I am applying to tenure track jobs at high research activity universities in the United State. Wading through open positions, I've become increasingly confused about what is the meaningful distinction between "programs", "institutes", and "departments". I understand faculty are organized into departments, and may participate in multiple institutes or graduate/undergraduate programs. However, for the particular position I am considering, the position is being offered by a particular program, and time is said to be split between the program (0.6FTE) and the appropriate academic department (0.4FTE).

My question is broad. What are the meaningful distinctions between programs, institutes, and departments within a research university?

  • 2
    Could you specify the country or otherwise location? Depending on the place, "department" and "institute" can be synonyms. Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 14:46
  • Another batch of confusing terms in the US is "school" and "college" within a university. Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 18:28

3 Answers 3


Some alternate definitions to matinking's based on my own experience, which moves the answer more toward "It varies, you need to ask":

Program: Where I have applied to faculty positions in "programs", they usually mean transdisciplinary fields (think 'Biomedical Informatics') that may or may not grant their students a defined degree (Ph.D. in Biomedical Informatics), have specific courses, etc. Usually, in my admittedly limited experience, the program is actually hiring one or a series of faculty who will be housed in specific departments, but whose main duties will be focused on the needs and themes of the program. For example, Biomedical Informatics might hire people in Computer Science, Nursing, Public Health, Statistics, etc. and house them in home departments for things like tenure.

Department: A free standing, degree and tenure-granting entities within the school.

Institute: At least in my field, an "Institute" can be either at the sub-department, sub-college, or sub-university level, but implies a specialty, and it's own funding stream. Often, universities have very specific rules about whether or not something can be called an "Institute" and what that implies. They can often be "Department-like", but may lack some powers of a department.


Program is a plan of either tutor-based or research-based application, is which often designed for undergraduate or graduate studies and either instructed or supervised by faculty members.

Department is a division of the university, is which colony of the group of faculty members with the expertise in the specific area of the colony. The programs are often presented by departments.

Institute is a specialized division of a department, has which been established with a group of affiliated faculty members of the host society. Institutes generally conduct the research in highly-specific fields of science and technology and a plethora of graduate research stuffs would be pursued in such organizations.

  • Is it common to have a position offered by a program then, if departments are the organizing group of faculty? What about having to split time between a program and a department?
    – user234105
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 15:24
  • Positions have not been offered by any program, but they are defined within the realm of the programs... Furthermore, departments define the programs, based on their faculty members' expertise and their available facilities...
    – user41207
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 17:15

Divisions vary. For example, we had Faculties, some 10 of them, a while back. So there was a Dean of Chemistry, with chemistry (as a science), chemical engineering and metallurgy (materials science), last mostly as an outgrowth of the previous ones. And a Dean of Sciences, with math and physics. The university was reorganized, into a Dean of Engineering (with some 11 Departments) and Dean of Science (with three Departments). Later the deans where abolished, there are 12 Departments now.

Sometimes there are Institutes within the University, but e.g. the Fraunhofer Institutes in Germany are independent entities focusing on research (and graduate studies, sometimes) on some specific area.

The subdivisions, and their names, are mostly historic accidents.

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