American professors.

A recent thread got me wondering about how professorships in America work. In the UK, as far as I understand it, being made a professor is a step up from being made a doctor - a recognition of great achievement in your chosen field. Professors in the UK seem never to be younger than their early forties and being made a professor usually implies you’re heading a research group of some sort (at least this seems to be how it works in CS). Until that time, you’re classed as a “reader”, “lecturer” (or similar) or just a plain doctor.

Yet, from what I can gather, recent PhD graduates can be made into “assistant professors” in the US and then can be made into a full professor within a few years after that. Is this true? Is there any American analogue for the British concept of a professor?

American English: are all teachers at tertiary level called “professors”?
Assistant, Associate, and Full Professors
How are associate professors “promoted” to full professors?
What’s a Professor?

It’s partly a matter of mere terminology, and partly a matter of different levels of prestige required for using the term Professor. I’m from Australia, and we tend to use terms like Lecturer as well, rather than Assistant Professor.

In the UK, the term Professor tends to be used for people who head departments, or who hold prestigious named chairs in particular subjects. As you note, less distinguished academics are generally referred to as Lecturers or Readers. Americans have professors in the British sense—academics with named chairs who are at the top of their field—but being a Professor in America need not involve being the head of a department of having a named chair. Generally, promotion to Professor requires demonstrating considerable research, numerous refereed publications, good teaching, long service, and overall distinguished performance. Professors almost always have tenure.

By the way, you mentioned in your OP that Professors in the UK are rarely younger than their early 40s. Well, as far as full professors go, that’s also pretty much the case in the United States, at least in the humanities fields i’m most familiar with. Only a few very talented, fast-track type people are full Professors before they turn 40, especially at the top-tier schools.

The rung below is Associate Professor, requiring fewer publication and shorter service. This may be a tenured position at some institutions, and a non-tenured position at others. My university, for example, never used to offer tenure at Associate Professor level; you had to wait until you were a full Professor. They changed the policy recently, and now tenure is available at Associate Professor level.

Assistant Professor is a non-tenured position generally applied to academics in their first job/s after leaving grad school. If you get a tenure-track Assistant Professorship, you will probably have between about 4 and 7 years (depending on the institution) to demonstrate your worthiness for Associate Professor status. This is pretty much equivalent to a basic Lecturer position in Australia or the UK.

Exactly when you make the leap from one level to the next depends on the institution. Top-100 research institutions generally have much more strict requirements (especially regarding publication) for promotion and tenure than do middle-tier or lower-tier universities and colleges. Some institutions tenure at Associate Professor level; some only at Professor level.

The other thing about the term “professor” in America is that it is used as a general honorific, a term of address for all academic faculty. So, whether you’re an Assistant Professor or an Associate Professor or a full Professor or a Professor with a named chair, undergrads will probably call you Professor. While students in Australia and, i believe, the UK often call academics by their first name, this is much more unusual in the United States.

The Wikipedia article on “professor” has further discussion of the national differences in terminology and requirements.

In addition to what mhendo says, there do exist teaching positions below the assistant professor rank.

There is a position that can be called lecturer (also instructor or adjunct), who generally has no research responsibilities and only involves teaching. This can be done full-time or part-time by a person in industry as a 2nd job. Further, this rank does not always require a Ph.D. and can be taught by someone with a Masters degree.

The flaw in this position is that the adjunct is paid less than a professor, that there is zero chance for tenure in the position, and that an adjunct would only teach undergraduate (often, introductory-level) courses.

Oddly, this just came up yesterday in a discussion with the department head. Here, to become an Associate Professor and gain tenure, you have to be adequate in both the areas of teaching and research or scholarship, and you have to show promise of future excellence in one of those two categories of your choice. To be awarded full professorship, you have to have achieved excellence in that category. In practice, it’s much easier to do both in research: “Achieving excellence” in research means having a solid record of many well-received publications. It’s much harder to demonstrate the sort of international impact and esteem among one’s peers required for “excellence” in teaching: In the history of the physics department here, only one individual has achieved full professorship for excellence in teaching. Strictly speaking, “service” is also a criterion for tenure, but it’s ill-defined what constitutes “service”, and it’s usually a rubber stamp to consider it “adequate”.

I’ve had graduate-level courses taught by adjunct professors–so it’s not neccessarily that cut and dried. But they were experts in their field, and sometimes better (or at least more interesting) than some of the full-time faculty.

mhendo has it correct. From the student’s perspective, I would wager that most undergraduates don’t know or care about how the hierarchy works. Generally the person in front of the room leading the class is considered by students to be a professor, even if he or she is a graduate student, lecturer, or adjunct/visiting assistant professor (teacher who is not on the tenure track). With the internet nowadays students can probably find out a college teacher’s rank, but even in grad school I regularly run into folks who don’t know who on our faculty is full, associate, assistant, or lecturer.

Young prodigy full profs are rare, and I would suspect they mostly reside in the sciences, a field where one is likely to have gone to undergrad and grad school straight through. In my field, education, like much of the applied social sciences, there is a premium based on “real world experience” so most of us have spent some time working in nonprofits, in schools, and so on. I have a friend who worked in policy after undergrad, so she’s in her early 30s with a doctorate… pretty young in my field.

As mhendo said, the probationary period is usually 4-7 years, so in my field, it would be rare to see a full prof much earlier than age 40, and I don’t think I’ve seen one at research-intensive university. (Might be possible at a small liberal arts college, I’m not sure.)

So the rankings at US universities go as follows:

Adjunct: usually someone in the field in practice, might teach a intro class or a specific skill that the teacher is familiar with.

Lecturer/Visiting Assistant Professor: essentially, someone who takes on the same responsibilities as a tenure-track professor, but without the research and publication responsibilities. However, these folks might aspire to tenure-track positions, so don’t assume that this group is composed of “accidental” academics.

Assistant Professor: usually a recent graduate holding a doctorate. Most APs are tenure track and have the 4-7 probationary period in which to earn promotion and/or tenure. I would say most schools offer tenure once you make it to Associate. My institution on tenures full professors, which is kind of unusual.

Associate Professor: has met the requirements for promotion and most likely has tenure.

Professor (or full professor): This person is acknowledged to be a high-flyer in the field. Research, service, and teaching is usually at a very high level. They’ve been at it for some time. It sounds analogous to the UK version, from your description. These folks will be deans and department heads.

Professor Emeritus: a prof who has retired, but still has a lifetime appointment at the institution. He or she may or may not teach, research, or publish. Sometimes they just have an office and can rail about the evils of the world using university letterhead. Some are incredibly productive, like my mentor, who is publishing 2-3 books a year in his early 80s.

Again, especially at big state schools like I attended for undergrad, I’d think most students simply refer to the teacher generically as “professor” regardless of rank (though I have noticed that if the person is not a 30ish White male, it’s often assumed that the teacher is a lecturer or graduate student). A teacher will usually start the course by introducing him or herself, and then you know if it you can call your prof “Bruce” or “Dr. Sloppypants.”

I am a professor by title, and I am adjunct as well. I have the master’s degree, the years of experience, the qualifications–but I do not teach a full load.
This position is sometimes called “lecturer.”

 Adjuncts outnumber FTs at the community college level; I am not sure about university level.

For all the lip-service that academia pays to the issue of teaching, the fact is that it’s research that counts, especially at the top-tier universities. You could be the best teacher ever to stand in front of a class, but if you don’t have those refereed articles and one or two well-reviewed books, you’re not going anywhere. And if you have the publications, you’ll probably get tenure even if you’re the dullest pedagogue ever to give a lecture.

Admittedly, there are schools where teaching is important. In my experience, and from talking to people who’ve attended them at taught at them, smaller liberal arts colleges are much more concerned with the quality of your teaching than large universities, at least at is pertains to issues of job security. The liberal arts colleges tend to place great importance on the relationship between students and faculty, and on the ability of teachers to actually teach.

What is, perhaps, even worse, is that when universities do focus on your teaching, they often do so in stupid ways, For example, at some schools, student evaluations are given considerable weight in evaluating teacher performance. I’m sorry, but i reject the notion that a bunch of 18 year olds straight out of high school are qualified to properly evaluate the teaching ability of their professors. Sure, they can give you a sense of whether the professor explains difficult concepts well, or is organized, but they also have a tendency to reward high grades and punish low ones, to reward easy-going teachers and punish teachers who expect hard work.

A friend of mine teaches at a well-known private university in the South. When she is evaluated for promotion and tenure, they will look at her student evaluations. The students are asked to grade the teacher’s performance, on a scale from 1 (bad) to 5 (excellent), in a bunch of different areas. If the teacher doesn’t average 4 or higher, he or she is in trouble. Of course, the best way to get around this is to dumb down your classes, take a relaxed stance on late work, and hand out high grades—things which compromise rather than improve your teaching.

Most students in a class probably wouldn’t know or care if the professor was an associate, assistant, or full professor, unless he or she got promoted during the course of the class and talked about it in class.

Actually, most students I’ve met don’t consider grad students to be professors.

They’re vanishingly rare in the sciences, too, even though science people do tend to go to undergrad and grad school straight through.

The default form of address at the University of Maryland, where I went for undergrad, was “Doctor” for all professors. I never heard anyone address any faculty member as “Professor”, though we did call them professors.

Unless said grad student announces that he or she is a grad student, I don’t think most students know the difference. I took many classes in the classics department, and in my second year Latin course the teacher announced that he was a grad student. I said, “Wow, you’re doing pretty well. I think you’re the only grad student teacher I’ve had in the department.” He then informed me that only the upper-level major only courses were taught by faculty!

At my current institution, we have a grad school campus so it’s known that we’re doctoral candidates. But at a big statie, unless you announce it to the class, we probably wouldn’t know… again, I think the internet makes it easier to find out. But as undergrad we were concerned with important issues, such as: Which class doesn’t meet on Fridays? Does it have a lab requirement?

It makes sense as well to not announce to students that you are a grad student, just like it makes sense to not to tell your high school students that you are a first year teacher. Some people will assume you’re less competent and potentially attempt to undermine you if they’re not happy with a grade, etc.

At the University of Texas, we usually referred to profs initially as “Professor so-and-so.” I think we knew that not all profs had doctorates. Again, they usually told us in the first class what to call them. If they had TAs we usually followed their lead.

Then again, I’ve been at an Ivy Leagues school for the past several years, so maybe I’m getting my stories confused. Here the undergrads definitely refer to the teachers as Professor so-and-so.

oh, and just wanted to add, I agree with everything in mhendo’s post.

In the United States, “professor” and “doctor” are titles in two separate tracks. “Professor” is a job title and “doctor” is a title related to earned qualifications. The university you attend as a student has the authority to grant you the title “doctor” and the university you work for as a member of faculty has the authority to grant you the title “professor.”

There is at least one more rank track in a university department and that is related to your organizational rank, such as “departmental chairman” or “dean” or “president.”

As referenced above, in the United States, “professor” is a job, a teacher at the post-secondary level.

As referenced above, American universities do have some non-professor teaching ranks, most commonly “instructor” (and, more rarely, “lecturer”). Instructors are not considered full members of faculty.

Adjunct professors also are not considered full members of faculty – they’re part-timers, but qualify through dint of their occupational expertise.

The most direct analogue is the rank of “(full) professor,” or perhaps the even more exclusive set of professors holding named or endowed chairs, as in “Please meet Doctor John Smith; he’s the John Paul Jones Professor of Naval History.”

This varies from one institution to another, but the most common form of direct address for a member of faculty is “doctor” but “professor” in the third person.

If either title does not correctly apply to the specific instructor in question, there might be some ad hoc accommodation made, but most students usually don’t bother to learn whether a particular instructor actually has the right to the title “doctor” or “professor.”

An associate professor with only a master’s degree will commonly be addressed as “doctor” by default until there is an explicit correction. And since correction is rare in the absence of the subject under discussion, “professor” usually prevails even when it is mistaken.

Lawyers, and by extension all holders of juris doctor degrees, generally refrain from using the title “doctor,” so most law school professors are addressed directly as “professor.”

While this is generally true, i think it can sometimes depend on the students. I’ve had some undergrads tell me that they prefer classes taught by grad students, as they sometimes feel that the grad students are more interested and motivated as teachers than a professor who’s been teaching for thirty years. Of course the professor is going to know more, but there might be times when you get just as much, if not more, out of a class taught by a grad student.

Agree. I remember hearing students whinge about being taught by TAs in intro classes, then hearing them whinge about how bad Professor Snootypants was as a lecturer. I was like, “Hey, he didn’t get there because of his lecturing skills - he can pull down half million dollar grants in his sleep.”

It’s the kind of thing that people like to broad-brush and claim is indicative of the declining quality of undergraduate education, but is actually fairly impossible to assess outside of each individual case. I would say generally we grad students are so worried about being exposed that we do deliver a high quality level of teaching. Tenured profs, unless they love teaching, have absolutely no incentive to update their syllabi or teaching style…

Both my kids were very aware of the professor / grad student distinction in college, as was I ages ago. One is at Maryland, I’ll ask her about the professor/doctor distinction. I did go to one school where it was quite marked, since a significant number of professors did not have PhDs (not in my department) and thus doctor was a term of greater distinction. The other places I went to, where all professors (almost) had PhDs didn’t use this.

I was a lecturer for a term, when the department chair reneged on the agreement that I didn’t have to teach. I taught three classes, got a slightly less laughable salary, and got a faculty office. I already had an M.S., and there was obviously no tenure expectation.

This whining has been going on nearly 40 years, at least. Not all professors love teaching - I’ve been at dinner with friends who are both profs in a large state system, who compared notes about policies that let them cut down on their teaching load if they pulled in enough money.

On the other hand, the real memorable classes I took were taught by professors with research interests, who brought the latest stuff into class. So, on the whole, I preferred professors. This is said despite the fact I was a damn fine TA - teaching style a mix of Chuck Barris and Lenny Bruce.

mhendo writes:

> Only a few very talented, fast-track type people are full Professors before they
> turn 40, especially at the top-tier schools.

People do occasionally make full professor younger than that. Consider Noam Elkies, who made full professor at Harvard at 26:

The article also mentions a couple more people who made full professor at 28.

I once sat next to Elkies at a conference. He’s really geeky-looking. I mentioned this to a co-worker. He said that another co-worker once played a pick-up game of basketball with Elkies and he said that Elkies has a “mean jumpshot.”

Yep. I’m taking a T-T position next fall, and I’m kind of put out that my teaching - which I love - is distinctly secondary to research and publishing. Heads up, former teachers who go into academia because you like to teach!

I also think that my school has professors who are excellent researchers and teachers, as you reference, who are bringing in work from the field and not the same ol’ rehashed stuff. Mostly.