What are the types of faculty appointments in higher education?

Unlike many career fields, there is a relatively small variation in the types of appointments for faculty members in colleges and universities. However, I often find that many non-faculty have a hard time understanding the different types of appointments used in higher education. Once you understand the basic underlying structure for appointments, it is easy to quickly figure out the types of faculty appointments in higher education.

Photo credit: John Lemieux

I think much of the confusion regarding faculty appointments comes from the fact that different institutions used slightly different names to describe the appointments.  Despite this, the basic structure of appointments does not vary tremendously between institutions.

There are two primary considerations when trying to decipher appointment types:  rank and length of term.


Faculty rank is used to differentiate seniority among professors.

The typical structure in ascending order is assistant, associate, and full.

Full professor is the highest rank that a faculty member can receive.

In addition to assistant, associate, and full professors, institutions also have positions called lecturers. Many times (although not always), these are teaching focused positions where the person does not hold a doctorate.

Generally speaking, the job responsibilities for a faculty member do not change based on rank. Senior faculty may have special responsibilities based on their rank (for example, full professors play a significant role in the tenure and promotion process). In addition, many senior administrative positions require a rank of full professor such as dean or provost.

However, rank helps provide a structure for promotion and advancement by faculty. Assistant professors go up for promotion typically in their 6th year. Associate professors have no timetable comparable to assistant professors.  Some associate professors never seek promotion to full and remain at the associate rank for their entire careers. Most associate professors that pursue promotion will go up between 6-10 years after receiving their tenure and promotion.

While most people tend to think about faculty rank relative to tenure earning faculty, rank often exists for non-tenure earning positions and largely follows the assistant, associate, full progression.

Length of term

Faculty contracts vary tremendously in their length from lifetime appointments to one semester.

One of the key differences in faculty positions is if the position is tenure-track, tenure-earning, or tenure-eligible (all terms that mean the same thing— that someone can earn tenure).

For tenure track positions, the initial time frame for assistant professors is typically 6 years. Most institutions will formally appoint a person for 3 or 4 years at which time a determination is made about the likelihood to receive tenure before offering an additional 2 or 3 year contract. In the 6th year, the assistant professor will go up for tenure and promotion.

If successful, the person will be granted tenure (lifetime contract) and promotion to associate professor. At this point, the faculty member has a lifetime contract regardless of whether the person decides to pursue promotion to full or remain an associate for the remainder of their career.

Other faculty positions are for a fixed period of time and may be called non-tenure track, clinical, research, or contingent (there are many more names institutions use to describe these positions).

Some fixed term appointments are renewable. That is, the person does not have to reapply or reinterview for the position, but can be renewed based on an evaluation by the dean and department chair. Typically, as long as a faculty member is doing a decent job and holds a renewable appointment, they are renewed for another contract.


Higher ranks and longer term contracts will indicate the seniority of the faculty member. So the next time you see a faculty title of Clinical Associate Professor (you’ll know the person is in the middle rank of a non-tenure earning position). If you see an assistant professor, you’ll know they are early in their career and working toward their 6 year path to tenure. The simple schematic to use when seeking to understand the types of faculty appointments in higher education is to look for rank and length of contract which will provide you with a decent rule of thumb for figuring out the stage, seniority, and role of a faculty member within a university.