A Simple Guide to Professor Job Titles in the United States
September 2014 (perspective of an assistant professor)
Professors in the United States often have job titles such as Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Professor, or Professor Emeritus. Here is a simple explanation of what these job titles mean. I'm purposely oversimplifying a ton for the sake of brevity.
My explanations are most relevant for Ph.D.-granting universities in the United States, which comprise roughly the top 200 institutions in the US News National University Rankings.
Assistant Professor – An assistant professor teaches courses, performs research that leads to academic publications, and volunteers to serve their research community by reviewing papers and organizing professional meetings. After six years, they are either promoted to the title of Associate Professor, or they are fired. Promotion is largely based on the quality of one's publications, as evaluated by senior colleagues in the relevant research community, but other factors such as teaching and service quality also count.
Associate Professor – An associate professor usually has tenure, which is a lifetime employment guarantee at one's university. (A few universities promote to associate without tenure first, then do tenure review later.) An associate professor does the same job as an assistant professor, but they must also volunteer to serve their university more frequently, since they now have tenure. Some associate professors opt to remain at this level for the rest of their career, while others aim for another major level of promotion. After anywhere from four to ten years, they can be promoted to the title of Professor, again based on the quality of their research publications and other scholarly contributions.
Professor – This job title is confusing since everyone who teaches at the college level is colloquially called a “professor,” but Professor with a capital P is an official job title. To avoid confusion, some refer to this title as full professor. A full professor does the same job as an associate professor, except they usually spend more time volunteering to serve both their own university and their research community, often in leadership roles. A full professor can remain in this position until retirement or pursue a more official leadership role within the university administration (e.g., Dean, Provost, or Chancellor).
Professor Emeritus – This term refers to a retired professor who might still teach, perform research, or volunteer to serve their university or research community on a part-time basis.