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In the USA, if someone writes that they are "professor" with no other specification, does this mean full professor, or can it also mean associate professor? In other words, is associated professor a subset of professor, or is it a fully distinct category?

  • I guess they mean full prof otherwise it will be misleading information – seteropere Jul 9 '13 at 21:32
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    "Professor" is both a job and a title, hence the ambiguity. Other titles given to people with that job include "Assistant Professor" and "Associate Professor." – Lev Reyzin Jul 9 '13 at 22:11
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In the US, Assistant and Associate Professors are also titled Prof. X when being referred to formally. This is unlike in Europe and parts of Asia, where "Professor" is a title that can be used only if they're a full professor. Others are simply referred to as Dr. X (or Mr. or Ms. X, if they don't hold a doctorate).

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    This is not exactly the case in Europe. I am not a tenured professor, but I am allowed to call myself "Professor." However, I am not a "University Professor." – aeismail Jul 9 '13 at 21:58
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    Yes, the distinction seems larger in Asia, wherein some colleagues have been chastised (!) by conference organizers by casually calling themselves "Professor" when they're "only Associate Professor" (even though that connoted tenure). – paul garrett Jul 9 '13 at 22:48
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    However, as a position title, at least in the US and in biology, "Professor" means full professor, i.e. Professor Smith could be an assistant or associate professor, but John Smith, Professor of Biology, is a full professor. – user7123 Jul 9 '13 at 23:53
  • This is a fine answer but I don't think it answers the question which is about what happens with people write that they are a Professor. In this case, there is a difference between the salutations and the title. At least in the US, one can say, "Call me Professor X" but cannot list "Professor" (without Assistant or Associate) as their title in writing unless they are full. – Benjamin Mako Hill Jul 11 '13 at 17:33
  • Also it can vary from school to school. At one school I taught at "Assistant Chair" meant #2 in the department. At another school I taught at "Assistant Chair" meant his secretary. Some schools have very narrow grades of professorship, some very broad. I think it usually comes down to the accrediting body which might be different for public schools v. private schools and then maybe liberal arts v. design schools, etc. – Dave Kanter Nov 18 '14 at 19:10
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It should be pointed out that, at least in the US, "associate professors" are a partially overlapping set with the class of "tenured professor," as many associate professors have tenure, but have not yet been promoted to a full professorship. So, there really is "associate without tenure" and "associate with tenure."

However, in the US, as user7691 points out, the correct form of address for any professor, regardless of type, is "Professor X." I would even include adjunct and emeritus professors in this group. If you're looking at a faculty listing and see just "Professor" after a name (or in a separate field), however, it's likely that the individual in question holds a full professorship.

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    Your answer suggests that "full professor" is a synonym for "tenured professor". It is not. At least in the US, the set of associate professors and the set of full professors are disjoint. Moreover, there are associate professors and full professors who do not have tenure. – JeffE Jul 10 '13 at 18:13
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    Clearly the Venn diagram in my head didn't make it into the written answer. However, my original answer clearly indicated that there were associates without tenure. (Full professors without tenure is a phenomenon I hadn't heard of—at least not at any of the schools I'm familiar with. However, I suspect their cardinality is much smaller than the set of associates with tenure.) – aeismail Jul 10 '13 at 21:57
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I thought about making this a comment as it only refers to Australia, and your question is about the United States, but it got a bit long.

The Australian Context:

  • Professor is typically the top of the academic ranking hierarchy in the order: associate lecturer, lecturer, senior lecturer, associate professor, professor. Thus, professor means that someone is of the academic rank "Professor".
  • Common general titles that cover all ranks include "lecturer", "academic", "researcher".
  • In terms of titles, the basic rules are as follows (e.g., for Smith):
    • If of professor rank, "Prof Smith"
    • If of associate professor rank, "A/Prof Smith"
    • If of associate lecturer, lecturer, or senior lecturer rank and the person has a doctoral qualification, "Dr Smith"
    • If of associate lecturer, lecturer, or senior lecturer rank, and the peson does not have a doctoral qualification, "Mr Smith" or "Ms Smith"
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  • Heh. My alma mater (Oxford) is finally catching up with the world. "The grade of associate professor comes into effect from 1 January 2014". Prior to that you were a full professor or you were not a professor. Easy for everyone, except those comparing job titles with other universities/countries ;-) – Steve Jessop Jul 3 '14 at 22:15
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Short answer: if somebody from the US writes about themselves as a Professor, then it means a tenured full professor.

Longer answer: If you see the title "Professor" in the official university publication (e.g., department website), or in somebody's bio, self-description, or email signature, then it means a tenured full professor (the third, and the top, step in the US academic hierarchy... Instructors and lecturers can hardly be considered academics as they are treated as staff for hire and dismissal).

If you see "Professor" in somebody else's email, especially students' emails, or in the university newsletter, or in some other source that was originated from a person that is not so familiar with the academic ranks, and the hoops one needs to jump through to get there, then it may mean a broader use of the term to indicate an instructor in a university. Essentially, all the adjectives (e.g., an Adjunct Assistant Professor... essentially nobody) are getting thrown out, with only the affiliation with academia remaining in this use of "professor" word. Such a liberty may qualify as an insult to a British/ANZ Professor where the meaning is way more specific. American academics are used to the confusions, though, and let the vague understanding of the title slip when used by un-initiated.

I was getting emails addressed "Professor" when I was in grad school... I would roll my eyes -- can't the source figure out a difference between a Ph.D. student and a regular faculty? They come on very different pages on the department website...

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    This is incorrect. Someone in the US calling themselves "Professor Charles Xavier", even in official email or on an official university website, is not necessarily a full professor. Even the sentence "I am a professor of Mutant Studies" doesn't necessarily mean that the author is a full professor. "Charles Xavier, Professor of Mutant Studies" does imply that Dr. Xavier is a full professor, but it does not imply that Dr. Xavier has tenure. – JeffE Jul 10 '13 at 18:20
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    Incorrect! I am an Assistant Professor at a top-tier US university. I am often referred to as "Professor." I go to conferences and university events where my name tag has me listed as "Professor." It's shorthand. User7691 has the correct answer. – Bill Nace Jul 10 '13 at 22:19

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