What’s The Difference Between an Associate Professor vs. Professor?

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A professor takes questions from a class


The process of becoming an established member of the faculty at a community college or four-year college or university is one of the most uniform sets of standards in any field. This is the so-called tenure track, the path instructors take starting as an assistant professor to working as an associate and ultimately as a full professor.

The act of achieving tenure, a widely held goal that caps years’ worth of effort by postsecondary teachers, gives these professors greater autonomy to determine their own areas of focus and research subject matter, while protecting them from firing without cause.

Educators at the beginning of their careers should study the requirements, duties, activities and prospects for professors with differing levels of authority and seniority. When professionals understand what to expect at each level to achieve tenure, they can prepare to thrive within the system. Furthermore, it pays to know about non-tenure-track positions and the changing norms in the educational field regarding opportunities for instructors.

How Does Hiring and Promotion Work for Professors?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics pointed out that in many cases, beginning work as a postsecondary educator requires candidates to have an advanced degree — ideally at the doctoral level. Community colleges, career schools and technical schools may take on entry-level instructors with master’s degrees, but, as the BLS added, these institutions might receive applications from people with higher-level credentials and choose those applicants over the master’s degree holders.

Once professors join the faculty at a college or university, they are ready to get started on the path of increasing responsibility, pay and academic autonomy. Assistant professor is generally the starting rank on the tenure track. Education job board Academic Positions noted the first tenure review for these professionals typically occurs six years after their hiring. Inside Higher Education noted faculty members of all ranks tend to support assistant professors requesting promotion to associate level, seeking to recoup the investment in hiring those educators.

A promotion from associate to full professor may involve a far more complex and lengthy process than experience when moving up from assistant to associate. Inside Higher Education noted a committee of full professors typically makes decisions about which colleagues should be promoted. From there, full professors will have to prove the strength of their teaching and research records to make them worthy of the elevated status. Academic Positions stated this next step in the journey can take five to seven years.

How do Assistant Professors Get Started on The Tenure Track?

A professor shows information to a student

When universities hire assistant professors, they seek educators who can take on a variety of roles and duties, moving into associate professor roles after proving themselves adept at these multiple competencies for several years. The difference between searching for full-time professors who may one day receive tenure and hiring adjuncts lies largely in the range of tasks these professionals will be expected to accomplish, according to education field publication University Business.

When a college or university hires a faculty member who is not considered to be on the tenure track, the person in question may be brought on to accomplish a single goal. That one thing could be performing research, teaching courses or providing other services to a department. An assistant professor, on the other hand, will likely take on all three of those duties as they move through the ranks and apply for promotion to an associate role.

Institutions have begun to value their non-tenure-track professors more in recent years, offering them potential advancement opportunities to reflect their dependence on these educators more than in the past. This growing category of faculty member, University Business noted, falls between the two traditional poles of professor work — tenure track candidates and part-time employees.

What is an Associate Professor?

Associate professors, situated between the decision-making power of full professors and the rapid learning curve of assistant professors, are in the middle of the tenure track journey. As Inside Higher Education stated, becoming an associate professor is often easier than receiving a subsequent promotion to full professor status.

The change in duties between assistant and associate professor can be significant, according to the publication. The move to the role of an associate professor often comes with an uptick in service to their respective departments and institutions, e.g., serving on committees or being given administrative responsibilities alongside their research and teaching work. Time for research, in particular, may be harder for associate professors to find, Inside Higher Education reported. This represents a challenge professionals will have to overcome as they make their case for promotion to full professor status.

The BLS explained that while professor duties will change with tenure and experience, there are also distinctions that come from working at different kinds and sizes of community colleges and four-year colleges and universities. For example, when an institution is smaller in terms of staffing and enrollment, there may be a greater focus on teaching and advising students with a decreased amount of time for research. This also applies to community colleges when compared with four-year institutions.

How Do Instructors Rise to The Rank of Full Professor? What are The Differences in Responsibilities?

The intensive review process by which an associate professor attains full professor status can be challenging to complete, but the end result — greater influence over decision-making, freedom in topics of research and the highest level of job security available in the academic space — can prove worth it.

One of the most important ways in which full professors can influence their institutions is by serving on the tenure boards that review the applications of associate professors hoping to join them at full professor status. Inside Higher Education explained that in ideal circumstances, full professors won’t just judge their colleagues but will actively provide support and advice, creating a culture of guidance that helps educators achieve their potential.

What Are The Salary and Hiring Prospects for Professors and Associate Professors?

Since the differences between various levels of professor status along the tenure track largely come down to service time and experience, it’s unsurprising that there are major potential salary increases that come with the resulting promotions. The American Association of University Professors’ Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession breaks down earnings by tier, and the organization’s latest data from the 2017-18 edition shows the potential salary boosts available to educators who earn promotion.

The average salary for assistant professors is $70,791, according to the AAUP’s data. An associate professor promotion comes with an approximate $10,000 raise, as those professionals earn an average of $81,274. According to the survey, the jump between associate and full professor roles is even larger, potentially reflecting the difficulty of meeting requirements and the elevated influence these educators wield. The AAUP reported that full professors can earn an average of $104,820.

In all three cases, there is monetary value in having a tenure-track position. The AAUP report stated lecturers earn an average of $56,712, while the figure is $59,400 for instructors. Across the whole higher education field, full-time salary rose 3% during the most recent academic year for which the researchers have data.

The AAUP highlighted an issue with compensation that occurs at some institutions: salary compression. At these schools, the pay for beginning educators, especially assistant professors, increases while the numbers don’t change as much for people at other levels of the tenure track. Due to the fact significant raises are one of the major motivators of educators seeking promotion within a college or university, the AAUP warned that salary compression is a negative morale issue.

When assistant and associate professor salaries are closer together than the average, that is a likely sign that an institution is suffering from salary compression. Such a school may be a lucrative place to find an entry-level tenure track position, but could disappoint professors later on as they rise through the ranks.

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

Prospective educators seeking tenure track positions may find their own postgraduate educational background has a major influence on the community college, four-year college and university faculty reviewing their credentials. Administrators responsible for making hiring decisions want to see candidates who have a comprehensive knowledge of, and deep engagement with, both the subjects they specialize in and the best practices of contemporary education.

In cases where applicants seek roles as professors of education, a Doctor of Education degree program can provide multiple kinds of helpful insights and experience at once. The courses that make up these programs are designed to give practical, real-world information about the way higher education is practiced today, from the ever-changing regulations governing schools and faculty to the day-to-day usage of cutting-edge technology as a classroom tool.

Since working as a professor of education means imparting knowledge about best academic practices to students, every piece of the Ed.D. curriculum is potentially relevant. People taking classes taught by professors of education are likely hoping to move into instruction or administration in their own careers. They will be able to carry forward lessons about vital topics such as improving campus culture and reaching today’s undergraduates in ways that will encourage retention and engagement.

Even when academic professionals are interested in teaching subjects other than education, an Ed.D. may be a helpful building block in their development. This is especially true for people who have their sights set on administrative work alongside their teaching and research.

An Ed.D. program will contain numerous insights that are useful for higher education administrators in all departments. When a professor on the tenure track is assigned office tasks, familiarity with the work and knowledge of the latest related practices may help that educator thrive. A first promotion from assistant to associate professor may be less of a culture shock for a faculty member who is ready to shoulder a greater amount of administrative work capably and confidently.

An aspiring professor determined to add knowledge and experience in the best practices of higher education today can gain such a background in Ed.D. courses. Competition for high-upside roles on the tenure track are limited in number and candidates commonly bring impressive resumes to the table. A doctorate in education can prove an applicant’s continuing dedication to the field and profession of teaching.

How Does an Online Doctorate in Education Program Work?

Online Ed.D. programs such as the online Doctor of Education from Bradley University consist only of remote courses available to fit in students’ schedules. It is designed to be taken alongside full-time work in the educational field. Participants learn from faculty members who are deeply engaged with the higher education field and can teach based on personal experience. They’ll receive guidance on the most important practices of administration, instruction and advocacy as they exist today.

To graduate with an Ed.D., students complete a doctoral research requirement. Over the course of this in-depth project, participants employ action research methodology to self-selected topics regarding contemporary higher education. They will pick up valuable information about the subject they are studying and the adaptable methods behind action research. Throughout the program, experienced and knowledgeable instructors are available to provide guidance and support, despite the physical distance inherent to studying online.

For many, earning an Ed.D. may be a stepping stone along a professor career path. The Ed.D. is a terminal degree in the field of education, which can help graduates to maintain their status in a field of fellow well-educated and ambitious academics. At many institutions, even community colleges that may have hired master’s degree holders as professors in the past, a doctorate degree may now be the standard to begin on an educational career path.

Find out whether the online Ed.D. program is the right next step for you by visiting the program page.


Recommended Readings

How to Become a Professor of Education

What is The Average College Professor Salary?

Bradley University Doctor of Education Program



American Association of University Professors – The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2017-18

Academe Magazine – Equal Pay Day Edition: Gender Disparities at Public Doctoral Universities

Inside Higher Education – Faculty Salaries Up 3%

Inside Higher Education – Politics, Policies and Practices for Associate Professor Advancement

Bureau of Labor Statistics – Postsecondary Teachers

University Business – Faculty hiring: 4 trends to follow

Academic Positions – What is the Tenure Track?