Wednesday, August 27, 2008

No Assistants Required

Let's do away with the existing adjectives used to describe the professorial ranks. These terms are inaccurate, somewhat annoying, and they do not inspire confidence in our non-academic friends and relations. We need more awe-inspiring adjectives.

Even once you become a Professor (as in, a so-called "full" professor, although "full" is not technically part of the title) and you lose the demeaning adjectives, all is not perfect. When people ask me my title and I say "Professor", I am then asked "What kind of professor? Do you have tenure?", as if I am leaving out some information by not including any adjective. In some situations I am reluctant to say "full professor" because I am quite tired of the "full of what?" question that inevitably follows. We all need better adjectives.

I do not think we should adopt a military style system. Many of the names of ranks are unintuitive in terms of their relative significance. For example, I think my brother's rank sounded more impressive when he was a Commander than a Captain, but I'm pretty sure he was a Captain after he was a Commander. I suppose everyone knows that an Admiral or a General is a highly ranked officer, but the rest of the names are kind of obscure. And I can never keep track of whether my Marine Colonel uncle is more highly ranked than my Army Captain uncle. I don't really care, but apparently this controls who gets what chair at the dinner table.

I suppose we could add 'stars' to our professorial ranks, as that is a simple concept that would instantly convey status. If we are going to keep some adjectives for the pre-full professor ranks, though, we need some better adjectives.

So: Send me some adjectives and I will construct a poll of the top choices.


Anonymous said...



Nouns (replace the professor rank entirely):


Yes, I *did* recently get promoted. I'm now a Lettered Tutor.

Ben Lillie said...

"Egregious" is one of my favorites, courtesy of Terry Pratchett.

If you want rankings based on how professors are thought of by the university, you could assign "M"s. 1M Professor, 5M Professor, etc., representing the amount of grant money they had brought to the university.

Anonymous said...

A few more adjectives:


Anonymous said...

chief executive professor.

Anonymous said...

I have always liked "emeritus" but didn't always know what it meant. I did observe they were all old and thought it sounded like a disease if you pronounced it em-er-I-tus.

Anonymous said...

I personally find this to be a ludicrous idea. In fact, if anything academia needs fewer ranks -- just two would do, boiling down to pre- and post-tenure. Ranks are confusing for outsiders (as you yourself point out when discussing your relatives in the military, although your professed confusion as to the relative seniority of your "army captain" vs. "marine colonel" uncles must be affected), fairly arbitrary (is is better to be Associate Prof at MIT or Full Prof at Emory?), and more importantly, currency in research-oriented academia is almost solely a function of one's impact on the field. As such, it is (usually, but of course not always) recognized by awards and honors -- I'm sure the brass in your family will be highly impressed when you are elected to the National Academy of Sciences, for example. But presumably this would require spending less time in gender/academic-victimhood and more time doing actual research...

Candid Engineer said...

My husband and I have a one-upsmanship game with the adjective 'awesome'. There is plain old 'awesome', followed by 'super-awesome', followed by 'turbo-awesome'. Can't get any better than that.

Anonymous said...

Assistant Professor = Prince/Princess
{to convey the sense of heir apparent)

Associate Professor = Emporer/Emporess
Sound better than King/Queen, doesn't sound easily dislodged, and conveys the proper sense of the vast realm one rules

Professor = Ruler of the Universe
Doesn't that sound cool.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

Junior professor, professor, senior professor?

Anonymous said...

I think "Lieutenant Professor" has a nice ring to it.
- A Cadet

BrightStar (B*) said...

I love this! I don't have good ideas for new titles, but I dislike being called an Assistant Professor, as if I am helping someone and not REALLY the professor.

chall said...

well, I guess the First, Second and Third professor would be an alternative? ;) Although, I think it might be a bit confusing when a Department have 5 First profs and 2 third but no second?

but as you said, the assistant and associate does make it confusing. I guess though, you are still called professor when you are Ass. prof. In my native country of Sweden the is called 'Lektor' since you usually teach as a part of your position. Then you get professor... the distinction would be if you get money to go with the professor Chair or if you're "only" promoted to professor.

I see that it might seem confuseing too. Hopefully you get some more good suggestions as previously posted are good.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Darth Professor
Senator Professor
Chancellor Professor
Imperial Professor

Luis said...

Real-life stuff: At UCLA, and I assume the UCs in general, you can be a Professor Above Scale and even a Professor Further Above Scale. They also have a university- (not campus-)bestowed title called Distinguished Professor.

And then there's always endowed chair titles, which range from the sublime to the silly.

Anonymous said...

J.O. is clearly a bit of a jerk and I think this is a fun exercise for a blog, but I have to agree that the last thing academia needs is more ranks and titles.

In the military, a clear hierarchy is important for efficiency and making it clear who gets the last word. This is the _complete opposite_ of what we want in science. Too much authority stifles creativity and the last thing we want is to codify that.

Anonymous said...

On a different, but related, matter, I hate the term "adjunct." Not too fond of "lecturer" either. As a non-tenure track "contingent faculty" (sounds like I have a disease, doesn't it), I don't even get to be called a professor (despite my PhD and the fact I teach/publish more than many of the 'real profs' at my campus.) Academic hierarchy (and the lingo to go with it) bites.

Ms.PhD said...

Wow, we must be psychically connected. I was just thinking again about how, if I got a job, I would be an Assistant Professor, and how I don't ever really want to be anything with Ass in the title of it.

That said, I agree that fewer ranks and maybe pre or post tenure would be better, but it sounds too much like the whole predoctoral vs. postdoctoral bullshit. It's kind of meaningless in some ways, and in practice it just means different levels of lab slave.

Some ideas:

Lab Head
Grantwriter Extraordinaire
Lecture Presenter
Teaching Supervisor

Anonymous said...

As an aside, I find the slight distinction between "asst professor" and "research asst professor" kind of annoying. They sound so similar, but there is a huge difference between being on the path to tenure and being a glorified postdoc. Well, maybe glorified postdoc isn't exactly the right term, but it's definitely not the same as asst professor.

Anonymous said...

hmmm...comments like that one by j.o. kind of highlight the need for women to continue to speak up, don't they?

love how that works sometimes :)

Anonymous said...

wow, j.o. is an ass if I ever did see one. That person is surfing the web but thinks joking about the nomenclature of our job titles is a waste of time! Jeez. I love the blog -- great mind break during my 5 minute lunch.

I say we just go with:

naive professor
disillusioned professor
completely fed-up professor

Pagan Topologist said...

When I was in Poland in the 1970's, there were three ranks as I recall. The lowest rank faculty were simply called "Dr." the next was "Docent" and the top (which carried extreme prestige) was "Professor."

At my University, we have what are regarded nowadays as four professorial ranks, since "Chair Professor" or "Named Professor" is the top rank, above Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Professor. I do not especially aspire to this top rank, though I certainly would not turn it down.

Anonymous said...

Here in my old school in New Zealand we have:

Lecturer (does not have tenure)
Senior Lecturer (has tenure)
Associate Professor
Emeritus Professor

Some departments here have no professors, only lecturers.
And then, to confuse things:

Tutor - for those who work in their field but come in for 2 hours a week to run tutorials alongside the main course.
Senior Tutor (not sure - but he has been doing it a long time)

Adjunct Fellow
Adjunct Professor (for one who flys in from another country to do a seminar now and then)
Visiting Professor (for one who comes for a term)

Plus Visiting Lecturer

And then there's Dean, Head of School, and the Pro Vice Chancellor, so that's quite a lot of titles.

By my reading, the common-or-garden Professor in the US = Senior Lecturer here.

But FSP sounds like she would have Professor ranking here.

Anonymous said...

As you noted, it can even be difficult in the military, where the Navy uses a completely different set of titles. However, the hierarchy underlying the titles is consistent, so it's common to reference by "O" level - an O6 is a Colonel in the Army or a Captain in the Navy, while an 03 is a Captain in the Army but a Lieutenant in the Navy.

So academics can be P1, P2, or P3!

Anonymous said...

Speaking of adjectives (ok nouns I guess) to add, last year I was (and I am truly grateful!) honored to become the Joe Q. and Jane Y. Donor Professor of Life Sciences...This is great, but not something that rolls off the tongue gracefully in conversation...

Female Science Professor said...

In fact, this very topic will appear in tomorrow's post (already loaded up and scheduled)! At least you didn't up with nicknames in your title..

Minos said...

Personally, I like Dan Drezner's notion of distinguishing Full from Associate Professors (

When required to wear full academic regalia, full professors get to wear swords. Nobody better mess with me at commencement.

But that's just me.

Anonymous said...

how about:


Unknown said...

In Germany they had a system with (C1-C4) positions, where C1 was a TA and C4 a real, full professor at a university, not a measly technical university. Then they changed the designations to W1-W3 with no number for TA:s. However, the numbers are mostly for administration purposes (and tells people witch salary category you belong to).

The wikipedia-article on Professorships in Germany is wonderfully obscure, even for those that do read German.

Anonymous said...

The adjectives aren't the problem. The problem is the notion of calling everyone hired at a university "professor". Only (full) professors should be professors, all others can have other suitable titles. For once the British got their nomenclature right:

Senior lecturer

Clear, simple and unambiguous (though the British are trying their very best to mess things up by mixing old and new systems and the American system).

I would personally suggest removing the Senior lecturer title, reducing the number of ranks to three for the permanently employed, but then add two other titles: Research fellow (for fixed-term research staff between the postdoc and lecturer levels) and Teaching fellow or Tutor for teachers without a PhD.

I think the Americans made a mistake calling everyone a professor, just as I think we made a mistake in Sweden when we instituted the possibility of being promoted to the title of professor, but without everything else that earlier came with at professorship (a chair). This just makes a mess of the nomenclature and devalues the professor title.

Anonymous said...

I've thought and thought again about this. In life without tenure, it appears to be all about who's classes get scheduled where, which committees you sit on, and how much departmental kitty you get to play with. (Reasons why earlier FSP posts about _selective_ poor access to rooms amongst final grade workers irritated me.)

Or we could flatten the grade scale entirely, bump the RA/TAs and Post-docs, Research only's and Admin into one system, called Academic Grades I-XII.

Except I've noticed Universities avoid appointing in the lowest three ranks of a unified scale.