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. Commented Jul 21, 2012 at 3:56
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    D. Schrute: "assistant regional manager." M. Scott: "erm, assistant to the regional manager." Commented Jul 21, 2012 at 8:27
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    @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
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 15:28
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    @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
    Commented May 12, 2015 at 3:42

14 Answers 14


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.

  • 2
    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
    Commented Jul 21, 2012 at 6:15
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    Usually a non-tenure-track assistant professor will have a title such as "research assistant professor" to make the distinction clear.
    – aeismail
    Commented Jul 21, 2012 at 6:58
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    In some departments (like my own), only full professors can vote on tenure cases.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jul 21, 2012 at 18:09
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    @Amatya That's not true everywhere. I was a dissertation chair as an assistant prof.
    – JeffE
    Commented May 12, 2015 at 2:32
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    Even further complicating matters, at some US universities tenured assistant professors are possible, though rare. Commented Jul 8, 2015 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.

Update 2018: As of last year associate professors at some universities have been granted the right to formally supervise PhD students. Details of the implementation are however left to the universities, and, e.g., Eindhoven decided to grant this right only to senior associate professors.

  • Thanks for the information. Can you also say something about the responsibilities and teaching load for the different professorships in the Netherlands? Thanks!
    – Funkwecker
    Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 18:08
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    @Julian the teaching load would depend on the university, faculty and million other things. Please also check the Job Classification system vsnu.nl/en_GB/job_classification_ufo.html for the general rules; for each position there is a so-called profile. Here is the one for associate professors (unfortunately, only in Dutch) delaat.net/uhd/UFO-Universitair-Hoofddocent.pdf Commented Jan 11, 2020 at 14:36

In Australia, the typical hierarchy is:

  1. Level A. Associate lecturer
  2. Level B. Lecturer
  3. Level C. Senior lecturer
  4. Level D. Associate professor
  5. Level E. Professor

In the typical Australian ranking system, 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.

As is noted in the comments, a small number of Australian universities have adopted (or adopted and then reverted back from) the American system. So you may find Assistant Professor is used occasionally. Assistant Professor probably maps onto Australian Level B (Lecturer).

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.


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'
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 14:20
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    @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
    Commented May 19, 2014 at 20:09
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    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. Commented May 20, 2014 at 20:38
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    Also, I would not say that a normal career goes up to PR1 ("first class professor") : the number of position over the country is not sufficient for this, many competent people stay maître de conférence all their career. Then, to clarify the different kind of (permanent) position, you have two levels (B and A) and two paths, mostly defined by your employer (Universities, positions are with a teaching load, versus national research institute like CNRS where position are without any teaching load). Maître de conférence is the B-level position in the university path (...) Commented May 20, 2014 at 20:42
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    (...) while professor is the corresponding A-level position. CR and DR are the B- and A-level position for the research-only path. In all cases, going from B-level to A-level is a competition just as getting the B-level position in the first place. Then, the numbers (PR2, PR1, etc.) define more finely your salary, but are not obtained in the same way (and then there is the "classe exceptionnelle" and a lot more subtleties. Also, not that the two paths work together (most labs host both kind of positions) but the hiring of CR/DR is centralized nation-wide while the hiring of MC/PR is local. Commented May 20, 2014 at 20:47

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
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 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
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 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'
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 15:37
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    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: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Name_of_the_Czech_Republic). Commented Mar 24, 2014 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.

  • I note that in a number of countries, a department can have only one "Professor". Thus "chairman" of the department. That isn't true everywhere.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jul 14, 2018 at 15:42

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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    I think "Assistant Professor" is an incorrect (because too literal) translation of "Ayudante Doctor". The ayudante doctor position would be called a postdoc in the United States, and has nothing at all to do with what is called an "Assistant Professor" in the United States. "Catedrático" is equivalent to "Chaired Professor" in the United States (or some similar designation); "Profesor Titular" is what most closely resembles what is called a "full professor" in the United States.
    – Dan Fox
    Commented Jul 15, 2018 at 7:33
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    Currently in Spain it is impossible to obtain employment in a university above the level of "Ayudante" without having a doctorate; terminology such as "Ayudante Doctor" or "Contratado Doctor" refers implicitly to an earlier time when it was possible.
    – Dan Fox
    Commented Jul 15, 2018 at 7:35
  • Yes, "Professor" is too literal, for the reasons given above. A more proper translation would be "Lecturer", a term which implies teaching/lecturing tasks, without neccessarily excluding Research activities per se. Regarding "Chaireds", it relates to the term "Tenured": they both imply an indefinite term of service, or, very visually, that a "chair" is always reserved for them to sit on (originating from the Latin word "cathedra", borrowed from greek, meaning "seat", and later deriving into "catedrático" as the person in the seat). Commented Jul 17, 2018 at 8:45

In France, there is no position equivalent to assistant professor. The position closest to associate professor is a permanent position.

  • Maître de conférences (MCF, ~ associate professor): Permanent research and teaching position. Can not supervise PhD students alone without an HDR (see next point). Can serve on committees for recruiting new MCFs in the university.

  • Habilitation à Diriger des Recherches (HDR): A longer-lasting standalone research project of several years, sometimes requiring to have co-supervised a few students. Not a position per se, but allows to supervise PhD students alone and is often necessary to move on to the next position.

  • Professeur des universités (PR, ~ full professor): Senior permanent research and teaching position. In most cases, requires an HDR (which is still necessary to supervise PhD students alone). Can serve on committees for recruiting new MCFs and PRs.

In national research institutes such as the CNRS, two equivalent positions exist: Chargé de recherche (CR, "Junior Scientist") and Directeur de recherche (DR, "Research Director", "Senior Scientist"). Both are roughly equivalent to maître de conférences and professeur, respectively; one main difference is that there is no teaching load for these positions. An HDR is also necessary in most cases to be promoted directeur de recherche. An MCF can become DR (rather rare as far as I understand?), and a CR can become PR.

For more information see the Wikipedia article Academic ranks in France.

(The other answer about France is somewhat misleading, and I've been told by a moderator I should post a new answer rather than edit the old one.)


In Germany, faculty belong to a special class of civil servants known as Beamter and the positions they hold are categorized according to the labels they are given in the pay system for the civil servants: W1, W2, and W3, respectively.

  • W1 positions are always untenured positions that may offer a tenure-track option and correspond to assistant professorships in the US. In some states, after a positive interim evaluation, they are eligible to be the supervisor of record for a thesis defense. Since three years is typically the minimum time needed for a PhD, this basically means a W1 professor can begin supervising students as soon as she is hired. The position is normally term-limited to six years, but this can be extended by the university.

  • W2 professorships vary; some are term-limited while others may be permanent; they are the “associate” professors of Germany. They are functionally the same in terms of duties and responsibilities in most states, but how the position is reckoned in terms of providing budget support from the university differs. Some universities count W2’s and others don’t, resulting in significant differences in the level of budget support.

  • W3 positions carry the most responsibility and correspond to the US full professor. They receive the lion’s share of funding and support, and some of the “chairs” or “institutes” they oversee can have dozens or even hundreds of researchers. To some extent they can be closer to CEO’s than faculty, except for the requirement of direct contact hours with students giving lectures and overseeing research. (Typically, they may have teaching loads of 12 to 15 contact hours per week.)

There are also other positions within the system known as außerplanmäßige Professoren that correspond to adjuncts and lecturers, but they do not have lifetime appointments.


In NIGERIA the academic positions are in the following order of hierarchy:

  1. Graduate Assistant
  2. Assistant Lecturer
  3. Lecture II
  4. Lecturer I
  5. Senior Lecturer
  6. Associate Professor
  7. Professor

There is therefore no "assistant professor" in the academic ranking system in Nigeria. However, by comparison associate professor is a higher ranking of about 7-9 years above Assistant Professor. In my opinion, I think both Associate Professor and Professor in Nigeria would roughly equals to Professor in the United States; similar to the situation in Australia. The UK university/academic ranking system is practised in Nigeria.

Supervision of a PhD depends on university regulations. At my university in Nigeria, there are several requirements in order to be a lead supervisor of a PhD, in particular, (i) you need to have completed your own PhD with relevant post qualification experience, (ii) have been a member of supervisory committee(s) of PhD candidate(s) to completion, or completed a set of training activities in related research area.

Promotions from one academic rank to another takes a minimum of three (3) years in addition to the required or relevant research outputs and publications. There are guidelines by each university on the minimum requirements for promotions across the academic hierarchy.


In Venezuela, both assistant and associate exist, and both are full professors, but you move from one category to another due to the amount and quality of research you perform, as well as the degrees they hold:

The positions are:

  1. Instructor : Mostly, they are in charge of teaching up to three subjects or three classes, conducting researches and participating in community service projects as tutors. This position is based on tenure (0-2+ years).

  2. Asistente (Assistant): They are in charge of teaching up to three subjects or three classes, conducting researches, participating in community service projects as tutors, tutoring another researchers, being part of an academic group (Student Recruitment, Post-graduate Programs, Community Service Development, Cultural Affairs, etc). Professors get to this position once they hold a master's degree.

  3. Agregado (Aggregate): They are in charge of the same responsibilities as an Assistant Professor, but can be the Head of a Subject/Area and a Lab Coordinator. Professors get to this position either holding a master’s degree or conducting a research that gets reviewed and approved by some experts (professors from higher positions, including the Dean). They can also get to this position by getting a research paper published in a distinguished academic journal. Papers are also reviewed and approved by some experts from the Faculty (professors from higher positions, including the Dean).

  4. Asociado (Associate): They are in charge of the same responsibilities as an Aggregate Professor. Professors get to this position once they get two research papers published in a distinguished academic journal. Papers are also reviewed and approved by some experts from the Faculty (professors from higher positions, including the Dean).

  5. Titular: They are in charge of the same responsibilities as an Aggregate Professor, but they can be Head of a Department. Professors get to this position once they hold a PhD, but they can also get to this position by getting three research papers published in a distinguished academic journal. Papers are also reviewed and approved by some experts from the Faculty (professors from higher positions, including the Dean).

To get to those positions, a professor must have gotten a full contract. According to their contract type, they can be:

  1. Tiempo Convencional: Teaching hours vary from 6, 8, 10 or 12. They do not hold any other academic/administrative responsibility beyond teaching. They are all Instructors.

  2. Medio Tiempo: 12 Teaching hours + 6 hours that can be for research or community service tutoring. They are all Instructors.

  3. Tiempo Completo: 35 working hours weekly (12 for teaching + 23 for the other academic/administrative responsibilities). They must be at least Assistants.

  4. Dedicación Exclusiva: 38 working hours weekly (12 for teaching + 26 for the other academic/administrative responsibilities). They are not allowed to have another job. They must be at least Aggregate.


In India, at regional universities and institutes, Assistant professor is an entry level position in colleges. For this you need to have a master degree. After 4-5 years of experience as an Assistant Professor you may be promoted to Associate Professor. That depends on your knowledge and passion in this field.

If you have a Ph.D. in any subject, then you can directly become an Associate professor.

If you want to become a Professor you need to have at least 3-5 years of experience as an Associate Professor with PhD.

You can do Ph.D. along with your Assistant Professor Career.

The positions are in the following order:

  1. Assistant Professor (Master Degree + 0 or more years of experience)
  2. Associate Professor (Ph.D.)
  3. Professor (Ph.D. + 3-5 years of experience)

However, at top-notch institutes (like IITs and IISc etc.) or the best universities ( Delhi Univ., Cal. Univ.), a faculty member must hold a Ph.D. degree. In fact, in IITs, at least 2 post-docs from reputed foreign schools are necessary even for an entry level assistant Prof.

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    I don't think you are making sense here: "If you have a Ph.D. in any subject, then you can directly become an Associate professor."-- This is false. AFAIK.
    – Coder
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 7:40

In the United Kingdom, the terminology is different from the US:

  • Senior lecturer (equivalent to associate professor)

  • Lecturer or clinical lecturer (equivalent to assistant professor)

For more details, see here.


At the University of Wyoming, associate professors have tenure while assistant professors do not. Full professorship is a time thing, not a standing thing here. We have associate professors as department chairs, as doctoral advisors, and they can vote on tenure. Full professors just have a raise and have been there awhile.

  • 1
    I'm surprised that someone can become a Full Professor just with time served. My experience is quite different. I've known many Associate Professors who retire at that rank, unprompted. In the US, I think, that most places don't want a faculty overloaded with Full Professors, preferring, instead, to make room for junior faculty. If all of the ideas in a department are from the last century it isn't likely to be very active. But yes, Associate Professors can serve as department chairs as that isn't so much a prestige thing as a management position - managing faculty, students, and the admin.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jul 16, 2018 at 11:38

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