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What's the difference between an associate professor and an assistant professor?

What can one of them do that the other can't? and which is a higher level? can any of them supervise a PhD student?

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As you can see from the answers so far, this varies by country. It would help if you would say what country you are interested in. –  Nate Eldredge Jul 21 '12 at 3:56
D. Schrute: "assistant regional manager." M. Scott: "erm, assistant to the regional manager." –  DuckMaestro Jul 21 '12 at 8:27
@Armand I guess that Joel Reyes Noche is saying is that this specific question would have been very easy to answer via Google / Wikipedia (hence, no community was necessary for that). –  xLeitix Feb 11 '14 at 15:28
@Armand The answer to the question is very well summarized in the given link. I don't see that pointing to a reference that helpful, brief but rather detailed on the given problem would be intimidating. Also, along with xLeitix, some due diligence on the part of OP can be expected. Better defined, non trivial questions are better fr the community. –  Greg May 12 at 3:42

7 Answers 7

up vote 48 down vote accepted

In a typical university in the United States:

An assistant professor is an entry-level faculty member. They are generally on the tenure track (although the term "assistant professor" does not guarantee this) but do not have tenure yet. Typically, within about seven years an assistant professor will either be promoted to associate professor or will leave the university, although the timing can vary a little and it's theoretically possible to remain an assistant professor forever.

An associate professor is one step up from an assistant professor. This promotion is usually the same as getting tenure, but not always. (Some universities, like MIT, frequently have non-tenured associate professors.) The final step for most faculty is a full professorship.

As for what an associate professor can do that an assistant professor can't, that varies even more than the terminology. In many US universities, the only additional power an associate professor has is voting on who gets tenure, but I wouldn't claim this is universally true.

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To complicate matters further, it is possible to be an untenured associate professor (the title confers some seniority and a pay scale shift, as well as occasionally an accelerated tenure clock) –  Suresh Jul 21 '12 at 6:15
Usually a non-tenure-track assistant professor will have a title such as "research assistant professor" to make the distinction clear. –  aeismail Jul 21 '12 at 6:58
In some departments (like my own), only full professors can vote on tenure cases. –  JeffE Jul 21 '12 at 18:09
@Amatya That's not true everywhere. I was a dissertation chair as an assistant prof. –  JeffE May 12 at 2:32
Even further complicating matters, at some US universities tenured assistant professors are possible, though rare. –  Mark Meckes Jul 8 at 11:13

In the Netherlands both assistant and associate professors are frequently tenured (= have a permanent position). Associate professors are expected to develop their own research line, while assistant professors can work on the topics of their bosses (full professors). Neither assistant nor associate professors can formally supervise PhD students: they can only co-supervise. There are some more minor differences: e.g., associate professors can be members of the Ph.D. assessment committee, assistant - not, unless they are co-supervisors of the candidate.

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In Australia, the typical hierarchy is:

  1. Associate lecturer
  2. Lecturer
  3. Senior lecturer
  4. Associate professor
  5. Professor

There is no "assistant professor". In this academic ranking system associate professor is a high ranking. I think that both associate professor and professor in Australia would correspond roughly to professor in the United States.

Supervision of a PhD student depends on university regulations. At my university in Australia, there are several requirements in order to be a principal supervisor. In particular, (a) you need to have completed your own PhD or in rare cases be of equivalent standing, (b) have been an associate supervisor of PhD student to completion, or completed a set of training and experiential activities.

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My understanding is that being a "Professor" in Australia, the UK, or New Zealand is similar to having an endowed chair in the US. –  Mark Meckes Feb 11 '14 at 15:56
NOT true, there ARE assistant professors in Australia: here is an example of a research assistant professor. Their rank is in between senior lecturer and associate professor. –  Eksze Mar 24 '14 at 12:30
@Eksze Fair enough; that's a change from when I was a Level B Lecturer at UQ. However, you said Their rank is in between senior lecturer and associate professor. which you just contradicted --- which is all I was trying to point out. –  Peter K. May 26 '14 at 14:04

In France, the position Assistant Professor is a permanent position. As research activities are also done in labs in addition to the universities, the positions are:

  • assistant professor (maître de conférences) : permanent teaching position, but can not supervise PhD students alone.

    Is typically working towards a habilitation (HDR, habilitation à diriger des recherches), a longer-lasting standalone research project of about 5 years, during which the person co-supervised a few PhD students. After defending the project in front of the jury a person with an HDR can supervise PhD students alone.

  • professor (professeur des universités) : permanent teaching position, can supervise PhD students alone.

  • full researcher (chargé or directeur de recherche) : permanent research position without teaching, can supervise PhD students alone if holder of the HDR.

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"Assistant Professor" = "maître de conference"? I'm always confused about the French CR2, CR1, DR, Prof, MC, ... –  yo' Feb 11 '14 at 14:20
Um, actually, not completely sure :) I'm doing a PhD in France, and that's how they translate-explained to me, I'm not sure of the original name. But, no, I don't think that's the same thing. –  penelope Feb 11 '14 at 14:27
@tohecz, "assistant professor" is indeed how they usually translate "maître de conférence". A normal professoral career is MCF, then PR2, then PR1. CR and DR is "chargé" and "directeur de recherche", they're non-teaching position. The normal researcher career is CR2, CR1, DR2, then CR1. The HDR is required to get any PR or DR position. –  scozy May 19 '14 at 20:09
@scozy. Thank you for editing that in. It's great information, and I didn't really ever get around to learning the French titles. –  penelope May 20 '14 at 16:49
There are a few slight errors in this answer and in the comment thread. First, I would not say that "maître de conférence" is closer to assisant professor than to associate professor (as far as the unofficial status is concerned, it depends on the field). Next, in some fields (at least in math) there is no need to co-supervise PhD student when preparing a HDR. –  Benoît Kloeckner May 20 '14 at 20:38

In the Czech Republic, and I suppose that in some other "former Eastern block" countries it's similar, there are 3 types of university permanent positions:

  • asistent -- usually translated assistant professor

  • docent -- usually translated associated professor -- you become a docent when you do your habilitation

  • profesor -- usually translated full professor -- you become a profesor when the president of the Czech Republic promotes you.

There are no other distinguished levels at the universities. However, the Academy of Sciences is completely seperated, and it's different there. Nobody is, however, called a professor there.

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The system is very similar in Croatia: not sure that the president promotes you, or if it's somebody from the University's ranks, but once you are a Professor, you are one for life. Oh, and on the contrary, I called everybody higher-up than me "profesor" when I was doing my BSc and MSc, even the assistaints when I waas unsure what to call them –  penelope Feb 11 '14 at 14:29
@penelope People always used to call me "professor" even when I was only TA'ing. I think this is just students not having a lot of insight into how the academic ranks work (and, as this question shows, this is no big surprise as the system is kinda varied and unclear). –  xLeitix Feb 11 '14 at 15:30
@xLeitix They don't call me that way when I teach. But (1) I'm a PhD student without a position, and (2) we "tutoyons" and not "vouvoyons", because I prefer it that way, so they call me just "Tomáši" :) –  yo' Feb 11 '14 at 15:37
By the way, I hope you won't be too offended that I changed "Czechia" to "the Czech Republic." I personally root for English speakers to start using "Czechia" but it isn't widely recognized (as explained in this Wikipedia article: –  Ben Webster Mar 24 '14 at 22:14

In Uruguay, it is not really related to tenure:

  • Grado 1: ayudante de clase (only for basic subjects)
  • Grado 2: asistente de clase (like an assistant prof, for 4 yrs, they can renew the position once)
  • Grado 3: profesor adjunto
  • Grado 4: profesor agregado
  • Grado 5: profesor (aka: catedratico or chairman/head of the department)

The last 2 are more administrative/in charge of lectures than clinical in med-school, though they do perform surgeries with residents.

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In Spain you get:

  • Level 0: Classroom assistant (usually talented students who may, or may not, receive a grant for their work)
  • Level 1: Assistant Professor (usually short term, part-time)
  • Level 2: Professor (usually mid-term, full time)
  • Level 3: Doctoral Professor (same as before, but requires a PhD title)
  • Level 4: Professor Researcher (requires publications in journals and related research activities, besides teaching. It accumulates tenure)
  • Level 5: Catedrático (Cathedratic/"Full Professor" in the English system. In Latin it means "the one with a (guaranteed) chair")
  • Level 6: Department Director (typically a cathedratic, but oftentimes occupied by Researchers or Doctors)
  • Level 7: Vicedean (depending on the structure of the university, it may supervise several departments/areas, or just some narrow ones, such as student recruitment. If the latter, then its professional category is actually around level 3 or 4)
  • Level 8: Decano/Dean (the top position within a faculty area i.e: Medicine. In Latin it means: ten straight years)
  • Level 9: Vicerrector (Vice Chancellor: it follows similar rules as vicedeans, but for the whole university)
  • Level 10: Rector (Chancellor/Provost/CEO: the top position at a university, chosen by democratic elections among students, docents and other workers of the university)
  • Level 11: Some public officers from the Ministry of Education (such as the Secretary for Education or Universities), including the Minister (who is chosen by the President of the country right after national elections, and sometimes more than once during a mandate).

Also bear in mind, that universities in Spain and elsewhere are usually highly politicized environments that conduct regular elections at university, faculty and department levels, so a Professor Researcher might be Dpt. Dr. for some years, then be a Researcher and later be elected as Rector, finally staying as Cathedratic, for instance. the highest staff rotation occurs at the lower levels, while the top levels are the most political. Of course, technical and scientific knowledge plays a role of paramount importance as well. The situation, however, may differ from one university to the other, particularly according to their size and their public or private nature.

Supervision of PhD students is usually performed by levels 3, 4 and 5, with some cases of level 6 and above. Actually, the more the thesis supervised, the more likely it is to climb up the ladder.

Remember as well that, in Spanish, there exists a single word for both the terms "teacher" and "professor", which is "profesor" (with the accent on the last syllable), so denominations may vary; for instance: all High School teachers are generally called "profesor" even if they didn't earn a doctorate degree ("doctorado"). This is so again because of the latin origin of the verb "profesar" which means "the one who declares, or speaks publicly" and is typically use as a synonym to "perform" (some kind of job or occupation) with devotion and commitment.

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