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At my school, I see some professors, associate and higher, teach only 1 course per semester while others, assistants and full, teach 3 or 4 per semester. Some semesters, the ones teaching only one course may teach an upper PhD level course, while other semesters they'll teach a junior or senior level undergrad course, but it's never more than 1 course. Meanwhile, the ones teaching 3 or 4 teach all levels of undergrad and grad.

Why is this?

Do professors earn less salary if they teach less courses?

  • The more category the prof has, the less he teaches...or, in fact, even teaches only what he wants. – Timbuc Apr 23 '15 at 19:25
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    What is meant by category? – Al Jebr Apr 23 '15 at 19:25
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    I'm not sure what the term is in english... the more "quality", or well-known the prof. is. That's what I meant. – Timbuc Apr 23 '15 at 19:26
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    It depends enormously on the institution. At the one where I taught, for instance, everyone had the same theoretical teaching load, but the actual load was reduced for active researchers and for those with additional administrative responsibilities. – Brian M. Scott Apr 23 '15 at 19:30
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    It's possible that professors may decide whether to teach more or less, and then correspondingly do less or more research (or less or more advising of Ph.D. students). Some professors may have grants or other duties that take them out of the classroom. – paw88789 Apr 23 '15 at 19:30
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Depending on the department, the rules can be very different, but here are some things that I have seen that can lead to teaching reduction from a theoretical teaching load that is the same across the board:

  1. New faculty. Think of it as both a hiring bonus and a humanitarian "you are still settling in so we won't burden you too much."
  2. Super big shot. Some "research stars" can negotiate their way to a semi-permanently reduced teaching load; this is on the theory that their name recognition and the research grants that they can supposedly bring in will benefit the department greatly, and that in theory it is more cost effective to let them spend more time in research and less time teaching.
  3. Grant buy-out. Certain schools operate on a system where faculty can buy out of their teaching load by obtaining sufficiently large or prestigious research grants.
  4. Other service. Professors taking on administrative duties (chair, director of graduate/undergraduate studies, for example) get reduced teaching loads on the principle that they are serving the department in other capacities.
  5. Student mentoring. Some departments have established exchange rates of X graduating PhD students = 1 course, and Y undergraduate research students = 1 course to encourage participation in student research.

Also, some people just love to teach. While professorial contracts usually state a minimum teaching load, I have not seen a case where a maximum teaching load is prescribed.

In addition, at many departments the teaching is, by design, not equal across the board. Many universities hire special teaching faculty or adjunct professors. Sometimes these hires (temporary or not) do not have different sounding academic titles. Whereas research faculty typically have teaching loads of about 3 courses per year, the teaching faculty are contractually obliged to teach 6 to 8 per year (and many adjuncts are paid "per course" so the more they teach the closer to a living wage they earn). You cannot always tell from their titles in which category the professor is hired.

  • Also, some upper-division and many graduate-level courses start to require knowledge or expertise that is not at the finger-tips of all faculty, whether research-active or not. Also, some advanced graduate courses are "introductions" to the faculty person's research, or to their "group"'s research, so require substantial content expertise. – paul garrett Apr 23 '15 at 22:22
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The other answer hits the main points, but here are some supplementary points.

  1. Grant buy-outs are not so common in math, from my experience. However some departments will provide teaching reductions for getting grants, or for some departments where there is more of a split between research/teaching and teaching-only, just being "research active."
  2. Some departments provide teaching credits for extra teaching work, so one get course reductions for this, in addition to administrative service or student mentoring mentioned in the other example. (E.g., if the normal load is 6 credits/semester but you teach 2 4-credit courses, you get 2 credits in the bank.)
  3. Sometimes one can do more teaching in one semester to free up another semester.
  4. One might teach more for extra pay.
  5. I think this is rare, but I know one department which will let faculty teach less in a semester for lower pay. I think the intent is akin to that of a sabbatical program, but at least one person uses it quite regularly.

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