On Campus

Assistant? Associate? What the words before “professor” mean

Titles may not mean what you think they do

In a year or two, I will be applying for Full Professor. To those outside academia or, indeed, to most students, the various ranks that professors hold may seem mysterious if not outright confounding. For those of us in the game, the promotion to “Full” is a daunting, yet tantalizing prospect.

Like most in the university world, I began my teaching career as a Teaching Assistant and then advanced to an occasional term or two as a lecturer while I worked on my PhD. These are the least prestigious titles (and jobs) for academic instructors. TAs and lecturers are the underclass of scholarly teaching: overwhelmed and underpaid, overworked and under-appreciated.

What every young academic really wants is a tenure-track position, a position that is more or less permanent and carries the hope of future promotions — and I was no different. In fact, I almost gave up on university work altogether when a tenure-track job seemed out of reach. When the tenure-track position did come along,  I, like most young scholars, began at the rank of Assistant. This rank’s name is misleading, because “Assistant Professor” sounds like an assistant to a real professor, which, of course, it isn’t. In fact, in terms of the actual work professors do, the exact rank means little.

But it matters to us because those at higher ranks have more prestige and earn more money. Thus, it was my mission in the early years of my career to get promoted to the next rank: Associate. At some universities, the promotion to Associate goes hand in hand with tenure, so that everyone who is granted tenure is automatically promoted to Associate and everyone at the rank of Associate necessarily has tenure. At my august institution that is not the case. Indeed, being denied tenure is extremely rare in Canadian universities so the real prize is the promotion. There are few positions more secure than the Canadian tenured Associate Professor.

The final step at most universities is Full Professor or, simply, Professor. And while, again, it may sound like this is the rank most long-time profs would hold, it’s not. In fact, most professors never make it past Associate. As of September, for example, my department will not have a single Full Professor among its members. It’s something of a honour, and it’s an honour I covet.

And it’s not just the money. For one thing, Full Professor opens the way to some other perks like the possibility of receiving the honorific title “Professor Emeritus” upon retirement. But mostly there’s something deeply reassuring about not having to put any qualifier before Professor. I will have truly arrived, and it’s going to be sweet.

Now, where did I put that application package?

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