This post is largely concerned with Professors, and from this post a reader may discover much of their character. Now Professor is rather a general term for the person that teaches your college class. But it can also be a specific term, as we shall soon see.
A college department, be it English or Psychology or Communications, is filled with teachers of all kinds. There are the professors, and the instructors, and the visiting professors, and the adjunct professors. It is useful for a student to learn a thing or two about this taxonomy. It satisfies curiosity, sets expectations, and prevents surprises.
Let us start with the Professor, in the specific sense. Your professors almost without exception have a doctorate in their field of expertise. They will spend 6-10 years after college in graduate school to earn this degree. Your Professor probably did not grow up in the same area where you attend college. In fact, they have probably crisscrossed the country a few times before settling where they are today. A university will hire a Professor based on the specific expertise they possess. For example, a history department may want an expert on early American history. A biology department may want a neuroscientist. They are sought out for their expertise, not because they are necessarily good teachers. Professors are expected to conduct primary research and make new discoveries as long as they remain employed. How much time they spend doing research depends almost entirely on what the college expects.
Professors come in three flavors, sometimes four. There is the Assistant Professor. This person has not been at the university very long. They are typically young, full of energy, and trying to do a good job. The Assistant Professor is a probationary employee that is subject to dismissal for almost any reason. They remain probationary for 6 years. At that point they are either promoted to Associate Professor, or they are fired. The 6-year mark is important because the university decides whether to award the Assistant Professor tenure. To obtain tenure, an Assistant Professor must conduct productive research, do a reasonable job teaching, and contribute to the life of the university by serving on committees. Tenure is a misunderstood idea. Most people think it means a job for life. Not true. It means your employer needs a reason to fire you. I have seen more than one tenured professor fired for cause (and good riddance)!
An Associate Professor is accomplished in their field, and is usually (but not always) a good teacher. One can remain an Associate Professor for their whole career, if they choose to. Then there is the full Professor, or just Professor. A Professor is extremely accomplished in their field. They typically have completed tree or four times the amount of research required for tenure. They are often quite good as teachers. Just as the university decides if an Assistant Professor can become an Associate Professor with tenure, so to do they decide if an Associate Professor can be promoted to Professor. There are also Distinguished Professors at some schools. A college may have one or two of these folks. They often are recognized globally for their area of expertise.
If you are interested in getting research experience, talking to a Professor is your best bet. They are also almost always the best people to get letters of recommendation from.
Next, there are the Lecturers and Instructors. These professors sometimes have a doctorate degree, but are just as likely to have spent less time in graduate school. They will often have a Master’s degree. They are hired for their general knowledge, not because they are experts in a specific area of expertise. Their primary job is teaching, and they are often better teachers than the professors. They do not know more, necessarily. But they do not have research responsibilities and all of the divided attention that professors have. At most colleges, Instructors are the probationary employees. Once promoted, they often have something like tenure called a continuing contract. The college decides they are good and want to keep them. Some colleges also have Senior Lecturers. These folks are Lecturers who are promoted for their exceptional work.
Lecturers and instructors can write you good letters of recommendation, and can help you network professionally. They usually cannot offer you research opportunities, but can point you in the right direction.
Last, there are the Visiting Professors and Adjunct Professors, and Adjunct Instructors. These are people as well educated as your professors, almost always possessing a PhD. They differ in that they have no job security. They may appear one year on campus, never to be seen again. Adjunct Professors and Adjunct Instructors are usually paid very poorly, and make less than $2000 per class. At one time, universities only used Adjuncts on a temporary basis. They filled in when a professor or lecturer was sick or on leave. Now, they are viewed as a cost-saving measure. Universities increasingly rely on Adjunct Professors to teach classes. Many Adjunct Professors teach courses at multiple schools in a single term, trying to make enough money to pay the rent.
These professors in the broad sense view themselves as being the heart and soul of the university. They often gripe about administrators and “the administration.” These are the deans, vice presidents, and president of your university. The administrators and the professors have a very different vision of what college is about. But that is the subject of a future post.