer / Reader / Professor titles, while others work with the Assistant Professor / Associate Professor / Professor title.
As such, most lecturers' position can be considered tenure track.
In other countries, usage varies. In Israel, the term has a meaning in academia similar to that in the UK.
In France the title maître de conférences ("lecture master") is the lowest academic rank.
In German-speaking countries, the term Lektor historically denoted a teaching position below a professor, primarily responsible for delivering and organizing lectures. The contemporary equivalent is Dozent or Hochschuldozent. Nowadays the German term Lektor exists only in philology or modern-language departments at German-speaking universities, for positions that primarily involve teaching a foreign language.
In Poland the related term, lektor, is used for a teaching-only position, generally for teaching foreign languages.
In Norway a Lektor is an academic rank, usually reached after three or five years of post-secondary education, which enables a teacher to lecture at Ungdomsskole (secondary school) or Videregående skole (high school) level.
In Sweden and Denmark, a Lektor is an academic rank similar to that of senior lecturer in Great Britain and associate professor in USA. The Lektor holds the position below professor in rank.
In South Korea the term Gangsa is the literal translation of "part-time lecturer". A Gangsa is usually part-time, paid by the number of hours of teaching. No research or administrative obligation is attached. In most disciplines, Gangsa is regarded as a first step in one's academic career. In Korea the tenure position started from "full-time lecturer". The tenure track positions in South Korea are "full-time lecturer (JunImGangSa)", "assistant professor (JoKyoSu)", "associate professor (BuKyosu)," and "professor (KyoSu)". Therefore "full-time lecturer" is the same position as "assistant professor" in other countries, including the USA.