The path to becoming a college professor is long and arduous. To begin, it takes a huge commitment to finish a doctoral degree followed by a postdoc appointment. In recent years, the degree and some postdoc experiences are often insufficient for obtaining a professor position. It’s a highly competitive job with many qualified graduate students and postdocs applying for the same position.

However if you are reading this, then you are probably certain teaching is your calling. You enjoyed teaching an introductory biology class filled with curious undergraduate students, mentoring, and interacting with them during graduate school. You also find yourself needing to solve problems by conducting research and inspiring the next generation. Therefore, you can see yourself working in academia with the goal of becoming a professor.

As you browse for a professorship, you will probably encounter different titles for this profession, such as adjunct faculty, assistant professor, and associate professor. And you’re not always sure what each title actually means. Therefore, this article provides a quick introduction about some common professorial titles and ranks to guide you in your academic journey.

Tenure, non tenure

Currently, there are two teaching paths in academia: a tenure track and a non-tenure track. What separates these two paths is the job security of the position.

Tenure Track

A tenure is a contract for a permanent faculty position at an academic institution, unless extraordinary situations occur (such as financial problems in the university or misconduct by the tenured faculty member). With tenure, the university gives academic freedom to a tenured faculty member, allowing him or her to pursue any research or teach any courses related to his or her field of study.

The evaluation for a tenure track position is based on how well the faculty member performs in teaching, research, and service. Different institutions may have different requirements for becoming tenured, depending on service, achievements, and merit. However, to obtain tenure, you must receive one or two excellent evaluations in those three areas and adequacy in the remaining area(s).

Advantages of Tenure:

  • Possibility to land permanent employment.
  • Better pay and benefits.
  • Academic freedom.

Disadvantages of Tenure:

  • More pressure to publish research and find grants (‘publish or perish’).
  • Promotion depends on tenure committee.
  • Harder to maintain work-life balance.

Tenure Track Faculty

Some common academic ranks in the tenure track are assistant professor, associate professor, full professor, and endowed professor.

Assistant Professor

Assistant professor is typically the entry-level position to begin the tenure track journey, but it can also be a position in the non-tenure track. For the tenure track path, the tenure review can occur on the sixth year after starting as an assistant professor (although it can also start earlier), depending on the individual institution (Beasley et al., 2006).

The tenure file contains your CV, teaching records and evaluations, all publication records, grants or awards, external review letters evaluating your achievements in the field, and a record of your service to your university. After receiving your file, the tenure committee evaluates it and the members of the committee can recommend you for a promotion to be an associate professor.

This committee typically consists of several tenured professors and the head of your department. Then, the president, provost, or chancellor of the university makes the final decision. If unsuccessful, you have another year to try to get the promotion or start over at another institution.

tenure, professor, associate professor, assistant professor

Associate Professor

An associate professor is the middle rank of a tenured professorship (although some universities have used this title for the non-tenure track career). After several years, an associate professor can ask for a review to become a full professor. To gain this promotion, the associate professor has to meet all the requirements of the institution (typically outstanding evaluations on acquiring funding through grants to perform their research, proving the quality of their research, teaching courses, and demonstrating service to the institution) (Mabrouk, 2007). If unsuccessful, the associate professor can try again within a limited time.

Full Professor

A full professor must take a leadership role in research, teaching, and service in his or her institution, because this is the highest rank of a tenure-track professorship. Faculty at this rank have tenure, more academic freedom, and a higher salary. In addition, a full professor can freely choose to teach higher-level undergraduate courses or graduate courses.

Endowed Professor

An endowed professor receives funding from a donor to carry out research for the university.The research that the endowed professor performs should fit the donor’s vision and philosophy.

In recent years, U.S. colleges and universities have increased the hiring of more non-tenure track faculty (Crick et al.,2019). The non-tenure track faculty refer to university educators signing temporary contracts, and they are not tenure-eligible due to this short-term appointment. However, their role becomes more significant in higher education, helping ease much of the teaching load within academic institutions.

Non-Tenure Track

As a non-tenure track faculty member, you have to demonstrate excellent performance in teaching. The non-tenure track position includes adjunct faculty, graduate teaching assistants, and visiting professors.

Advantages of a non-tenure track position:

  • Less pressure to publish research and find grants.
  • Better work-life balance.
  • Ability to spend more time teaching a class.

Disadvantages of a non-tenure track position:

  • Lower pay and benefits.
  • Temporary employment.
  • Less time for research.

Non-Tenure Track Faculty

Some examples of a non-tenure track position are adjunct faculty, graduate teaching assistant, and visiting professor.

Adjunct Faculty

An adjunct faculty member teaches one or more courses at a college or university, but their position is not full-time. In addition, these instructors do not have a full-time salary or benefits (such as health insurance or retirement funds).

Graduate Teaching Assistant

In the graduate program and school, a graduate student can become an instructor for one or more undergraduate courses. The responsibility of a graduate teaching assistant commonly includes assisting a faculty member to teach a class or a laboratory. Many graduate programs offer a small salary and stipends for the tuition to the graduate teaching assistant.

Visiting Professor

A visiting professor is a professor who teaches at a college or university other than his or her own. The role may only involve teaching, or teaching combined with other duties in the contract. This appointment is short-term, ranging from one semester to three years.

It takes hard work and time to become a professor. However, all of these efforts are worthwhile for those who love sharing their knowledge and inspiring the next generation of scientists. If this career is a fit for you, it will be very rewarding.


2.3 Academic Instructional Staff Appointments | Policies. (n.d.). Policies.Mit.Edu. Retrieved July 20, 2020, from

4.3.4 Not to Promote to Full Professor | Dean of Faculty. (n.d.). Theuniversityfaculty.Cornell.Edu. Retrieved July 24, 2020, from

Academic Titles and Ranks. (n.d.). Academic Personnel. Retrieved July 20, 2020, from

Beasley, B. W., Simon, S. D., & Wright, S. M. (2006). A Time to be Promoted. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 21(2), 123–129.

Crick, K. A., Larson, L. M., & Seipel, M. T. (2020). Non-Tenure Track Faculty Satisfaction: A Self-Determination Model. Journal of Career Assessment, 28(3), 425–445.

Mabrouk, P. A. (2007). Promotion from associate to full professor. Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, 388(5–6), 987–991.

Mentoring the “Terminal Associate Professor” | Tomorrow’s Professor Postings. (n.d.). Tomprof.Stanford.Edu. Retrieved July 24, 2020, from

Promotion to full Professor guidelines | College of Arts and Sciences - Administrative Gateway. (n.d.). Admin.Artsci.Washington.Edu. Retrieved July 24, 2020, from

Ranks of Professors. (n.d.). Www.Math.Uh.Edu. Retrieved July 24, 2020, from

The Transition from Graduate Student to Assistant Professor | Career Center. (n.d.). Career.Berkeley.Edu.

Trends In Academia: The Reality of Tenure Track by InsideScholar. (2018, May 16). Inside Scholar.

What are the differences between tenure track and non-tenure tracks? (2018). Iu.Edu.

What Is the Tenure Track? - Academic Positions. (n.d.). Academicpositions.Com.

Writers, S. (2018, August 23). Professor Rankings: From Adjunct To Emeritus. TheBestSchools.Org.