What's the difference between an assistant professor and an associate professor? What about an adjunct professor and a visiting assistant professor? Here's a breakdown of the most common academic job titles used in the USA and Canada.
A PhD is required to work as a professor or researcher in many fields in the US and Canada. Broady speaking, the path to a PhD consists of two to three years of coursework followed by qualification exams and then the writing and defending of a dissertation. Many North American PhD programs require that students to gain teaching experience as well, often as teaching assistants. PhD students do have to pay tuition at American and Canadian universities although many top programs include tuition waiver in their funding packages. PhDs can be funded by the university, external fellowships, personal loans, or a combination of the three. The amount of time it takes to earn a PhD depends on the field, but the average is six years. A Master’s degree is not always a necessary prerequisite for a PhD in North America. Many universities offer direct entry PhD programs which means that students are also awarded a Master’s degree after they have completed certain courses or exams.
After earning a PhD, the next step in the academic career path is often a postdoc. Postdocs used to just be part of the STEM career path, but these types of positions have started to become more common in the humanities as well. A postdoc is a continuation of a researcher’s training that allows them to further their professional development and start to transition from student to independent researcher. Postdocs also often take additional leadership or teaching responsibilities in their lab or department. These positions are usually two to three years and it is not unusual for a researcher to do more than one postdoc. In Canada postdocs must be within five years of earning their PhD, while there is no limit on how long you can be a postdoc in the United States.
An academic on the “tenure track” is on the path to a permanent professor position at their university. They will be expected to go up for "review" five to seven years after they start their position at the university. The tenure committee will evaluates the quality of the candidate’s teaching, research, publication record, and service to the university. If the candidate is successful, they are awarded tenure which provides them lifetime employment at their university.
This is the entry-level tenure track position. The position comprises of teaching, research and service to the institution (such as being a member of various university committees) and different universities will emphasize different components more. Assistant professors typically teach anywhere from two to four courses per semester in addition to supervising graduate students. They are also expected to be active researchers and publish books, monographs, papers, and journal articles to meet their tenure requirements.
An assistant professor who has been granted tenure is usually promoted to an associate professor, however, the rank doesn’t always mean the professor is tenured. An associate professor often has a national reputation as a scholar and is involved in service activities beyond their university.
This is the final destination of the tenure track. Five to seven years after receiving tenure, associate professors go through another review. If they are successful, they are promoted to full professor. Professors usually have a record of accomplishment that has established them as an international or national leader in their field.
The number of adjunct professors has grown dramatically in the last 40 years. An adjunct professor is a part-time or non-permanent faculty member who is hired on a semester to semester basis to teach a particular course/courses. Adjuncts are often paid per course and as a result many adjuncts teach at multiple universities each semester.
An adjunct professor can also be someone whose primary appointment is in another department or at another university.
Visiting Assistant Professor (VAP)
This is a temporary appointment that can range from one semester to up to three years. These appointments are usually made to replace faculty on leave or to bring in someone who specializes in an area that the department currently lacks. VAPs often have a higher teaching load than tenured professors which can leave them with little time for their own research. These positions help entry-level academics gain more teaching experience and demonstrate their potential, but they are unlikely to turn into tenure track positions.
In Canada and the United States, a lecturer/instructor is a non-tenure-track teaching position. They often have a teach more courses than tenure-track faculty and have with no research obligations. Lecturer/Instructor positions are more common in the humanities and many teach foreign languages. While lecturers hold advanced degrees, they do not always have PhDs.
It is important to note that the title of lecturer means something very different in the UK. A UK lecturer is closer to a North American assistant professor in that the position has teaching, research and service requirements. You can read more about academic titles in the UK here.
This is a staff position rather than a faculty position. In contrast to a lecturer, a research assistant is primarily focused on research and has little to no teaching responsibilities. These positions are usually funded by grants or fellowships rather than by the university. While they may hold advanced degrees, research assistants are not required to have PhDs.
A research associate is distinguished by the fact that, unlike a research assistant, they have a PhD and have completed a postdoc. This is a more senior position in the lab with a more significant leadership and grant-writing role. A research associate is primarily a research position, though it may have some teaching responsibilities.