Rank, Duties, and Career Potential of an Associate Professor

The Intermediate Step on the Path to Full Professorship

Schools operate with a hierarchy of staff and positions, much like other institutions and businesses. All play a necessary role in the overall function of education. The responsibilities and prerogatives of an associate professor contribute to the success and reputation of colleges and universities. The position can be a stepping stone to full professorship or the culminating position of an academic career.

Academic Tenure

An associate professor typically earns tenure, which bestows the freedom and autonomy to pursue studies and conduct work that may disagree with public opinion or authority without fear of losing the job over it. An associate professor must adhere to certain professional and ethical standards, however. While associate professors may pursue controversial topics, they must conduct their inquiry within the accepted guidelines for academic research.

Despite surviving a probationary period that can last seven years to reach associate status, a professor can still lose his or her job for cause, just like an employee in a field other than academia. While most faculty members eventually retire from their positions, a university can take steps to remove a tenured professor in the case of unprofessionalism, incompetence, or financial difficulties. An institution does not bestow tenure automatically after a period of time – a professor must earn the status. A professor with the expressed goal of achieving tenure might be said to be on "tenure track." 

Visiting professors and instructors often teach on year-to-year contracts. Tenured faculty and those working toward tenure usually hold the titles of assistant professor, associate professor, or full professor without any qualifiers, such as adjunct or visiting.

Rank of Associate Professorship

Professorships involve working from one rank to the next level through evaluation of performance. The intermediate rank of an associate professorship falls between an assistant professorship and a position as a full professor. Professors typically rise from assistants to associates when they achieve tenure, which can be a one-shot deal at many institutions of higher learning.

Failure to achieve an associate professorship at the same time as receiving tenure may mean the professor won't get another chance to advance at that particular institution. Nor does an associate professorship guarantee an individual's rise to the rank of a full professorship. Advancement depends on many factors, including the professor's body of work and ongoing performance evaluations.

Duties of Associate Professorship

An associate professor participates in three types of duties that come with a career in academia, just like most other professors: teaching, research, and service.

Professors do more than teach classes. They also conduct scholarly research and present their findings at conferences and through publication in peer-reviewed journals. Service duties include administrative work, such as sitting on committees ranging from curricula development to overseeing workplace safety.

Career Advancement 

Colleges and universities expect associate professors to become more active and take on greater leadership roles as they advance to more senior positions on the faculty. Given that they have earned tenure and cannot be dismissed without due process, associate professors often conduct the service tasks beyond the scope of junior faculty positions, such as evaluating colleagues for tenure and promotion. Some professors remain in the associate rank for the remainder of their career, either by choice or by circumstance. Others pursue and achieve promotion to the highest academic rank of full professor.