Professors’ ranks can be confusing, but they’re important to get right because they reflect years and often decades of hard work and achievement.
Assistant professors are those at the bottom rung of the tenure track. Often, they are newly minted PhDs. They’ll typically work for five to seven years, with a special emphasis on publishing books or articles, depending on their discipline and other factors, before applying for promotion and tenure. In addition to teaching, research output and service, professors working in the natural sciences at research institutions will be judged on their ability to attract external grant funding for their research in an increasingly competitive funding environment.
The tenure application process involves several levels of review, usually starting with a committee of departmental colleagues and culminating with top administrators. Sometimes departments and reviewers higher up the chain disagree about the merits of a candidate’s tenure file. These disputes make for interesting stories as they can reveal institutional and disciplinary values and even biases.
Associate professors are typically those who have been approved for tenure. Many professors spend their careers at the associate rank.
Professors: Some associate professors eventually apply for promotion to full professor, (in which case their title is typically just professor, without any modifier), which signals another level of seniority (and a pay increase). Some professors hold special, funded chairs that come with fancy names. Full professors may also be conferred special “distinguished” status. Professors who retire in excellent standing may be granted emeritus status, which is typically an honorary title to denote that someone left the profession in good standing.
Full-time professor pay isn’t as high as some might think, but it is better than adjunct compensation. Across ranks and institution types, the average full-time college professor salary is about $100,000. Discipline matters, and so does geography. Professors on both coasts make the most. Those in the South tend to make the least. As in prior years, the most recent faculty compensation survey by the American Association of University Professors (conducted in 2020) found that men are generally paid more than women across faculty ranks.
Adjuncts, Lecturers and Instructors: In an effort to reduce instructional costs, most colleges have systematically replaced their full-time, well-paid professorship positions with lower-paid, non-tenured positions. These instructors typically work part-time or on short-term contracts. In fact, some institutions, including a good number of community colleges, don’t offer tenure at all. About half of college classes are now taught by “adjunct” faculty, who often have titles such as “lecturer,” or “instructor.” Adjuncts have always taught at colleges and universities, but they were originally hired on a per-course basis to share expertise gleaned in careers outside of academe (think an expert in business). Nowadays, adjuncts are hired to teach all kinds of courses.
Many academics attempt to string adjunct course assignments together to make a living. This trend is worrisome because adjuncts are typically paid around $3,500 per course, don’t have benefits and may pick up or lose class assignments with little notice. All these factors can translate to mixed results, sometimes including poorer outcomes for adjuncts’ students, not necessarily because adjuncts are unskilled instructors, but often because they have relatively little institutional support. Compounding the problem, institutions with higher shares of at-risk students have higher shares of contingent professors, especially among private four-year institutions.
Graduate teaching assistants are faculty members, too, in a sense. Sometimes they lead discussion sections and grade papers for the professor of record, but sometimes they lead entire classes on their own. Many graduate students in the natural sciences carry out essential research in their professors’ labs, often alongside postdoctoral researchers who already have their terminal degrees. Because of this partial employee status, graduate students at many public institutions in the U.S. have formed unions. Postdoctoral fellow unions exist too, but they are much more rare. Staff members may be unionized, but this varies from state to state and campus to campus.
Updated June 2021.