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In the U.S., "professors" commonly occupy any of several positions in academia, typically the ranks of assistant professor, associate professor, or professor, the latter common called "full professor". The same terms are used outside the U.S., although they often denote different roles from in the U.S. system.
Research and education are among the main tasks of professors, with the amount of time spent on research or teaching depending strongly on the type of institution. Publication of articles in conferences, journals, and books is essential to occupational advancement. As of August 2007 teaching in tertiary educational institutions is one of the fastest growing occupations, topping the U.S. Department of Labor's list of "above average wages and high projected growth occupations," with a projected increase of 524,000 positions between 2004 and 2014. In 2011, a survey conducted by TIAA-CREF Institute senior researcher Paul J. Yakabushki estimated that 73% of professors with senior tenure ranged between the ages of 60 and 66 and that the remaining 27% were above the age of 66. Yakabushki estimated that 75% of these professors have acknowledged that they have made no preparations for retirement due to the ongoing financial crisis and reluctance to leave their profession.  A 2013 survey conducted by Fidelity Investments would echo similar results when the question about retirement came up.
Most professors in the U.S. are male, liberal (in the contemporary American political sense), and upper middle class. A slight majority of professors ranked among the top 15% of wage earners, in 2005.
According to a study by Robert Lichter, a professor at George Mason University, "The vast majority of professors in the United States identify themselves as liberal, and registered Democrats commonly outnumber registered Republicans." However, this demographic tendency varies across departments. A 2010 study by Gross and Fosse found that the political persuasions of American professors had changed over the 20th century. In the 1800s professors were often clergymen and tended towards conservatism, gradually becoming more liberal with the Progressive Era and Great Depression. By the mid-20th century, the humanities and social sciences were dominated by liberal or Democratic professors, with Republicans or conservatives showing a slight majority in departments of business, agriculture and engineering. From the late 1970s to the mid 1980s there was a trend towards conservatism amongst professors (paralleling a national shift to the right with the "Reagan Revolution"): about 5% of professors identified themselves as strongly left-wing, about a third identifying themselves as liberals, about 25% identifying themselves as moderates, 25% as conservative, and 5% as strongly conservative. Since the 1980s, the percentage of liberal professors has grown steadily, with nationwide research consistently finding somewhere between 7 to 9 liberals for each professor of another political persuasion.
In terms of education, the vast majority of professors hold doctorate degrees. Professors at community colleges may only have a master's degree while those at four-year institutions are commonly required to hold a doctorate degree.
Although the term "professor" is often used to refer to any college or university teacher, there are different 'tiers' of professorship ranging from an entry level position as an "assistant professor" to "full professor," a rank reserved for professors who have established themselves as experts within their academic fields. Contrary to some beliefs, assistant professors, associate professors, and full professors are all, in fact, technically professors. Usually students who have completed their doctoral studies seek positions as assistant professors in colleges and universities. As they progress in their established fields through research, teaching, and service, they can make bids for promotion and tenure, which typically elevates them to the rank of associate professor. Associate professors who continue to establish high profiles and become experts in their fields of study may bid for a promotion to full professor, which is considered an esteemed position reserved for the most successful professors working in their fields. College and university teachers who hold the rank of lecturer or instructor are typically not tenured/tenure-track faculty, and usually focus on teaching undergraduate courses, and are generally not involved in research, nor are they typically involved in department and university decision-making. (Note that in other English-speaking countries, the term lecturer might have a different meaning. For example, in the United Kingdom and in Ireland, the position of lecturer is equivalent to that of assistant professor in the US system.)
The rank of assistant professor generally is held for a probationary period of three to seven years, after which the individual will either be promoted to associate professor and granted tenure (i.e., cannot be fired without cause and a formal hearing process) or will be terminated from employment. As of 2007, 23.1% of academics held the rank of assistant professor.
Competition for assistant professor positions in many fields is rapidly growing; the number of PhD graduates is rising, while the number of assistant professor openings remains roughly constant. The opposite is true, however, in business disciplines, where the anticipated shortfall of business faculty may reach 2,400 openings by 2012. The U.S. Occupation Outlook Handbook notes that a significant proportion of any growth in academic professor jobs will be due to "part-time and non tenure-track positions." As of 2003, the average age at which scientists received tenure in the United States was 39, which can make it difficult for professors to balance professional and family obligations.
After several years at the rank of assistant professor, individuals are considered for a promotion and tenure. Tenure generally constitutes a lifetime employment agreement, and is generally thought of as a means of protecting faculty whose research may be socially, politically, or scientifically controversial. Rates for achieving tenure vary, depending on the institutions and areas of study; in most places at least 50% of assistant professors will eventually become tenured and promoted to associate professors; however, this number can be as low as 10% in natural sciences departments of top universities or in non-PhD-granting schools. In unusual circumstances, it is possible to receive tenure but to remain as an assistant professor, typically when tenure is awarded early.
Upon successfully receiving tenure, an assistant professor usually is promoted to the rank of associate professor. The mid-level position is usually awarded after a substantial record of scholarly accomplishment (such as the publication of one or more books, numerous research articles, a successful program of external research grant support, successful teaching and/or service to the department); however the specific requirements vary considerably between institutions and departments. As of 2007, 22.4% of academics hold the rank of associate professor.
Alternatively, a person may be hired at the associate professor level without tenure (which is a typical practice at some universities, often done as a financial inducement to attract someone from outside the institution, but who might not yet meet all the qualifications for tenure). If an applicant is appointed to the rank of associate professor without tenure, the position is usually tenure-track with an expectation that the person will soon qualify for tenure.
At some institutions, individuals are promoted to the rank of associate professor prior to receiving tenure. In these situations, the individual may eventually apply for tenure at that institution or, optionally, seek a tenured position elsewhere.
Upon a sustained and distinguished track record of scholarly achievement within one's university and academic discipline, an associate professor may be promoted to professor (sometimes referred to as "full professor"). In most traditional colleges and universities, this position is always tenured; however, this may not be the case in a for-profit private institution or certain church-affiliated universities and colleges.
The rank of professor is the highest of the standard academic ranks in the United States, and is held by 29.5% of U.S. academics. Advancement past the rank of professor typically involves administrative duties (e.g., department chair, dean, or provost) or selection for an honorary title or endowed chair.
The absence of a mandatory retirement age contributes to "graying" of this occupation. The median age of American full professors is currently around 55 years. Very few people attain this position before the age of 40. The annual salary of full professors averages at $99,000, although less so at non-doctoral institutions, and more so at private doctoral institutions (not including side income from grants and consulting, which can be substantial in some fields); in addition, institutions in major cities or high cost of living areas will pay higher salaries. Full professors earn on average about 70% more than assistant professors in the same institution.
In addition to increasing salary, each promotional step also tends to come with increased administrative responsibilities. In some cases, these changes are offset by reduced teaching or research expectations.
A full professor who retires in good standing may be referred to as a professor emeritus for men, or professor emerita for women. This title is also given to retired professors who continue to teach and to be listed; they may also draw a very large percentage of their last salary as pension. The title may also be given to full professors who have left for another institution but are still working full-time. The concept has in some places been expanded to include also tenured associate professors, or also non-tenure-track faculty. In some systems and institutions the rank is bestowed on all professors who have retired in good standing, while at others it needs a special act or vote. Depending on local circumstances, professors emeritus may retain office space or other privileges.
The word is typically used as a postpositional adjective ("professor emeritus") but can also be used as a preposition adjective ("emeritus professor"). There is a third, somewhat less common usage, following the full title (e.g.,"professor of medicine, emeritus".)
Often specific to one institution, titles such as "president's professor", "university professor", "regents' professor", or "distinguished professor" are generally granted to a small percentage of the top tenured faculty who are regarded as particularly important in their respective fields of study. Some institutions grant more university-specific, formal titles such as M.I.T.'s "Institute Professor", Yale University's "Sterling Professor", or Duke University's "James B. Duke Professor".
Some academic and/or scholarly organizations may also bestow the title "distinguished professor" in recognition of achievement over the course of an academic career. For example, the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture annually recognizes up to five faculty at architecture schools in the United States and Canada with the ACSA Distinguished Professor Award.
A "named" or "endowed chair" is a full professor who is awarded a specific, endowed chair that has been sponsored by a fund, firm, person, etc. Named chairs are usually similar to the European model, in that they are a position rather than a career rank.
For non-tenure track teaching positions in the US, academic institutions use a wide array of different job titles depending on if the position is temporary or permanent, if the work is full-time or part-time, and numerous other factors. Adding to the confusion over the formal names of non-tenure track positions, in almost every case the common-noun descriptor "professor" is used informally for people who teach at a college or university, regardless of their formal job title, and the terms are often loosely interchanged by faculty and administrators. For example, US President Barack Obama is commonly referred to as having been a professor of law at the University of Chicago, when in fact he formally held the title of senior lecturer, causing some controversy during the 2008 US Presidential Election. The faculty of the University of Chicago Law School eventually published a statement noting that it is common for lecturers to be referred to as professors, and that they support the use of the term professor to describe Obama's role with the university.
"Lecturers" and "Instructors" in the US can work full-time or part-time and may be referred to as "professor" by their classes. At some institutions, they teach as their primary purpose, but they can also serve on academic committees. Since these positions are usually non-tenure track, they often do not involve a research or publishing requirement, although many of these professors do publish, research, and consult. Alternatively, at US medical colleges, the title "Instructor" can be given to someone who is full-time faculty and who may conduct research with no teaching obligation. These appointments are non-tenure track, as well.
An individual hired with a college or university to teach for a limited time is sometimes referred to as a "Visiting Professor" or "Visiting Lecturer"; this may be someone who is a professor elsewhere, or a scholar or practitioner who is not. The term may also refer simply to non-tenure track teaching appointments (usually 1 to 3 years) and/or post-doctorate research appointments. The title can mirror the naming conventions used in tenure-track positions, for example the professor in question could be called a "Visiting Assistant Professor", "Distinguished Visiting Professor," etc.
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An adjunct professor is a professor who does not hold a permanent or full-time position at that particular academic institution. This may be someone with a job outside the academic institution teaching courses in a specialized field, or it may refer to persons hired to teach courses on a contractual basis (frequently renewable contracts). It is generally with a teaching load below the minimum required to earn benefits (health care, life insurance, etc.) although the number of courses taught can vary.
An adjunct is generally not required (or permitted) to participate in the administrative responsibilities at the institution expected of other full-time professors, nor do they generally have research responsibilities.
Adjuncts provide flexibility to the faculty, acting as additional teaching resources to be called up as necessary. However, their teaching load is variable: classes can be transferred from adjuncts to full-time professors, classes with low enrollment can be summarily canceled and the teaching schedule from one semester to the next can be unpredictable. In some cases, an adjunct may hold one of the standard ranks in another department, and be recognized with adjunct rank for making significant contributions to the department in question. Thus, one could be an "associate professor of physics and adjunct professor of chemistry."
In some universities, there are different ranks of adjunct faculty. For example, at the University of Iowa, the ranks are adjunct instructor, adjunct assistant professor, adjunct associate professor, and adjunct full professor; the University states that “the expectations at each rank are similar to those for the same rank on the tenure track”.
In past decades, adjunct professors helped universities & colleges expand the range of their course offerings to prospective and existing students; For instance, a computer professional would be hired to teach a single course on mainframe computing; or, a business professional would be hired to teach a course on marketing or sales. In this respect, "adjuncts" can also be a way to inform the predominantly theoretical (and therefore, somewhat limited) focus of traditional, full-time academics, with the more pragmatic perspective of those who actually practice the discipline in "the real world".
Since the 1980s and '90's, however, colleges & universities have increasingly utilized adjuncts and full-time lecturers to teach core undergraduate curriculum (e.g., introductory-math, or, freshman-level English composition). Due to the steeply lower salaries adjunct professors command, many North American universities have significantly reduced their hiring of tenure-track (i.e., full-time, career) faculty, in favor of recruiting more adjuncts (and/or lecturers) as part-time, contract/temporary workers. As of 2007, such "contingent faculty" (non-tenure-track faculty) made up more than half of all faculty positions in the United States. Some college English departments are now staffed by a majority of adjunct teachers, instead of tenure-track professors. A 2014 Congressional review found that although only "an estimated 18.5 percent of college professors worked as part-time faculty members" in 1969, as of 2011 contingent faculty made up "75.5 percent of the college teaching workforce, or more than 1.3 million people." In 2014, a national news story described the situation of adjuncts as "Juggling multiple part-time jobs, earning little-to-no benefits, depending on public assistance: This is the financial reality for many adjunct professors across the nation."
Various problems result from this turn to economic expediency, by university administrators: a general reduction in the amount of research produced by the overall faculty; increasing departmental administration duties, spread amongst an ever-decreasing full-time faculty; and, a reduction in academic freedom, due to adjuncts' generally precarious job security. It has also raised the competition among PhDs, especially in the humanities, to find tenure-track assistant professorships (see above) -- calling into question the existence and value of many PhD programs that produce graduates unable to find career-level jobs in their fields of advanced study.
Though adjuncts hold at least a Master's degree, if not a PhD., the salary for these positions is relatively low; many adjuncts must work at several schools at once in order to earn a living in academia. Adjunct pay in state and community colleges varies; however, it can be as little as $1,400 USD for a 3-credit hour lecture-based course. At many private institutions on the East Coast, payment for a 3-credit hour course hovers around $3,000–4,000 USD, with average pay nation-wide as of 2014 estimated at around $2,000–3,000 USD. By contrast, tenure-track faculty at major universities often only teach up to two or three 3-credit-hour courses per semester, while earning vastly higher salaries. (However, at many institutions, tenure-track faculty are also typically required to produce a wide array of research; represent the school by attending academic conferences; mentor and supervise graduate students; obtain grants and other funding for the school; perform administrative duties; and, other responsibilities that adjunct faculty do not have.)
English professor William Pannapacker notes that adjunct professors often earn less than minimum wage, when factoring-in hours spent on classroom teaching, lesson preparation, office hours, grading of assignments, and other duties. One former adjunct in a dual-income family commented: "In the early years of my daughter’s life, I was really only covering childcare, which meant that the return on labor made my work essentially charity work." A.G. Monaco, head of human resources for the University of Akron, has declared that "Walmart is a more honest employer of part-time employees than are most colleges and universities." 
It is commonly thought that if the university makes a good faith offer to an adjunct professor of teaching during the following semester (depending on enrollment levels), the adjunct -- generally -- is rendered unable to file for unemployment benefits during inter-semester breaks. However, this situation varies from state-to-state. In California, as a result of the 1989 Cervisi decision, adjunct professors who do not have "reasonable assurance" of returning to work, can receive unemployment compensation during breaks in employment. Virtually all appointment offers to adjunct professors are contingent upon meeting minimum enrollment and departmental funding levels, or, continuation of the academic program under which they have been teaching. The 1989 Cervisi decision confirmed that such contingent offers do not constitute "reasonable assurance" of re-employment, as defined in state unemployment code.
Adjunct professors have remained with the same employer for as long as 25 years without receiving health insurance or retirement benefits. In 2014, a homeless female professor conducted a protest on the steps of the New York State Education Department Building.
Groups supporting the efforts of adjuncts to organize for improved wages and working conditions include the Service Employees International Union, the United Steelworkers, and the New Faculty Majority Foundation.
A professor who is primarily and originally associated with one academic department, but has become officially associated with a second department, institute, or program within the university and has assumed a professor's duty in that second department as well, could be called a "professor by courtesy." Example: "Dan Jurafsky is professor of linguistics and professor by courtesy of computer science at Stanford University". Usually, the second courtesy appointment carries with it fewer responsibilities and fewer benefits than a single full appointment (for example, affiliated professors rarely have voting rights in their courtesy department). Because affiliated professors are often listed following a partition in the catalog copy or web page for the department, they are often called "professors below the line" or "below the diamonds" or a similar phrase.
A professor who does not take on all of the classic duties of a professor, but instead focuses on research. At most universities, research professors are not eligible for tenure and must fund their salary entirely through research grants, with no regular salary commitment from internal university sources. In parallel with tenure-track faculty ranks, there are assistant and associate research professor positions.
These types of professors focus on teaching, often at higher loads than tenure track faculty, and in departments with graduate students, supervising teaching assistants. They may also be full-time contingent instructors who are not required to meet the research requirements of the tenure track. They may be ranked assistant, associate, and full.
A clinical professor engages in practical instruction (of professional students) typically with an emphasis on practical skills as opposed to theory. This generally is not a "tenure track" position, but can be either full- or part-time. These types of appointments are common in law, medicine, and business schools, and are sometimes referred to as 'professor of practice'.
This is a title normally granted to those who have contributed significantly to the school and community (for example, by donation for furtherance of research and academic development), but may or may not have earned a PhD.
Most professors are paid by a college or university on nine- or ten-month contracts. Salary data for professors is typically reported as a "9 month" salary, not including compensation received (often from research grants) during the summer. The overall median 9 month salary for all professors was $73,000, placing a slight majority of professors among the top 15% of earners at age 25 or older. Yet, their salaries remain considerably below that of some other comparable professions (even when including summer compensation) such as lawyers (who earned a median of $110,000) and physicians (whose median earnings ranged from $137,000 to $322,000 depending on speciality). According to the U.S. Department of Labor,
[Academic year] salaries for full-time faculty averaged $73,207. By rank, the average was $98,974 for professors, $69,911 for associate professors, $58,662 for assistant professors, $42,609 for instructors, and $48,289 for lecturers. Faculty in 4-year institutions earn higher salaries, on average, than do those in 2-year schools. In 2006–07, faculty salaries averaged $84,249 in private independent institutions, $71,362 in public institutions, and $66,118 in religiously affiliated private colleges and universities.
Salaries varied widely by field and rank ranging from $45,927 for an assistant professor in theology to $136,634 for a full professor in legal professions and studies. Another study by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources found the average salary for all faculty members, including instructors, to be $66,407, placing half of all faculty members in the top 15.3% of income earners above the age of 25. Median salaries were $54,000 for assistant professors, $64,000 for associate professors and $86,000 for full professors 2005. During the 2005–06 year, salaries for assistant professors ranged from $45,927 in theology to $81,005 in law. For associate professors, salaries ranged from $56,943 in theology to $98,530 in law, while salaries among full professors ranged from $68,214 in theology to $136,634 in law. During the 2010–11 year, associate professor salaries vary from $59,593 in theology to $93,767 in law. Full professors at elite institutions commonly enjoy six-figure incomes, such as $123,300 at UCLA or $148,500 at Stanford. The CSU system, which is the largest system in the U.S. with over 11,000 faculty members, had an average full-time faculty salary of $74,000 in 2007, which had been scheduled to increase to $91,000 by 2011. Unfortunately for these faculty, the ensuing crash of the U.S. economy resulted in temporary pay reductions and total salary stagnation at the 2007 level instead, with this same level of pay now forecast to persist through 2015 at least, in spite of ongoing inflation. Professors in teacher education sometimes earn less than they would if they were still elementary classroom teachers. In one case study report, it was shown that a beginning full-time tenure-track assistant professor in elementary teacher education at California State University, Northridge was hired in 2002 at a salary of $53,000., which was $15,738. less than she would have earned in her previous position as a 9-month public school kindergarten teacher, ($68,738). See Gordon, L. M. (2004, January 6). From kindergarten teacher to college professor: A comparison chart of salaries, work load, and professional preparation requirements. Published proceedings of the Hawaii International Conference on Education. ISSN# 1541-5880. Adjunct college instructors, as previously mentioned, make from $1,500 to $4,000 per course, so that if teaching four courses per semester (a schedule difficult to maintain for reasons of distance and market saturation, and a higher load than tenure track faculty must endure), they can earn from $12,000 to $32,000.
|Rank||Lowest median by field||Highest median by field||Overall median||Common range||Common salary range in relation to labor force|
|Full-time, age 25+||All earners age 25+|
|Assistant professor||$45,927||$81,005||$58,662||Low 50s – Low 60s||70th to 75th percentile||77th to 83rd percentile|
|Associate professor||$56,943||$98,530||$69,911||Low 60s – High 70s||75th to 86th percentile||83rd to 87th percentile|
|Full professor||$68,214||$136,634||$98,974||High 70s – Low 100s|
Mid 100s at Elite Universities
|86th to 91st percentile|
|87th to 91st percentile|