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A few —very few— college students are curious about who and what professors are. An occasional student even thinks about becoming a professor some day.
At many American universities today, including UCSD, students tend to address all teaching faculty as "professor" followed by a surname: "Professor Jones," for example. However the term "professor" is also a formal academic title, and as a student you should know at least a little bit about how the system of titles works. (When they have choices, some students prefer one kind of teacher to another, for example.)
There are, in general, two kinds of college teachers: permanent ones (with "tenure" or something like it) and temporary ones (without "tenure"). Tenure is discussed below. First, here are the usual job titles:
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Other titles and terms are numerous, but most of them make little significant difference to students. For example, a medical school usually has some clinical professors. A research institute may have non-teaching researchers (often unsalaried) or research professors.
A faculty member from a different institution may be appointed as an adjunct professor (normally unpaid), a title sometimes also extended to retired professionals living near to and loosely affiliated with a university. (Confusingly, in recent years the term "an adjunct" has come to be used in some institutions to refer to temporary lecturers.)
A retired full professor (like me) usually receives the honorary title professor emeritus (masculine) or professor emerita (feminine). Some emeritus/emerita professors are vigorously continuing research programs and are about to get Nobel prizes or discover the Next Big Thing. Some are among the nation's very best teachers and wisest mentors. Some have moved away to play golf, join the Peace Corps, or be near their grandchildren. A few have become mental vegetables. All of them are older than you are and either still are or used to be venerable. Be appropriately deferential. (Also remember that your own grandchildren will be appropriately impressed when you tell them you studied with somebody born a hundred years before they were. Don't let the chance get away.)
British and European universities use different terms or use these terms differently. For example, in Europe the term "professor" was and often still is limited to the single top faculty member in a department, who by definition was also the head of the department. In American universities a department can have any number of professors, and the head of the department is typically an office that rotates among the departmental faculty.
Students like to complain that professors are too interested in their boring old research and insufficiently interested in their uniformly fascinating students.
The word chair is used to refer to a department or committee head, of course, but it is also used to refer to a fund of money associated with a particular faculty position. At some (usually older and private) universities it is money set aside to pay for the professor's salary. In others (including UCSD) it is a fund set aside to supplement the professor's salary, for example by financing summer research time, research assistants, professional travel, and the like. Since such funds are usually contributed by philanthropists, chairs are normally named after their donors. For example, the professor who "held" the George & Emily Gotrocks Chair of Geophysics would then be the George & Emily Gotrocks Professor of Geophysics. Since most professors in most universities do not have such "named chairs," it is a mark of great distinction to occupy one and be a "chair professor." (A few universities name all faculty salary lines after university donors. In such cases, having a "named chair" is nothing special, except of course that outsiders don't realize that.)
The term doctor refers to an academic degree (usually a PhD for college professors). It is the highest normal academic degree, and at major universities nearly all "tenure-track" faculty (professors and associate and assistant professors) have a PhD. So do many lecturers and some instructors. (In the fine arts, the highest degree is usually "Master of Fine Arts" or MFA, and many professors in fine arts departments hold that degree rather than a doctorate.)
In junior colleges and private liberal arts colleges, some faculty may have "only" a master's degree and not a Ph.D. (That does not mean they can't be brilliant scholars and wonderful teachers.) But the academic job market has been poor for several decades now, so even humble employers can usually find Ph.D.s to hire, and fewer and few colleges are eager to hire professors with only an M.A. degree.
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Tenure in ordinary parlance means one's time occupying a position. (We speak of a politician's "tenure in office," for example.) But in universities it refers to a contract that can be terminated by the faculty member but not by the university. (Obviously there are special situations, but that goes far beyond the scope of this essay.) A beginning faculty member who does not "get tenure" within 5 or 6 years is not usually continued.
In a research university like UCSD, the most important consideration in getting tenure is the amount, influence, originality, and (above all) quality of the assistant professor's research (or in the case of artists, artistic production). Despite lip service to teaching, the amount and effectiveness of an assistant professor's teaching rarely plays a significant role in a tenure decision unless it is unspeakably, jaw-droppingly, world-shakingly awful. Good teaching, by itself, does not contribute significantly to tenure. (That policy doesn't result in conspicuously worse teaching than promoting people based mostly or exclusively on teaching, by the way, although the reasons for that have never been clear to me.)
Although a person's rank and salary and may or may not rise much after getting tenure, depending again nearly entirely on research, his or her job becomes secure at the point when tenure is granted.
Tenure is intended to avoid having professors fired for having unpopular views, doing research that powerful people would rather not have done, or discovering inconvenient truths. The custom is controversial because:
Tenure is probably not going to go away, but occasional movements sweep through the land proposing to abolish it.
For instructors outside of the "tenure-track" posts (typically teaching-only positions, such as language teachers or general-education coordinators), various other forms of job-security exist, ranging from preferential hiring status after a certain number of years to tenure-like "security of employment."
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Professors are pretty much like other people. They live in houses and apartments, shop in grocery stores, wash clothes in washing machines, drive cars, and all that kind of stuff. (Students tend to find that surprising.) Some of them even find time to get married and have kids. (Students tend to find that even more surprising. Actually, so do I.)
They generally work very long hours, since research in any field is very time consuming, and teaching university classes requires far more preparation than most people imagine.
Most universities of any merit at all are at least partly governed by a "faculty senate," which has a great deal of influence (or sometimes authority) over academic policy, and which has lots of committees on which faculty members serve. So administration and meetings are also time-consuming aspects of a professor's job.
Most professors enjoy the research and teaching parts of the job, and occasionally you will meet somebody who admits to enjoying the administrative part.
Students like to complain that professors are too interested in their boring old research and insufficiently interested in their uniformly fascinating students. Being interested in one's research is hardly something to complain about. It is what professors are supposed to be interested in. (And some students are less fascinating than they think they are.) But being interested in research or teaching to the exclusion of the other is far less common than the complaining students imagine.
Now you know.
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This page is intended to help university students understand the broad outlines of the American system of university instructional titles. Although it makes reference to UCSD and includes generalizations about "how the system works" based in part on UCSD, it does not constitute an authorized statement of UCSD rules or procedures, and no warranty is offered as to the precise accuracy or applicability of anything said here.