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Academic ranks (United States)

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Academic ranks (United States)

Academic ranks in the United States are the titles, relative importance and power of professors, researchers, and administrative personnel held in academia.


Most common hierarchy

For regular faculty (i.e., not counting administrative positions such as chairmanships or deanships, nor positions considered "staff" rather than faculty), the descending hierarchy in most cases is:

  • Distinguished and/or Endowed Professor and/or University Professor (Other such titles of special distinction vary by institution)
  • Professor ("Full Professor", i.e. the destination of the "tenure track," upon exhausting all normally-expected promotions)
  • Associate Professor (On-Track to be a "Full Professor")
  • Assistant Professor (On-Track to be an "Associate Professor," typically entry-level for "tenure track" positions)
  • Clinical Professor, Research Professor, Research Associate, Lecturer, and Instructor (usually non-tenure-track positions, sometimes with their own respective ranking hierarchies)
  • Adjunct Professor/Lecturer/Instructor (for part-time faculty only; others may be full or part time, but usually full)

[Note that while "Professor" as a proper noun (with a capital "P") generally implies a position title, the common noun "professor" in the US appropriately describes anyone teaching at the college level, regardless of rank; also, as a prenominal title of address, it can be capitalized without implying the title rank. Also note that "Professor Emeritus" does not generally denote a title of special distinction; in this context, emeritus merely means a faculty member who has retired in good standing. and can be applied to most ranks.]


Traditionally, Assistant Professor has been the usual entry-level rank for faculty on the "tenure track", although this depends on the institution and the field. Then, promotion to the rank of Associate Professor usually indicates that a tenure-track professor has been granted tenure at the institution. Those hired as Assistant Professors on a traditional tenure track will usually attain the rank of Associate after six to a maximum of eight years, or their employment will be terminated at most universities (so-called "up or out"). It is usually another six to ten years before an Associate Professor can be considered for promotion to "full" Professor.

Traditionally for "professional" fields such as law, medicine, business, or engineering - and lately expanding to others - faculty types can also include Clinical Professor or Professor of Practice. These ranks are generally not tenure-track and emphasize professional practice knowledge/skills rather than scholarly research. Likewise for the less-common title of Teaching Professor, which is not limited to professional fields. (Recently, some institutions have created separate tenure tracks for such positions.)

Other faculty who are not on the tenure track in the U.S. are often classified as Lecturers (or more advanced Senior Lecturers ) or Instructors, who may teach full-time and/or have some administrative duties, but have no research obligations (essentially the opposite of "research-only" faculty (or "research-only staff," which has no true counterpart because teaching positions are almost always "faculty" - except for student-assistantships), which also come in various forms and may be either tenure-track or not. Both Lecturers and Instructors typically hold advanced graduate/professional degrees. The term "professor" as a common noun - as well as "Prof." as a prenominal form of address - may be used for persons holding any kind of faculty position; however, the prenominal title of "Dr." is reserved exclusively for those who have obtained doctoral degrees (typically a Ph.D., in academia, in contrast to the more common use of "Dr." in the general public for physicians holding an MD/DO). In academic medicine, Instructor usually denotes someone who has completed residency, fellowship, or other post-doctoral (MD/DO) training but who is not tenure-track faculty.

Any faculty title preceded with the qualifier "Adjunct" theoretically denotes part-time status (usually less than half-time). Adjunct faculty may have primary employment elsewhere (either another school, or as a practicing professional), though in today's saturated academic market many doctorate-holders seek to earn a living from several adjunct jobs (to the advantage of institutions, which do not typically offer such faculty retirement/health benefits or long-term contracts).

Although "Professor" is often the highest rank attained by a senior faculty member, some institutions may offer some unique title to a senior faculty member whose research or publications have achieved wide recognition. This may be a "named professorship" or "named chair" - for example, the "John Doe Professor of Philosophy". Named chairs typically but not exclusively include a small discretionary fund from an endowment set aside for the recipient's use. Large research universities also offer a small fraction of tenured faculty the title of "Distinguished Professor" to recognize outstanding and broad contributions to the advancement of a field of study. Some universities have their highest rank as University/Institute Professor; such faculty members are not usually answerable to deans or department heads and may directly report to the University Provost.

In research, faculty who direct a lab or research group may in certain research contexts (e.g. grant applications) be called Principal Investigator, or PI, though this refers to their management role and is not usually thought as an academic rank.

Excepting special ranks (such as endowed chairs), academic rank is dependent upon the promotion process of each college or university. Thus, a tenured associate professor at one institution might accept a lower ranking position at another university (i.e., an assistant professorship on the "tenure track"). In some cases, an assistant professor who accepts a position of similar rank at another university may negotiate "time towards tenure", which indicates a shorter probationary period, usually in recognition of prior academic achievements.

Temporary faculty and special appointments

Modifier Example Explanation
  • Adjunct Professor
  • Adjunct Associate
  • Professor
  • Adjunct Assistant Professor
Indicates a part-time or temporary appointment; also may denote a faculty member from another academic department whose research or teaching interests overlap substantially with those of the appointing department; may also denote basis of instructorship from professional experience rather than academic study, e.g. a retired engineer whose second career is teaching may be an adjunct professor of engineering. With adjuncts, other faculty titles (e.g. adjunct lecturer/instructor) may in practice be very similar as well.
Visiting Visiting Professor
Visiting Associate Professor
Visiting Assistant Professor
Almost always indicates a temporary appointment, often to fill a vacancy that has arisen due to the sabbatical or temporary absence of a regular faculty member. Sometimes a visiting position is ongoing, replacing the occupant every 1-2 years, as a way to bring different people to the institution and/or provide entry-level academics with an opportunity to demonstrate their potential (for their next employer).
  • Research Professor (Senior Research Associate or Senior Research Scientist)
  • Research Associate Professor (Research Associate or Research Scientist)
  • Research Assistant Professor (Associate Research Scientist or Assistant Researcher)
  • Instructor
Indicates a full-time research position with few or no teaching responsibilities. Research professorships are almost always funded by grants or fellowships apart from the regular university budget; teaching faculty may be funded by either grants or the university, with the latter typically being ultimately responsible to ensure at least a minimum curricula are offered.
  • Clinical Professor
  • Clinical Associate Professor
  • Clinical Assistant Professor
Indicates a full- or part-time non-tenured teaching position with limited or no research responsibilities, especially in the health sciences but also in other "professional" fields like law, business, and engineering.[1] At a law school, "clinical" professors may have highly variable teaching and research responsibilities, but generally supervise student pro bono law practice. In most professional fields, this is largely similar to "Professor of Practice" or "Professor of Professional Practice" titles/positions.
  • Professor Emeritus
  • Associate Professor Emeritus
  • Assistant Professor Emeritus
Indicates a retired faculty member, who is usually not paid a regular salary but often retains office space and access to the university's facilities.

The ranks of Lecturer and Senior Lecturer are used at some American universities to denote permanent teaching positions (full or part-time) with few or no research responsibilities.

Research personnel

Fellowships and Research scientist positions are most often limited-term appointments for postdoctoral researchers. They are not usually regarded as faculty positions, but rather staff, although some teaching may be involved (albeit usually not with ultimate course responsibility). A common list of such positions is as follows (many of which often entail various ranking systems - e.g. numbered ranks, adjectives like "intermediate" or "senior," etc.).

  • Research Associate (general)
  • Research Scientist (natural or social sciences)
  • Research Engineer (engineering)
  • Research Scholar (humanities)
  • Research Technician (general)
  • Research Assistant (general)
  • Postdoctoral Fellow / Research Associate (general)

Teaching personnel

Teaching assistants (TAs) are known by various related terms and are typically graduate students who have varying levels of responsibility. A typical undergraduate class, for example, comprises lecture and small-group recitation/discussion sessions, with a faculty member giving the lecture, and TAs leading the small-group sessions; in other cases, the teaching of an entire class may be entrusted to a graduate student. (See generally A Handbook for Mathematics Teaching Assistants, published by the Mathematical Association of America.)


At some universities, librarians have a rank structure parallel to that of tenure-track faculty (Assistant Librarian, Associate Librarian, Librarian). Some senior librarians, and often the head librarian, may have faculty or faculty-equivalent rank.

Administrative ranks

Officers of the corporation

  • Chancellor or President
  • Provost (sometimes called "Chancellor", or "President" or "Warden")
  • Associate Provost (rare)
  • Assistant Provost (assists the Provost, as do any associates; not superior to vice presidents)
  • Vice-Chancellors or Vice Presidents (of Academic Affairs, Student Affairs, Finance, etc.)
  • Associate Vice-Chancellor or Associate Vice President
  • Assistant Vice-Chancellor or Assistant Vice President

Academic administrators

  • Deans (often also Full Professors)
  • Associate Deans (often also Full Professors)
  • Assistant Dean
  • Directors of Administrative Departments
  • Associate/Assistant Directors of Administrative Departments
  • Chairs or Heads of Academic Departments

America's system of higher education is highly variable, with each of the 50 states and the 6 non-state jurisdictions regulating its own public tertiary institutions, and with each private institution developing its own structure. In general, the terms "President" and "Chancellor" are interchangeable (like "Premier" and "Prime Minister"), including the vice presidents, associate and assistant vice presidents, and so on. The dominant paradigm is president, vice president, associate vice president, and assistant vice president.

Some university systems or multi-campus universities use both titles, with one title for the chief executive of the entire system and the other for the chief executives of each campus. Which title refers to which position can be highly variable from state to state or even within a state. In California, for example, the chief executive officer of the entire California State University system of 23 campuses is called "Chancellor" while the CEO of each individual campus is called "President" — thus, there is an officer called "Chancellor of the California State University", and there is the "President of San Francisco State University". In the University of California, by contrast, the terms are reversed — thus, there is the "President of the University of California", and below that person in the hierarchy is the "Chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles", and so on.

The term 'Warden' is almost never used in the United States in an academic sense. Where it is used, it typically means "provost" or "dean".

Deans may head an individual college, school or faculty; or they may be deans of the student body, or a section of it (e.g., the dean of students in a law school); or they may be deans of a particular functional unit (e.g., Dean of Admissions, or Dean of Records); or they may be deans of a particular campus, or (unusually) of a particular building (e.g., a university with an elaborate performing arts complex might designate a very senior administrative faculty member as "Dean of the [Name] Performing Arts Center".

Academic department heads and chairs serve the same function, and there may also be associate and assistant department heads or chairs (though this is unusual).

See also


  1. ^ Academic Promotions, UCSF School of Medicine Association of Clinical Faculty. Retrieved 2009-08-01.

External links

  • "Handbook of Faculty Titles", by Michael I. Shamos, Ph.D., J.D., Carnegie Mellon University

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