New in the Glossary of Confusing Words: Academic Titles and Ranks

dictionary and thesaurusWe received this request to our Glossary of Confusing Words:

I need to know about the academic title in a University, from bottom to top

Academic titles are truly some of the most confusing things out there.  Trying to define the difference between, say, an associate professor and a full professor can get fairly technical and can differ at different universities.  But here’s a general guide to the most common academic titles you will encounter.

And as requested, I’ll go roughly from bottom to top.


Teaching Assistant, Preceptor – A student (usually a graduate or Ph.D. student) who assists the professor of a class, often conducting tutorial or discussion sections

Part-time or Non-permanent Faculty:

Adjunct (or Adjunct Professor) – Someone who teaches at a university but is not employed full-time by the institution; often a scholar/practitioner who is contracted to teach a course

Lecturer – Someone who gives classroom instruction but is not on track to become a tenured professor, usually because they are on a short-term or part-time appointment (Tenure = significant protection from being fired)

Regular Faculty:

Instructor – Someone who gives classroom instruction but does not hold the rank of professor, often because they have not yet received their doctoral degree.  Instructors are usually working towards becoming assistant professors.

Assistant Professor – A full-time professor who has not yet received tenure

Associate Professor – A tenured faculty member

Professor – The highest rank for a regular faculty member

Other Types of Faculty:

Visiting Professor – Someone teaching at an institution for a limited time, usually because they are on leave from the faculty of another institution

Professor Emeritus – Someone who has retired but still teaches part-time.  It is often an honorific title, indicating that the professor achieved excellence during their time as a tenured faculty member

There are all sorts of other nuanced titles that universities use to distinguish between different types of professors, and that you probably don’t really need to know about. For a way-too-comprehensive list, check out the Handbook of Academic Titles compiled by a professor at Carnegie Mellon University (who holds the rank of Distinguished Career Professor, by the way).

As a student, most of these distinctions won’t matter much.  You can refer to anyone teaching a class as Professor. Most (but not all) professors will hold a Ph.D. (or other doctoral degree), and you can call them either Professor or Doctor.


Department Chair = Head of a single academic department

Dean = Head of a collection of departments or an administrative division (ex: Dean of Admissions)

Provost = Senior academic administrator, usually the second highest office in a university

President, Chancellor = Head of the university or of a state’s university system

Have you come across a word related to education in the US that should be added to our Glossary of Confusing Words? Let us know in the comments or by using the form below.