In the US, "Assistant Professor" is a junior rank among permanent university faculty. Generally, Assistant Professors are independent researchers with more or less the same job responsibilities as more senior faculty (Associate Professors or Full Professors), but without the perks of tenure. That is, they teach classes, advise graduate students, apply for grants, and have administrative responsibilities. (In other countries, the term may have a slightly different meaning. It is roughly equivalent to a Lecturer in the UK system.)

As far as I know, Assistant Professors are not assistants to anyone. So why the name?

Usually an Assistant X is someone who works under the supervision of X and helps X carry out their duties, but that is not the case here. In contrast, other university titles containing "Assistant", such as "Research Assistant" or "Teaching Assistant", do fit the more conventional definition of the word.

After a bit of searching, I have not been able to find any information about the origin of the term. Although it has apparently been in use since 1827. Does anyone know more about the history of the term?

Perhaps the job has evolved from a true assistant position into what it is today while the title has remained the same. Alternatively, it may be a (mis)translation or the meaning of "Assistant" has changed. If someone can find a source documenting a history like that, I would happily accept that as an answer.

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    Obligatory: youtu.be/wA9kQuWkU7I?t=46 Jan 21 '19 at 19:43
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    Also as a side note, here in Germany a resident in a hospital is called "Assistenzarzt", which translates to "assistant doctor". Similarly they have finished their doctorate and are allowed to do most routine tasks on their own, but get their patients assigned by the higher ups. They'll also "tenure up" to the next level after some time. Since medicine is one of the earliest university subjects, there might be a common origin. Also I have the suspicion that assistant professor is just an english translation of some older Latin title, as they were more common back then.
    – mlk
    Jan 21 '19 at 22:48
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    It used to be common that there was only one professor in each field. Maybe "assistant professor" was used to indicate that the person had similar job responsibilities to a professor but was subordinate to the real professor. Jan 22 '19 at 1:23
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    If someone can find a source documenting that it is indeed a case of the job evolving without the title changing, I would happily accept that answer.
    – Thomas
    Jan 22 '19 at 4:23
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    I don't really have any evidence here, but originally in the UK, a subject would have a professor (the chair). That prof would "profess" on that subject from their chair. Over time they might hire others to "assist" them in their research and their teaching, perhaps some "readers" (a UK rank) or Lecturers that would read from texts rather than profess. Over time these became departments. Depts might have other professors "associated" with them. As ass-profs are roughly equiv to Lecturers, perhaps the history is the same. As I say, I've no proof of this, just the "folk-history". Jan 22 '19 at 10:21

The OP dictionary is inaccurate. The term assistant professor was in use prior to 1827.

In the 1805 book The College of Fort William in Bengal there is an article dated 20 September 1804, beginning on page 225, that uses the term several times, to name several assistant professors of various languages. The term is used in this article at pages 226, 227 and 228, and the book also list four assistant professors on page 237.

Also, the 1801 The New Universal Biographical Dictionary, and American Remembrancer, volume 4 says, under the entry for James Hay Beattie:

On the 4th June, 1787, the king, upon the unanimous recommendation of the university, appointed him assistant professor of moral philosophy and logic, although he was not then nineteen years of age.

And volume 2 of the same Dictionary, in the entry for Euler says:

he was called to St. Petersburgh, and was admitted as an assistant professor in the university of that city ... In 1730, he was promoted to the professorship of natural philosophy; and in 1733 he succeeded his friend D. Bernoulli in the mathematical chair.

However, there is an earlier (1785) version of the Euler biography that uses the term "joint professor" instead of "assistant professor".

The 1802 book Travels through Sweden, Finland and Lapland to the North-cape, in the years 1798 and 1799 discusses assistant professors, saying for example concerning University of Abo:

In the branch of theology there are six professors, three assistant professors, and three private teachers or magiltri docentes: of law, two professors and two assistant professors : of medicine, three professors and two assistant professors : of philosophy, ten professors and twenty assistant professors: of genteel exercises...

Also, in the US, a law was passed 29 April 1812 concerning the Military Academy (meaning West Point):

each of the foregoing professors to have an assistant professor, which assistant professor shall be taken from the most prominent characters of the officers or cadets, and receive the pay and emoluments of captains, and no other pay or emoluments, while performing these duties.

So, at least according to this US law, the assistant professor was assigned to a particular professor.


Just to add to DavePhD's very comprehensive in the origin of the use of the term, take a look at Alexander Serebrenik's answer the this question regarding differences between assistant and associate professors. The general takeaway is that in some European countries, at least in the past, Assistant Professors actually did assist full professors and could only work on topics that these full professors were working on. This changed with the promotion to associate professorship.

While this does not imply that it was the situation in the US at any point (as it certainly is not the case now), since universities in the US are relatively young (Harvard being the oldest and established in early 17th century), it is not unreasonable to assume that among the many things imported from Europe, was the 'assistant' term, even if it lost it's actual original meaning, and retained just the symbolic entry position.

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