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Historically, only full professors could have a specific chair, and assistant and associate professors could only wonder under supervision of a chaired (full) professor.

Now, every assistant professor is an independent academic, only with a lower salary and possibilities. On the other hand, a chaired position gains secured research funding, but no other faculty member is under his supervision (yes or no, this is my question).

I think the classic chair system still exists in Japan (at least to some extent). Do universities in West Europe and North America still have such system to place junior faculty members (assistant/associate professors) under supervision of a senior (chaired professor) faculty member?

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I think the title of this question is misleading but am not sure how to fix this. Should this perhaps be something like: How common are faculty "chairs" and do they imply a supervisory relationship over junior faculty? –  Benjamin Mako Hill Apr 9 '14 at 16:57
@BenjaminMakoHill you're quite right that the title is not clear and I tried to modify it. The problem is that when referring to chair people think about common chaired positions rather than classical system. –  user13854 Apr 9 '14 at 17:02
In which country? I hear there's more than one of them and they aren't all the same. –  David Richerby Apr 9 '14 at 18:33

4 Answers 4

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I know of no American university in which any tenure track faculty member works under any other tenure track faculty member in any official capacity.

The main difference between assistant professors and full professors is that assistant professors do not have tenure. (Going far enough back in the history of my department, one sees "tenured assistant professors". I don't know what that's about. I am not willing to claim that nowadays no American university has tenured assistant professors, but I do not know of any.) "Associate professor" is ambiguous on this point: in most cases associate professors have tenure, but at my university the promotion and the tenure are distinct processes with slightly different rules, although they are similar enough and onerous enough that candidates get pressured -- perhaps a little unfairly, in my view -- to carry them out simultaneously. There are a few really good places where "associate professor" is a title awarded to young faculty for which their future tenure is by no means assured -- I'm thinking of you, MIT. But that's rare.

You write that an assistant professor is "with a lower salary and possibilities". I wanted to let you know that this really need not be the case. Academic salaries are most competitive now at the assistant professor level; since annual raises have been meager or nonexistent in many recent years, an associate or even full professor cannot be counted on to have a higher salary than a new-hire assistant professor. In fact the amount of our first offer to new-hire assistant professors in my department is very close to my current salary (I am an associate professor not so far away from promotion to full). This means that if the candidate negotiates at all, they will get offered a higher salary than mine. This has certainly happened. (All this is a matter of public record.) I think that there are no full professors in my department making less than new hire assistant professors, but there are some who are not making substantially more.

Also, in my department and at many others, assistant professors do not have fewer "possibilities": with the exception of certain voting rights in faculty meetings, they have identical privileges with all other faculty. They may begin with less "service responsibility" than older faculty; that is probably an advantage.

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The answer to your question is yes in my experience at major US research universities, assistant and associate professors will, in general, work independently from full professors or individuals with named chairs.

Despite the name, assistant professors are not usually assisting in the research of more senior faculty. There are exceptions including in very large multi-PI labs, in special non-tenured faculty research positions, and in other special circumstances. Of course, nothing keeps junior faculty from collaborating with senior faculty — and many do. If anything though, junior faculty are encouraged to do at work on their own or with their own students to demonstrate their individual intellectual abilities for the purposes of the tenure and promotion processes.

Named chairs usually refers to special permanent funded positions at a university. Usually, these chairs are in a particular area and have been funded to support a particular line of research. As you suggest, named chairs often come with special pots of research funding and are generally more prestigious. Some particularly old or famous named chairs are extremely prestigious.

That said, by no means do all full professors or senior faculties have named chairs. Additionally, it's increasingly common to see junior faculty with named chairs as well including in temporary "Career Development Chairs." Although named chairs are generally more prestigious than non-named positions, they do not usually signal a higher rank (i.e., assistant, associate, full) and they certainly do not suggest a supervisory relationship.

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In Germany this depends on the university, and possibly also on the subject. I know of university that still have a chair system officially.

I also know of a university in which the chair indeed is the superior of assistant and associate professors in the sense that they are in charge of the chairs budget. But I also know universities that do not have the chair system (both officially and practical). However, I can't tell which system is more frequent… I tend to think that chairs are more frequent in Bavaria but I may be wrong.

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The whole point of a tenure track position is to show that someone can independently work and lead a laboratory.

An academic career is extremely slow compared to most other careers, so i don't know why would automatically assume that people 10-15 years of research experience, typically in their 30s-early 40s cannot work independently or cannot supervise 5-10 other people. The old system you mention typically degrade most assistant and associate professors to a low level administrator / secretary position.

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