A Continuation of “Who is Teaching This Class?”: Job Titles of Faculty and Contingent Faculty

The person at the front of your college classroom can have any number of job titles. The very best students understand the significance of these different designations and how the hierarchy of the professoriate matters.

Now that we have shed some light on those pesky honorifics in the first blog in this series, let’s see if we can sort out job titles.

Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Professor

These are the basic titles that are given to full-time faculty members at a university in the US.

Assistant Professors are the lowest tier (and believe me, it is a tiered system that rivals the military in terms of rank and power) of full-time faculty. These are the most recent hires to the faculty, and they typically hold terminal degrees in their fields. These new hires are usually on the tenure track, but they will work 5-7 years and jump through another huge set of hoops to earn tenure. Assistant Professors frequently have the heaviest teaching loads coupled with aggressive research and publishing demands.

Associate Professor is the middle tier of the professoriate. They have either earned tenure or are very close to earning tenure.

Professor is the highest academic title. It would be unusual for a professor not to have tenure. They typically teach the cushiest schedules (some only teach once or twice a year) and have the highest salaries.

Endowed Professor, Endowed Chair, Distinguished Professor, Professor Emeritus

All of these are special honors given to the professoriate as recognition for exceptional research in their area of expertise. Professor Emeritus is an honorary title given to certain retired professors who have made important impacts in their fields. Typically, these awards come with lighter teaching loads and additional funding for research.

Guess What? Not Everyone Teaching Your Classes is Part of This Elite System of Nomenclature.

The university system values rank, yet there are those doing the work who do not earn the big titles (or the nice salaries that accompany them). This is the group of instructors, adjuncts, and graduate teaching assistants who normally do the “service teaching,” as the professoriate likes to call it. Essentially, these very low-paid (much less than minimum wage with no options for health insurance or retirement savings) people teach the classes that the more elite professoriate would rather not teach – the basic, intro courses that typically make up the core curriculum for freshmen and sophomores. These classes are full of non-majors and have the largest number of students (equating to more time grading and more work) which makes teaching them less desirable. The Washington Post in 2019 reported that contingent faculty make up 40% of the academic workforce.


Instructors are hired by contract which is renewed annually (or for a set time period). They are not part of the professor ranks, but they are considered higher than the lowly adjunct. Instructors can have terminal degrees (and it behooves you to know how to address them), but some do not.


Adjuncts are the exploited class of the teaching staff. They are hired per class, per semester as contract laborers. They do not have access to typical benefits such as healthcare and retirement plans. Nor are they invited to faculty meetings, dinners, or social events. Many times, adjuncts hold terminal degrees in their fields. Some are even published, active in academic conferences, and conduct important research. They were just unlucky enough to come through the graduate system now – a time when the full-time faculty ranks are shrinking and being hired to a tenure-track position is like finding a unicorn in the wild. Adjuncts are typically given the least desirable teaching assignments (core classes for freshmen and sophomores) and can be hired and terminated at a moment’s notice.

Graduate Teaching Assistants

These are graduate students who have at least a year of master’s level coursework under their belts and are then turned loose in the classroom to teach intro courses as the instructor of record. Their roles at the university are bifurcated – they are both instructors and students which renders them powerless in the structure that is the American university. In return for their work in the classroom, they receive tuition waivers and small stipends. Most prioritize their own studies over their teaching responsibilities (and if they don’t, they should).

What All of This Means

You need to understand who is teaching your classes. For high school students and their parents considering college, you want to be exposed to full-time faculty instead of part-time instructors who may or may not be around next semester. As you visit colleges and meet admissions officers, you should ask about the number of contingent staff teaching on campus and the types of courses that they teach before you apply. It is a fair question and more prospective students should be asking it. Especially in this current environment where tuition rates are skyrocketing, and, yet most contingent teaching staff are not paid a living wage.

Further, if you are already in college, you need to differentiate between full-time faculty and part-time instructors for very important reasons. If your plan is to continue to graduate school, you will need recommendations from 2-3 professors. Notice, I used the word professor here. A recommendation from that really nice graduate teaching assistant who taught your English 101 class or that pleasant adjunct who taught your Intro to Sociology course is not going to help your application to graduate school. You need recommendations from faculty, preferably tenured faculty who are leaders in their fields. Therefore, you should work on developing relationships with tenured faculty leading courses in your major.

Sometimes, you will need a faculty recommender or two for programs you apply to that are associated with your undergraduate work such as a research project or honors program. Once again, it might be easier to ask that nice, approachable adjunct, but it will not help your application as much as a recommendation from a professor who is full-time faculty. It is a tiered system, and those making decisions in these cases will want to hear from their full-time faculty about your credentials, not their contingent instructors.  

Even future employers could understand the difference between a recommendation from a full-time faculty member versus an adjunct.

Another issue to remember is that contingent faculty come and go. If these are the only instructors you have connected with, you may not even be able to find them when it comes time to need a recommendation or a mentor to work through a research project. Universities switch off their contingent faculty’s email almost immediately at the end of their contract, so unless you have another means to contact them, you will be hard put to get that needed recommendation.

Be a wise consumer and know who will be leading your class. Students who take the time to understand the system will have much better outcomes and receive more value for their tuition dollar. I can help you unravel this mystery and more! Contact me at [email protected].

Know your faculty!