Assistant Professors Vs. Instructors

Teaching is one of many duties of assistant professors.

Teaching is one of many duties of assistant professors.

For most students, the precise title of the person at the front of a university classroom doesn't really matter. Assistant professors and instructors, from the student's perspective, all have similar roles in assigning readings, holding office hours and grading papers. For women considering careers in higher education, though, rank and title distinctions are crucial, affecting every aspect of academic working conditions from employment stability through job description and salary.

Tenure-Stream and Contingent Faculty

The single most important distinction among academic ranks is eligibility for tenure, a type of permanent employment contract from which one can only get fired for egregious misbehavior. Faculty who have tenure or are eligible for tenure are called tenure-stream or tenure-track faculty and are considered permanent members of the university. Nontenurable teaching staff, usually called lecturers or instructors, are considered adjunct or contingent employees, operating on shorter-term contracts. The university does not need to show cause for nonrenewal of contingent faculty; they are hired on a per-course basis.

Tenure-Stream Ranks

Tenure-stream faculty are divided into three ranks: assistant, associate and full professors. Usually, tenure-stream faculty have completed their doctoral degrees and are hired as assistant professors. They serve five or six years as assistant professors before being reviewed for tenure and promotion to associate rank. After an additional six years at associate rank, professors are eligible to be considered for promotion to the rank of full professor. Assistant professors are often called probationary faculty, and the six-year pre-tenure period the probationary period. When people use the term probationary faculty, this just means pre-tenure; it doesn't mean that assistant professors have done something wrong and are "on probation."

Nontenurable Faculty

Faculty who are not on the tenure track are not considered permanent employees of the university, despite over half the courses at many schools being taught by adjuncts. Nontenurable faculty, also called adjunct, part-time or contingent faculty usually have the title of instructor or lecturer. Although people who have completed doctoral degrees and are unable to find tenure-stream positions may be employed as instructors or lecturers, these adjunct positions may also be held by people without doctoral degrees.

Graduate Instructors

Graduate students can act as graduate instructors while they are studying for advanced degrees. In their first few years of study, graduate students usually act as graders or as teaching assistants, leading discussion or laboratory sessions for large lecture classes. More advanced graduate students may act as course directors, with full responsibility for teaching undergraduate courses. The term graduate instructor is properly used for graduate students acting as course directors, and the term graduate teaching assistant for graduate students helping out in a large lecture, although most undergraduates use the terms interchangeably.

Job Duties

Tenure-stream faculty job duties include teaching, scholarly research and administration. Instructor positions are normally pure teaching positions, with no research or publication responsibilities and minimal involvement in university governance. Full-time instructors teach more courses per term than assistant professors, because their duties are limited to teaching. Full-time instructor positions are not the norm, though, because many schools prefer to save money by hiring several adjuncts each for a small number of courses, keeping their workloads under half-time equivalency to avoid being obliged to pay benefits. Even full-time instructors are normally paid less than assistant professors.


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