As a college student, or even a graduate student, you may not be aware of the varying titles and degrees held by your teachers and professors. After all, it's simple: they are the experts and you're the student, right?
As a college student, or even a graduate student, you may not be aware of the varying titles and degrees held by your teachers and professors. After all, it’s simple: they are the experts and you’re the student, right?
Whether you're a college student uncertain of what to call your teacher, or you're an aspiring professor looking to work your way up in the academic ranks, this article breaks down some of the mystery surrounding the (at times, convoluted) structure of academia.
Below, we list the 10 most common levels of professors and college educators. Starting with the lowest-paid, entry-level positions and working up to the highest-paid and most distinguished professors, we offer an overview of the professor-types you might encounter on campus (or aspire to be one day!).
Before you check out these rankings, allow us to introduce the concept of tenure.
What is tenure?
Tenure is an indefinite academic appointment (i.e. a job that lasts as long as you want it) that can only be terminated in extraordinary situations, like a school being in so much financial trouble it might not survive (the fancy term is "financial exigency") or a department being closed. So, unless something crazy happens, tenured professors cannot be fired or let go.
A guaranteed job pretty much no matter what: sounds like a dream, right? There's a reason for tenure. Having this job protection is supposed to ensure academic freedom. If a professor is sure to keep their job no matter what, there is room for a greater freedom of thought and instruction without fear of censorship. The goal of this is to ensure new and exciting research, as well as to educate students from a variety of perspectives. For example, if academic thinkers weren't safe to voice new, dissenting, or disliked opinions, we might still be teaching that the Earth is flat or that smoking tobacco is good for your lungs.
However, today, tenure also contributes to the rigid academic hierarchy that keeps some teachers at the bottom of the ladder. Let's take a look at that hierarchy:
10. Adjunct Instructor
If you've taken an entry-level college course, chances are, you were taught by an adjunct, part-time lecturer, or instructor. Though the terms may vary slightly, each of these titles indicates a similar position; different schools just use different labels for this job. If you're studying with an adjunct instructor, it's best to ask them how they'd like to be addressed. Some may appreciate professor, while others might prefer another title. In an article about what students should call their college professors, Rebecca Schuman writes:
"Though you can technically call [adjuncts] 'professor,' on the roster we're usually just listed as 'Staff.' We may even ask that you not call us 'Professor' so that you recognize that the school treats us differently. But many of us have doctorates, so we like to be called 'Doctor.' But some of us don't!"
Adjuncts teach courses at a college or university (or sometimes more than one!), but they are not full-time staff. As Schuman points out, some adjuncts have doctoral degrees, and others may have only a master's degree. These instructors usually do not receive a full-time salary or benefits like health care coverage or retirement funds. Though there are many fantastic teachers working as adjuncts, part-time lecturers, and instructors, this position can be difficult and frustrating. In fact, some adjuncts have even regarded the experience as "terrible" because of low pay, little-to-no job security, and a lack of professional resources and workplace benefits.
9. Graduate Teaching Assistant
A graduate teaching assistant (GTA) is similar to an adjunct instructor, with one key difference. The teachers filling these roles are students themselves, enrolled in a master's or doctoral program. It might seem strange that GTAs are ranked higher than adjuncts on this list, but they rank slightly higher for a couple of reasons. First, many graduate programs offer students stipends that cover their tuition and pay a small wage and in return, these graduate students must teach one or more graduate courses. This often comes out to a higher compensation per class than adjuncts receive. Secondly, GTAs, though still not full-time faculty, are connected to one college or university full-time, as both a student and instructor, while adjuncts typically work part-time and may work at multiple schools or jobs. In the past, people in this position were often called teaching assistants, or TAs, but the title graduate teaching assistant seems to be more common at present.
Depending on the graduate program and school, a graduate teaching assistant might be assisting other professors, faculty, or staff in a class, lab, or center, but many GTAs lead classes on their own. It's worth noting that while the person leading your class deserves your respect as an educator, this same person is also a student, and may be facing many of the same stresses and experiences that you are. If you're interested in pursuing graduate school, talk to your GTA about his or her experience. This could be a great way to learn about your school's graduate and teaching assistant programs from a first-hand perspective.
8. Visiting Professor
A visiting professor (or scholar, researcher, fellow, or lecturer — once again, the terminology varies by institution and department) is an academic from one school who temporarily works at another school. A college or university might hire a visiting professor to offer a new perspective to its students, host a collaboration between teachers and researchers, or temporarily fill a vacancy in a department. Typically, a visiting professor stays at the school they're visiting for several months to a year. Visiting professors are typically offered a stipend by the host university, assuming that they are receiving salary from their home school. Professors might take an appointment as a visiting professor when it's their turn for sabbatical (which is typically a year-long break that tenured professors often receive). Professors are encouraged to use this time to complete something, often a book, research, or another academic endeavor.
Schools usually invite visiting professors that are renowned and respected in their fields, so this is often not a low-ranking position. It sits at #8 on this list because of the position's temporary nature, and because a visiting professor is unlikely to serve as part of the leadership in a school or department. It's also situated here because visiting professors are often not salaried with their host institution, usually only receiving a stipend for their time as a visiting professor.
7. Assistant Professor
Though the title might imply otherwise, assistant professors are typically full-time college or university faculty members who teach a variety of courses and conduct research. An assistant professorship is typically the first step on the path to tenure. For that reason, these jobs are usually very competitive and held by individuals with doctorate degrees. Typically, hundreds of people apply for a single tenure-track, assistant professor position.
If you look at the professors in a given department at your college or university, you'll notice that many of them carry the title of "assistant professor." This does not mean they are anyone's assistant, rather that they are likely early on in the tenure process, or that they are a full-time professor in a non-tenure-track position. Though it's always good to ask if you're unsure, you can typically call assistant professors "Dr." or "Professor." Some tenure-track professors, however, do not have a doctorate. They might instead have an MFA or another specialty master's degree, in which case you can call them "Professor" or whatever they prefer.
Associate professors are a little further along in their tenure-seeking journeys than assistant professors. (Note: it's important to realize that this title has different meanings in other parts of the world. In the US and North American academic systems, an associate professor is in a tenure-track position between assistant and full professorship, but in other countries it may carry slightly different hierarchical implications.)
Usually assistant professors become associate professors when they achieve tenure. Typically it takes between five and seven years to earn tenure. It is a long process, involving some sort of review, which usually evaluates a professor's publications, research, and teaching. In some cases, associate professors do not have tenure. For example, if they previously taught at another university or are a newly graduated PhD with substantial, relevant non-academic experience, a professor might be hired on as an associate professor with the opportunity for a tenure review in two to four years.
As with all of the individuals on this list, it never hurts to ask how someone would like to be addressed, but you can most often address associate professors by the title "Dr." or, if they don't have a doctorate, "Professor." And if you're taking a class with someone who happens to be approaching, or is in the middle of, tenure review, he or she would likely appreciate your acknowledgement of this upcoming accomplishment.
5. Full Professor
Full professors are the next level of tenured professor. Usually, after associate professors receive tenure, they will be up for a subsequent review after five to seven years in the role. This is to assess one's qualifications for full professorship. Full professor is the highest promotion that a tenure track professor can receive, other than special distinctions like endowed and distinguished professors.
Like the other tenured professors on this list, you can usually call full professors "Dr." or "Professor," depending on whether one has or has not earned a doctorate. Typically, full professors will teach higher level undergraduate and graduate courses. They are also likely to be involved in leadership positions in their department or school.
[Looking to the climb the ranks at your institution? Get some insightful pointers from Academic Gamesmanship: How to make a PhD Pay.]
4. Endowed Professor
To understand what an endowed professor is, one must first understand the meaning of an endowment. A university endowment is a sum of money given to the school to be invested. The interest and dividends from the invested donation give the school money to operate on, while the initial amount remains secure, ensuring sustainable financial support. An endowed professor is one whose salary is funded through an endowment.
An endowed professor — whose position is often called an endowed chair or professorship — is typically an honored and esteemed faculty member. Often the position is named for the donor who gave the endowment to fund the professorship, and sometimes the endowed professor is someone who is carrying out research or instruction that aligns with the donor's philosophy, vision, or passion. Unless told otherwise, you can call an endowed professor "Dr." or "Professor."
3. Distinguished Professor
"Distinguished professor" is a title sometimes given to the top tenured professors in a university, school, or department. Distinguished professors are usually awarded this title because they are highly regarded and seen as a leader in their field of study. Some schools have their own title for a distinguished professor, like Yale University's "Sterling Professor" title or MIT's "Institute Professor" award.
Like the other tenured, doctorate-holding professors on this list, you can typically address a distinguished professor with "Dr." or "Professor." If you're taking a class with a distinguished professor, congratulations! Take the opportunity to learn from and engage with a person who's at the top of their field. And if you're aspiring to distinguished professorship someday, best of luck. It will likely be a long, but rewarding and exciting journey.
How do you get a job as a college or university president? Usually by working as a professor at first. Many school administrators — presidents, provosts, deans, etc. — begin their careers as professors and then work their way up to an administrative position. Often schools choose administrators who are already working at the college or university, assuming that professors and other faculty members know the school's culture and can offer informed, experienced leadership.
Though the degree requirements are often the same for teaching professors, research professors, and school administrators, the jobs are quite different. As you study and interact with different professors and administrators, you'll notice that some love to be in the classroom with students, while others prefer writing and research, while still others enjoy leading entire departments, schools, or institutions. If you're aspiring to a career in academia, it's worth taking stock of your strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and passions. This can help you home in on the type of professor or administrator you'd like to be.
1. Professor Emeritus
A professor emeritus (plural: professors emeriti) is a retired professor who was given the title as an honor upon retirement. Though some professors emeriti continue working part-time at an institution following retirement, many may no longer work actively for a college or university. At some institutions, this honorary title is given to all professors who retire in good standing, while at other schools it requires a special act or vote.
Typically, professors are given the title "professor emeritus" regardless of gender, but some organizations will grant retired female faculty the title "professor emerita." Like other professors on this list, you can typically call a professor emeritus "Dr." or "Professor."
If you’re interested in getting on the path toward a career in academia, click here to learn more about what you can do with a degree in education.
If you’re looking to get on a path toward a full-time professorship, start by digging into our rankings of various PhD programs.
And if you’re just curious how much the highest-paid professors in the land our making, check out our lists of the Highest Paid College Professors and the Highest Paid Female Professors. That should give you something to aspire to!