Assistant Professor or Associate Professor? What’s the difference?

Assistant professors and associate professors are both lower-level titles held by those who teach at a college or university. Assistant professors work with entry-level classes, while associate professors work with major-specific mid-level classes. Associate professors may also be tenured.

Here’s what you need to know about the titles of assistant and associate professor.

What are the levels of professor?

Typically, at a given college or university, there are eight direct levels of academic professorship.

  • Graduate Teaching Assistant
  • Adjunct Professor
  • Assistant Professor
  • Associate Professor
  • Professor
  • Endowed Professor
  • Distinguished Professor
  • Professor Emeritus

Each level is associated with a different level of responsibility and a different kind of employment. The assistant professor position is the first full-time position in the ranking, and the title of professor emeritus is only given upon retirement.

What is an assistant professor?

An assistant professor is a college or university teacher who works closely with another professor to teach lower-level courses. These professors usually hold Ph.D.’s and have some level of professional experience with their subjects.

Assistant professors are not tenured, meaning that do not have a guarantee of lifetime employment. Generally, these professors do not teach on a tenured track at all, though it is typical for an assistant professor to aim for promotion to a tenured position.

These professors will often be in charge of doing research for and teaching certain classes (possibly on only certain days), and for providing academic advising to students. This is an entry-level position often held by recent graduates.

Assistant professors may teach general education courses unrelated to their area of expertise, or they may teach an introductory class for their field such as an overview or basic principles course.

What is an associate professor?

An associate professor teaches their own mid-level courses at a college or university. These courses tend to be directly related to their area of expertise, in which they usually have a doctorate or equivalent professional degree.

Associate professors have responsibilities to research, plan, and teach their courses, as well as provide academic advising to their students. They are eligible for tenure provided they have held their positions long enough at a particular institution.

This is a mid-level job that is often held by more experienced professionals who have worked other positions in their field before becoming professors, or who have held other teaching positions before becoming an associate professor.

What is the difference between an assistant professor and an associate professor?

Both assistant and associate professors are full-time employees of their respective institutions. They both research, teach, and advise, and both must hold advanced degrees for their positions. Beyond that, though, the titles are quite different.

A key change is that associate professors may be tenured while assistant professors cannot be. Often, an assistant professor will go on to become an associate professor and gain tenure that way. This does mean, however, that an assistant professor may be removed from their position for an offense or complaints that would have no professional effect on an associate professor, which can be frustrating.

Additionally, associate professors are looked on as experts in their fields and may have other responsibilities including notable independent projects or in-field publications. They may be called upon as expert witnesses or sources by those researching the topic independently.

Assistant professors, though they hold Ph.D.’s, are not generally considered full experts, and may be building their resumes with publications and research projects. They may still be cited in their field by other academics, though not on their own; often, their research will be paired with that of other professionals.

Neither position is considered the epitome of their field, however; that status is reserved for full professors and those with higher titles. Assistant and associate professors may be the highest-ranking staff members in smaller community colleges but will be outranked at universities and larger institutions.

Still, both are important positions to have, as they make it possible for students to advance their degrees beyond basic levels.


Both assistant and associate professors are important in higher education settings.

Many academics begin their full-time careers as assistant professors and move to associate professorship after a few years of learning the ropes. They may go from working under to working alongside higher-level professors in a single institution, which can be helpful in developing their professional network and resume.

Whether they are an assistant or associate professor, any college-level educator should feel proud of their accomplishments. Not only have they survived the rigor of higher education, but they have also willingly returned to that environment to foster the careers of others in their field. They clearly care deeply about their subjects and their students.

Though assistant professors may not be as high level as associate professors, they should be given the same amount of respect for their professional commitment.