I was just wondering how this is possible, there are some 50+ year old people who are 'Dr. X Y', and others who are maybe "only" 40 years old , but they are 'Professor Dr. X Y'.

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    Because these job titles are awarded based on a person's career choices and accomplishments, not based on the year of their birth. Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 14:15
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    ... because being a professor is not just a function of age ???
    – xLeitix
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 14:27
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    @NateEldredge: "Because these job titles are awarded based on a person's career choices and accomplishments, not based on the year of their birth." Well, to be honest also a lot on the base of the luck to be at the right time in the right place with the right topic.
    – Daniel
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 20:53

3 Answers 3


Academia, like any other organized human profession, has a system of ranks and advancement on which those particularly talented or ambitious tend to rise quickly, while others may rise much more slowly or eventually stop.

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    how does this work then? And is it advisable then to avoid some 50 year old Dr. X Y as one's supervisor if he or she is not a professor yet? Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 14:04
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    What country's system are you discussing? The meaning of "professor" varies.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 14:06
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    @Chris: "Professor" means something different in the UK than it does in the US (and many other countries). In the UK there are three different classes of permanent faculty who fully contribute to the department, including supervising PhD students: lecturer, reader and professor. In the US we have assistant professor, associate professor and professor, but in the US system seniority automatically makes you an associate professor (or out of a job) within 7 years, and at many places if you're one step above adequacy you'll get promoted to professor sooner or later..... Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 15:23
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    ....However in the UK all three classes are what we would call "tenured professors" in the US, and one does not automatically rise from one to another. In the UK, "professor" is being singled out for distinction among other permanent faculty. (Whereas in my department in the US, at any time more than half the permanent faculty are "professors.") In the US we have "named professors" and/or "endowed chairs" which is generally 5-20% of the permanent faculty. This is probably the closest US analogue to a UK professor. Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 15:26
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    @ChrisDoyle no, assuming it is research supervision, look at their research output (especially their last 5-10 years) and look at the outcomes of their other recent supervisions (or ask their current students). Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 18:58

In a colloquial sense, may simply refer to a group of educators/teachers at a university/colleges. However, in more strict sense, the formal designation of Professor is generally obtained by rising through the ranks. You can find lots of details regarding how this system works out, and even some technicalities, in this link. (N.B. US-specific, but generalizable to some extent.) Quoting verbatim from the article:

Educators who hold a formal title of "Professor" (referred to as tenured/tenure-track faculty) typically begin their careers as assistant professors, (or "lecturers" and "senior lecturers") with subsequent promotions to the ranks of associate professor and finally professor. The titles are historical traditions; for example, it is not implied that an assistant professor "assists" more senior faculty. There is often a strict timeline for application for promotion from assistant to associate professor, most often 5 or 6 years following the initial appointment. Applicants are evaluated based on their contributions to research, teaching, and administration. The relative weightings of these contributions differ by institution, with PhD-granting universities usually placing more emphasis on research and liberal arts colleges placing more emphasis on teaching.

Now, until one has risen through the ranks to formally hold this title of professor, technically that guy can't/shouldn't use the title "Prof." in front of his/her name. But, if he/she holds a Ph.D. (i.e. Doctor of Philosophy) degree, "Dr." can be used as a prefix before the name. Later in the career, when this person becomes a formal Professor, he is free to replace that "Dr." by "Prof." (or rarely, even use both at once.)

Also, while there may be correlations between age and rank, there is absolutely no reason why a more aged person can not be academically junior to a younger person who might have made it further in the hierarchy. It all depends on satisfying the requisite criterion (see linked article). This explains you observation:

there are some 50+ year old people who are 'Dr. X Y', and others who are maybe "only" 40 years old , but they are 'Professor Dr. X Y'

Hope that helps :)


It is possible that some older Drs may not want to be profs. As an academic rises through the ranks, their duties tend to migrate from active teaching and research into more of a managerial role, which doesn't suit everybody (and the activities that merit your promotion do not necessarily imply you have the abilities required to flourish in the role into which you find yourself promoted).

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