The Hierarchy of Professors Explained

The Hierarchy of Professors Explained

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It’s no secret: the academic system is complicated.

For students who are thinking of joining academia through a master’s degree or a doctoral program, professors’ rankings can be downright confusing. It can be hard to differentiate between the different duties of each professor. I often get questions like: “Should I address an associate professor or an assistant professor to supervise my Ph.D.?”, or “Do emeritus professors still teach courses?”.

To help lessen this confusion, we will reveal the different types of professors (and what makes each position unique).

Academic Rankings: Summary

The most significant difference between professors is that some professors can not be fired at all!

That’s right; professors who got tenured can’t lose their job because of their unpopular positions. Tenure grants job security and means academic freedom!

However, not all professors are tenured. Only a selected number of high-achieving professors get the opportunity to occupy a tenured position. The table below summarizes the different types of professors and which one has permanent employment:

RankAcademic RankTenure
8Teaching AssistantNo
7Adjunct ProfessorNo, temporary hire
6Visiting ProfessorNo
5Assistant ProfessorNo
4Associate ProfessorSometimes
3Full ProfessorYes
2Endowed ProfessorYes
1Distinguished ProfessorYes
0Professor EmeritusYes/Retired

There are other differences between professors. For instance, there is a big discrepancy in terms of income. For example, assistant professors make $77,493 while endowed and distinguished professors make more than $200,000 a year!

The different salaries are justified by the role that each professor plays within the university. The higher a professor is on the academic hierarchy, the more administrative and research duties will be put on his shoulders. When professors get promoted to full professor, they start supervising graduate students and administrative work starts creeping up on you until their research group almost function like a small business.

The hierarchy of professors also determines how they interact with each other. For instance, assistant professors are expected to conduct research on topics given by full professors, while associate professors (and higher-ranked professors) are expected to develop their own research line.

Endowed and distinguished professors are granted special funds for their research. This fund allows them to buy better equipment, hire more faculty members, and conduct more academic research.

Adjunct Professors

Adjunct professors are the lowest-ranked professors as their position might be temporary. Depending on the contract they sign and the institution they work for, adjunct professors are often uncertain if they will have a job the next year or even the following semester.

They are non-tenured track professors who commit to teaching and conducting research part-time at an educational institution. While still participating in university activities such as preparing for classes and mentoring students, adjunct professors very often still have the time to work in their field. This free time allows them to enjoy the benefits of a satisfying academic environment while pursuing their career.

Visiting Professors

Contrary to adjunct professors, a visiting professor teaches for one to three years at a university. Some visiting professors take a leave of absence from another school to teach or do research, but most work on yearly contracts. They have little job security, and their position won’t lead to tenure.

The Tenure Track: Journey From Assistant Professor to Full Professor

Getting tenure is a long journey that can last anywhere between six to fifteen years. Faculty members who want to be tenured first need to land an assistant professorship. It generally takes about seven years to earn tenure while working as an assistant professor.

Assistant professors are not anyone’s assistants; these professors are on the tenure track. They usually have a six-year contract, and in the fifth year, they can apply for tenure. The tenure application process takes up to a year. If the assistant professor passes an extensive review of his work, he gets promoted to the rank of associate professor.

Associate professors are respectable researchers and have made a name for themselves in their field. They either already have tenure or are close to obtaining tenure. After a few years, associate professors have the option of applying for promotion to full professor. This process takes a few years: a committee needs to review its publications, research, and teaching. If the professor’s work has grown substantially since they became an associate professor, they are promoted to the rank of full professor.

Full professors are tenured and have a significant impact on their field of study. Getting a full professorship is a proof that you have an international reputation among your peers.

Different Duties

Associate, assistant, and full professors are all responsible for teaching courses and researching their areas of expertise.

However, the duties of each position vary significantly. As you climb the academic ladder, you get more and more administrative responsibilities like:

  • Serving on committees
  • Being given administrative responsibilities
  • Peer reviewing research papers

It can be challenging for associate and full professors to focus on their research!

Endowed Professors

Some full professors are granted an endowed chair.

An endowed chair (or professorship) is a faculty position that is privately funded by an endowment. The endowment is a donation that remains locked. The interest from the grant gives the school money to operate on, ensuring sustainable financial support.

University policies often require the minimum endowment to be around one million dollars. This minimum is put in place to guarantee that the professor can benefit from the interest of the fund. A one-million-dollar endowment typically provides about $40k per year in interest.

Distinguished Professors

The title of “distinguished professor” is given to top tenured professors to recognize their outstanding academic contributions. This designation is highly honorific and very exclusive. The benefits of a distinguished professorship include a higher salary and increased research funds.

Promotion to the distinguished professor rank is the highest honor that a university bestows on a faculty member. It is estimated that less than 5% of all professors are granted this prestigious title. Some universities even have policies that restrict the total number of distinguished professors to be less than 10% of tenured and tenure-track faculty members.

Emeritus Professors

Once a tenured faculty member retires, he is usually given the honorary title of “professor emeritus”. The emeritus status comes with perks such as access to campus facilities like the library, an office, a university e-mail address, etc.

There are some conditions to become an emeritus professor that include longevity, recommendations from peers, and a department’s vote to decide whether the professor will be granted the emeritus status.

Frequently Asked Questions