The Hierarchy of Professors, Explained
Not all professors are equal. Much like how a colonel ranks above a sergeant in the military, a hierarchy of academic levels distinguishes one professor from the next.
You might think that everyone who teaches at the college level is simply a professor and nothing more, but that's not the case. There's a way to tell if professors are new to the job or have been at it for years.
Want to know the difference between an assistant professor and an associate professor? Wondering how long it will take to climb the ranks? This article breaks down some of the mystery surrounding the structure of academia.
Academic Career Levels
Graduate Teaching Assistant
A graduate teaching assistant (GTA) is a graduate student who teaches or assists in teaching undergraduate students at a university. A GTA teaches while also studying in a specialized academic field.
It's common for universities to pay GTAs with stipends that cover their tuition and pay a small wage. In return, those graduate students must teach one or more undergraduate courses.
If you've taken an entry-level college course, it's likely that an adjunct instructor taught you. Adjunct instructors teach courses at a college or university — sometimes several of them — but are not full-time staff.
Adjunct instructors make up 40% of teachers in higher education. In addition to teaching, they also develop syllabi, evaluate students, and conduct scholarly or applied research.
A visiting scholar is a lecturer or professor from another institution who gets invited to teach at a university or college for a limited time. Visiting professors are typically renowned and respected in their fields.
Institutions usually host visiting professors to bring new perspectives, collaborate with researchers and other professors, or temporarily fill a vacancy in a department. Most visiting professors teach for only a semester, but sometimes they stay longer.
Assistant professors are beginning-level professors at colleges and universities. An assistant professor position typically requires a Ph.D. and experience with teaching and research in a specific field.
Becoming an assistant professor is the first step to becoming tenured. An assistant professor's duties usually include research, teaching, and academic advising.
What Is Tenure?
Tenure is a term you'll often hear associated with professors. Academic tenure means a professor has been granted lifetime employment with a college or university. It also protects them from being fired without cause.
Tenured status is highly competitive, and earning it is a time-consuming process that usually takes between 5-7 years. In addition to job security, it often comes with better wages, making it a special achievement in higher education. Associate professors usually have tenure, though not always. Even full professors are not always tenured.
An associate professor is a mid-level professor who usually has a doctorate or other professional degree and teaches classes related to their studies.
The responsibilities of an associate professor are similar to an assistant professor. One key difference is that associate professors have more experience and often have tenure.
A professor is the highest academic title held at a college, university, or postsecondary institution. Professors are accomplished and recognized academics — and usually considered experts in their areas of interest.
A professor teaches upper-level undergraduate classes as well as graduate courses. They are also likely to be involved in leadership positions in their department or school, and they typically have ongoing research in their fields.
An endowed professor is a professor whose position is paid for by funds donated to a college, trust fund, or other financial institution. The title is a high honor because it is typically held only by distinguished or senior-level faculty members.
Specific positions for endowed professors are usually named after donors, making it a lasting tribute for both the donor and the professor holding the title. As such, endowed professors are often held to a higher standard for their academic impact in teaching, research, and leadership.
Criticisms of Tenure
Critics of tenure believe it can make professors complacent or lead institutions to tolerate incompetent professors. Supporters argue that it encourages academic freedom, allowing professors to express their perspectives and ideas without fear of censorship.
Distinguished professor is a title sometimes given to the top tenured professors in a university, school, or department. The honor is given to highly regarded professors who are leaders in their fields of study.
Distinguished professors are selected through a nomination process, and they often receive additional salary and research funds. Candidates are usually selected by a committee and then endorsed by administrators, such as the school's dean or president.
A professor emeritus is a retired professor who was granted the title as an honor. Though some emeriti professors continue working part-time following retirement, many no longer work actively at all.
At some institutions, all professors who retire in good standing become professors emeriti. Other schools require a special act or vote. Typically, professors receive the title "professor emeritus" regardless of gender, but some organizations will grant retired female faculty the title "professor emerita."
Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.
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