You and Your Professor (Part 3): Who Are They? - Undergrad Success

You and Your Professor (Part 3): Who Are They?

You and Your Professor (Part 3): Who Are They?
Avatar photo

The last two installments of this series focused on topics of maximizing communications with your professor and better ways to navigate the online environment.  Let’s now take some time to focus on some of the ways to better understand who your faculty members are and their distinctive roles.


An important thing to know is each faculty member carries with them a particular rank.  The most common of these are Instructor, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor and (Full) Professor.  These titles carry with them various privileges and focus areas.  Instructors, for example, are the least-seasoned of all faculty members, but that doesn’t suggest less skill or training.

Assistant and Associate Professors are typically in the mid-range of their careers and still have the opportunity to advance or (using higher education vernacular) be “promoted.”  Promotion involves a series of steps and criteria evaluated by peers and administrators.

The highest rank, Professor, is reserved for those who have a track record of outstanding service to the college, their field, and longevity.



Tenure is a designation afforded to selected faculty members who perform successfully in key areas of their profession.  It is sometimes misunderstood, even by those in higher education, but ultimately it denotes a faculty member of tremendous skill who has been awarded a deeper commitment by their institution.

Translation: it is a BIG deal and you should respect it!

Other Classifications

In addition to the rank and tenure designations, faculty are classified in other ways.  For example, you might have an Adjunct faculty member as a professor.  The status of adjunct means that this individual teaches less than a full load of classes and isn’t bound to the “extra” requirements of a tenured or tenure-track faculty member.

An important thing to recognize if your professor holds an adjunct status is that he/she might have a schedule unlike their full-time counterparts.  They may teach at multiple institutions, work in their particular field, or have other variations in their schedule.  Keep this in mind when attempting to schedule office hours, phone calls, etc.

You might also encounter an Emeritus Professor in your educational journey.  This rank is reserved for retired faculty members who still teach some sections of courses.  If you ever have the opportunity to study under an Emeritus faculty member, recognize the longevity and service they have offered to obtain the title.  Pretty amazing!

How to Address Your Faculty

One of the questions asked most by students is what to call their professors.

I have a simple answer which will likely save you any awkward moments—as a default, I believe you should always called them “Professor.”  Some act as if this is a pretentious title, but I would suggest it is reflective of their position and status.  Clergy, politicians, coaches, doctors and others are always afforded their proper title in communications.  You should allow for the same level of respect for your professors, as well.

Also, when it is appropriate, you should always refer to them as “Doctor.”  This is a title granted after many years of education, the completion of graduate study and the writing of a dissertation—in short, if they have earned the title of Doctor, you should call them by that name.

One small note…if your professor grants you or the class permission to call them by their first names, then it is fine.  Otherwise, do not assume you can do this.  I communicate with former professors, long after I have graduated and moved on, that I still refer to as “Doctor” or “Professor.”

It’s just manners.

I hope this gives you a bit more insight into who your professors are and what their title/rank means.  If you have questions which I have not yet addressed in this series, please connect and let me know!

Avatar photo

Casey J. Cornelius, Founder of ForCollegeForLife, is a writer and speaker who is passionate about student success. He has spent more than a decade as a faculty member, advisor, administrator and mentor. Feel free to connect on his Facebook page, ForCollegeForLife, or on Twitter @4college4life. His work can be found weekly on UndergradSuccess and he serves as an educational expert and content contributor to GenYize.

More in Academic

How To Tell If A School Is A Good Fit For You

UGSuccessMay 19, 2024

How can Students Improve Credit Score in College?

UGSuccessMay 17, 2024

How Your Degree Can Be a Stepping Stone to a Great Career

UGSuccessMay 15, 2024

How to Grow an Instagram Account from Zero to 100k Followers

UGSuccessMay 13, 2024

What is academic plagiarism | effects and how to avoid

UGSuccessMay 12, 2024

Don’t Go For Any Old Job – Look at the Values

UGSuccessMay 7, 2024