Ever wondered why one professor had the title “assistant professor”, while another was “Distinguished professor”? The academy uses titles to clarify how far along a professor is in his or her career; for McNair Scholars who have begun their search for graduate programs and faculty research areas, it’s important to know what titles mean.
An instructor usually works for the university on a semester-by-semester basis. Instructors almost always have a master’s degree, and most have a PhD or are working on finishing their dissertation. Instructors are not eligible for tenure because they work for the university on a part-time basis.
The assistant professor is eligible for tenure (we say they are on the ‘tenure track’). Usually, this position is held after completion of the PhD; some assistant professors have also completed a post-doctoral fellowship. At most universities, an assistant professor is evaluated for tenure during their 6th year. Should an assistant professor not receive tenure, he or she usually applies to assistant professor positions at other universities.
An associate professor has usually been granted tenure. Because tenured professors infrequently leave one university for another, you run a lower risk of having your adviser leave the university while you finish your degree.
A professor holds a senior-level position in the department and also has tenure.
And finally, a distinguished professor or an endowed chair (these positions are usually named after someone, like the Adele Hall Distinguished Professor of English here at UNL) has full-professor status, and also receives additional salary through an endowment.
In addition to these levels of professorship, your department will also have a chair, usually a full professor who heads up the department and is responsible for administrative duties. Some departments have a single chair, while others nominate
chairs for two- or three-year appointments. A director of graduate studies (DGS) advises graduate students concerning course work and helps track graduate student progress. The DGS will help you plot your course early on in graduate school, and, in addition to your dissertation advisor, will help you successfully navigate graduate school.