Associate Professor vs Professor: What’s the Difference?

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A professor in front of a blackboard leads a class in a lecture hall.In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit higher education, it made tenure even more important for college and university faculty. A survey by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) found that only 5% of institutions cut tenured positions, while 20% cut nontenured faculty.

This is an example of the job security that tenured faculty enjoy. Tenured professors have lifelong appointments, and can only be fired for cause or under extraordinary circumstances, such as a financial emergency or discontinuing an academic program. For students who aspire to teach in higher education, it’s helpful to understand the tenure track, which follows the same stages at most institutions. One common confusion is the difference between the final two stages: associate professor vs. professor.

Knowing more about the two roles, their positions on the tenure track, and their duties and responsibilities can help a student better prepare for a career in higher education.

What Are the First Steps on a Tenure Track?

According to AAUP figures, only 23% of college instructors are in tenured positions: associate professors and professors. To understand both roles and their differences, it’s useful to explore the two steps that precede them on the tenure track.

1. Doctorate Degree

Colleges and universities generally require tenure-track faculty to hold a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or another doctoral degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Two-year and community colleges do hire some instructors with master’s degrees, the BLS notes, but still tend to favor those with doctorates.

2. Assistant Professor

Tenure-track instructors generally start in the untenured position of assistant professor, though not all assistant professors are on the track to tenure. Some are hired for limited duties, such as teaching particular courses, and may teach part time.

Those hired on tenure tracks generally teach full time and have duties in three key areas:

  • Teaching courses
  • Conducting research
  • Providing services to their department, their institution, and senior faculty

Assistant professors are most often hired on six- or seven-year contracts. In the final year, an assistant professor can apply for tenure and promotion to associate professor.

What Is an Associate Professor?

An associate professor is a mid-level professor who has been granted tenure. To earn that promotion, an assistant professor must go through a rigorous process:

  • Submission of a tenure dossier, including materials such as a CV, publication bibliography, and teaching record, along with a list of awards and grants, as well as service elements, such as student counseling and membership on committees
  • Review by a committee of tenured faculty, which evaluates both the dossier and letters about the candidate from prominent scholars
  • Tenure recommendation from the committee
  • Approval by senior administration such as the dean of faculty and provost

Once promoted, an associate professor continues to work in teaching, research, and service, but at higher levels. The instructor may teach more advanced classes and devote more time to research.

The biggest shift for an associate professor is often an expansion of service activities. The instructor must find time for administrative duties, such as serving on committees.

What Is a Professor?

After five to seven years, an associate professor can apply for promotion to full professor, or simply, professor. The review process is similar to tenure review, but the reviewers are other full professors.

Reviewers look not only at the candidate’s achievements in teaching, research, and service, but also their impact and reputation in the overall field beyond their own institution.

Professor is the highest rank on a tenure track. Professors often chair departments. They’re also more likely to teach graduate classes, supervise graduate students, and make presentations at national and international conferences.

Some professors gain additional prestige — and higher salaries — through specialized appointments. They may be named a distinguished professor or appointed to an endowed chair named after a prominent donor or scholar.

Associate Professor vs. Professor: Salary and Hiring Prospects

For both associate professors and professors, hiring prospects are strong. Because of the growing demand for postsecondary education, the BLS projects that jobs will grow 12% between 2021 and 2031, adding nearly 160,000 new jobs over that period. By comparison, the labor market as a whole is expected to grow only 5%.

With regard to salary, a 2021 survey by the AAUP showed sharp differentials between associate professors and professors.

  • Professors with doctoral degrees earned an average of $159,919 a year. At private universities, they averaged even more: $202,199.
  • Associate professors with doctorates averaged $104,482 overall and $122,556 at private schools.

Associate Professor vs. Professor: Responsibilities

The salary gap between associate professor and professor reflects their different skill sets and levels of responsibility. Although their duties sometimes overlap, there are several key differences.


Associate professors have less flexibility in setting their schedules, such as when to teach classes, and less choice in selecting research topics.

Professors have more control over their schedules, what courses to teach, and what research to conduct. A professor also has greater job security and freedom to work and speak on controversial subjects.


Associate professors create lesson plans and syllabi for existing classes. They teach advanced as well as introductory classes, with classes comprised of undergraduates and/or graduate students.

Professors can suggest new classes and changes in curricula. They teach mostly graduate classes, and they supervise graduate students working on theses or dissertations.


Associate professors help raise funding for research that they conduct in collaboration with full professors.

Professors publish research and are listed as lead authors. They’re likely to publish books and articles, and present research at national and international meetings.


Associate professors develop administrative skills by serving as committee members and advising students. They may help review tenure applications from assistant professors.

Professors often chair both committees and departments at a university, and they may also chair committees for professional associations. They’re involved in personnel decisions, such as hiring new faculty, granting tenure, and promoting associate professors to professors.

How Can a Professor Benefit from Earning a Doctor of Education Degree?

Universities expect professors to be more than just experts in their fields. A professor may be expected to chair departments or committees, participate in or lead meetings with members of other departments, and contribute to hiring decisions.

For such responsibilities, a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) degree can be a helpful building block, offering benefits for every stage of an academic career.

Relevant Coursework

Courses in an Ed.D. degree program provide practical, real-world information about present-day issues in higher education, such as:

  • Improving campus culture
  • Encouraging student engagement and retention
  • Changing regulations
  • Technology in the classroom
  • Promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion goals

Competitive Advantage

In the competitive world of higher education, an Ed.D. can provide a significant advantage in getting hired. It demonstrates that a candidate has not only subject matter expertise, but also knowledge of and experience with practices in contemporary education.

Tenure Track Advancement

Once hired, an Ed.D. can aid an instructor in moving up the tenure track. Knowledge and experience from an Ed.D. program can promote success in administrative service, a central element in advancement to associate professor and professor.

Professors of Education

An Ed.D. can be especially helpful for professors of education, who prepare the next generation of educators. It can equip them with best practices and innovative techniques for instruction, assessment, curriculum development, leadership, and instructional technologies.

How Does an Online Doctorate in Education Program Work?

Online Ed.D. programs, such as the online Doctor of Education from Bradley University, offer remote courses to fit students’ schedules. The program is designed to be taken alongside full-time work in the educational field. Students take classes, interact with peers and professors, and conduct doctoral research online from wherever they choose. These programs can offer numerous benefits:

  • Flexible times to better fit students’ schedules
  • Faculty who are deeply engaged with the higher education field and can teach based on personal experience
  • Guidance on current practices in administration, instruction, and advocacy
  • Experience with the latest technologies for e-learning and distance learning
  • Teaching the methodology of action research — applying research to solve concrete problems

Advance Your Career with an Ed.D.

While postsecondary educators are in high demand, competition is intense for tenured positions such as associate professor and professor. A degree program such as Bradley University’s online Doctor of Education can provide students with crucial skills to qualify for such positions.

The Ed.D. program combines coursework with research and practical applications, helping students apply principles directly to real-world scenarios while completing a dissertation. Explore how such a program can prepare you for a career as a tenured instructor in higher education.

Recommended Readings

5 Elements to Succeed in Education Leadership

Ph.D. vs Ed.D.: Key Differences

What Can You Do with an Education Degree?


Academic Positions, “What Is the Tenure Track?

American Association of University Professors, Tenure

American Association of University Professors, “The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2020-21”

Houston Chronicle, “The Minimum Qualifications to Become a Professor”

Indeed, “Associate Professor vs. Professor: How the Roles Differ”

Indeed, “What Does an Assistant Professor Do?”

Inside Higher Ed, “From Associate to Full Professor”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Postsecondary Teachers