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Assistant Professor vs. Associate Professor — What's the Difference?

By Urooj Arif & Maham Liaqat — Published on March 5, 2024
An Assistant Professor is an entry-level tenure-track faculty position, focusing on teaching and research. An Associate Professor is a mid-level, tenured position, recognizing scholarly achievement and increased responsibilities.
Assistant Professor vs. Associate Professor — What's the Difference?

Difference Between Assistant Professor and Associate Professor


Key Differences

Assistant Professors typically begin their academic careers after completing their Ph.D., entering a tenure-track period where they focus on teaching, conducting research, and publishing their work. In contrast, Associate Professors have successfully passed the tenure review, a process evaluating their contributions to their field, teaching effectiveness, and service to the academic community, marking a significant milestone in an academic career.
The journey from Assistant to Associate Professor involves rigorous assessment of one’s academic contributions, including published research, successful grant applications, and positive teaching evaluations. Achieving tenure and promotion to Associate Professor often requires years of dedication and signifies recognition of sustained academic excellence. Associate Professors, having secured tenure, enjoy greater job security and are expected to take on more significant roles in departmental leadership and mentorship within the academic community.
Assistant Professors are in a phase of career development where they are expected to establish themselves in their academic discipline, requiring them to balance teaching responsibilities with the demands of conducting and publishing original research. As Associate Professors, they are encouraged to expand their research agendas, seek external funding, and contribute to the strategic direction of their departments and institutions through service on committees and in governance roles.
The transition from Assistant to Associate Professor not only reflects an individual's growth in their field but also changes their role within the academic institution. Associate Professors often mentor junior faculty and graduate students, guiding them through the early stages of their academic careers. This mentorship is vital for the development of the next generation of scholars and researchers.
Assistant Professors are building their careers with an eye toward tenure, whereas Associate Professors have achieved a level of recognition that allows them to focus more on leadership, advanced research, and the mentorship of others within their academic community.

Comparison Chart

Position Level

Entry-level tenure-track
Mid-level, tenured


Establishing research and teaching credentials
Expanding research, leadership in academia

Tenure Status



Teaching, research, some service
Teaching, research, increased service and leadership

Career Stage

Early, building portfolio for tenure review
Mid-career, recognized for contributions to the field

Compare with Definitions

Assistant Professor

Begins the tenure-track journey.
Dr. Smith, an Assistant Professor in Biology, is researching coral reef ecosystems.

Associate Professor

Enjoys the benefits of tenure.
With tenure, the Associate Professor launched a new interdisciplinary research project.

Assistant Professor

Aims for a strong tenure application.
He secured a major grant in his second year as an Assistant Professor.

Associate Professor

Shapes departmental direction.
The Associate Professor chaired the committee on academic standards.

Assistant Professor

Faces a critical review process.
She is preparing her tenure dossier, highlighting her achievements as an Assistant Professor.

Associate Professor

Established in their academic field.
As an Associate Professor, he was invited to keynote at an international conference.

Assistant Professor

Contributes to departmental committees.
The Assistant Professor joined the curriculum review committee.

Associate Professor

Achieved after successful tenure review.
Dr. Jones was promoted to Associate Professor following her tenure approval.

Assistant Professor

Balances classroom instruction with scholarly work.
As an Assistant Professor, she published several articles on genetic markers.

Associate Professor

Involved in governance and mentorship.
She mentors junior faculty as part of her role as an Associate Professor.

Common Curiosities

What happens if an Assistant Professor does not achieve tenure?

If tenure is not granted, the Assistant Professor may need to leave the institution, often seeking employment at another university or in a different capacity outside academia.

How does one become an Associate Professor?

Becoming an Associate Professor typically requires successfully passing a tenure review that assesses teaching effectiveness, research contributions, and service to the academic community.

What is the key difference between an Assistant and an Associate Professor?

The key difference lies in tenure status and career stage, with Assistant Professors being pre-tenure and establishing their careers, while Associate Professors are tenured and recognized for their contributions.

Do Associate Professors have more job security than Assistant Professors?

Yes, Associate Professors, having achieved tenure, enjoy greater job security compared to their pre-tenure counterparts.

Can Assistant Professors be involved in departmental leadership?

While Assistant Professors can participate in some aspects of departmental service, significant leadership roles are more commonly assumed after achieving tenure.

How long does it typically take to move from Assistant to Associate Professor?

The timeline can vary but generally ranges from 5 to 7 years, depending on the institution's policies and the individual's accomplishments.

What responsibilities do Associate Professors have that differ from Assistant Professors?

While both are involved in teaching, research, and service, Associate Professors often take on more leadership roles within their department or university, such as chairing committees.

Are teaching responsibilities different between Assistant and Associate Professors?

Teaching responsibilities may remain consistent, but Associate Professors often have more flexibility to design courses or lead in curriculum development.

Is research more important than teaching in the tenure review process?

The importance of research versus teaching can vary by institution, but both are critical components of the tenure review process.

Can Associate Professors still advance their careers further?

Yes, Associate Professors can further advance to full Professorship, a position that recognizes sustained excellence in research, teaching, and service.

What role do Associate Professors play in mentoring?

They play a crucial role in mentoring junior faculty and graduate students, sharing insights from their journey and supporting their development in academia.

What is the main difference between an Assistant Professor and an Associate Professor?

The main difference lies in rank and tenure status; Assistant Professors are often on a tenure track but not yet tenured, while Associate Professors have typically been granted tenure and hold a higher academic rank.

Is the salary significantly different between Assistant and Associate Professors?

Yes, Associate Professors typically earn higher salaries than Assistant Professors, reflecting their higher rank and tenure status.

Can an Associate Professor be promoted?

Yes, Associate Professors can be promoted to full Professors, the highest academic rank, based on further achievements in research, teaching, and service.

Can an Assistant Professor apply for tenure?

Yes, Assistant Professors on the tenure track are expected to apply for tenure, usually after a probationary period of about 5-7 years.

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Author Spotlight

Written by
Urooj Arif
Urooj is a skilled content writer at Ask Difference, known for her exceptional ability to simplify complex topics into engaging and informative content. With a passion for research and a flair for clear, concise writing, she consistently delivers articles that resonate with our diverse audience.
Co-written by
Maham Liaqat

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