Overview of academic research, teaching and other positions

Elizabeth Stivison
Feb. 7, 2020

Academic job titles can seem to be full mystery and hidden meaning, even those in the traditional path: Ph.D. to postdoc, then to assistant, associate and full professor. Even though I’ve been in academia several years, I still wonder: What exactly are these jobs, and what are all the other academic jobs that aren’t exactly in this flow? 

This week I investigated all the academic job titles I could find to understand what the options are for people looking to participate in research and teaching in academia. I am not including any alt-academic or academic administrative jobs, since my colleague Martina Efeyini covers those beautifully in her columns, like this one on research administration careers. I’m also not including clinical research positions here — only positions related to bench work or teaching.

I have included links to relevant resources about positions when available. Some positions that I did not include resources for have definitions and resources on various university websites. These school sites, like this one for University of North Carolina or this one for the University of Michigan, usually contain information specific to how the jobs function at each school, and are more helpful than general resources.


Ph.D. student

A Ph.D. student works under a principal investigator, and often under postdoctoral fellows/researchers, to complete their own project. In doing so, they learn the details of a field and how to conduct research, from forming and testing hypotheses, to troubleshooting, to writing papers.  Getting a Ph.D. can also help you develop soft skills, such as how to learn a new topic, how to seek help, how to divide a task into smaller doable parts, and how to network. A Ph.D. can prepare someone for further research and research training, like a postdoctoral fellowship; a move into industry; and other fields that require critical thinking, such as consulting, science or medical writing, or teaching.

Postdoctoral fellow/researcher

A postdoc is a position many new Ph.D. holders look for. It’s used to deepen and broaden a doctorate holder’s knowledge and training and prepare them for an independent research career. A good summary of the postdoc position can be found here, and some resources for current postdocs can be found here. Also, see my article from November about finding a postdoc position.

Assistant professor

This is typically a tenure-track job, meaning that, after a set number of years, usually about seven, the professor undergoes an institutional review. This review can include an evaluation of the professor’s publications, their involvement in and service to the institution, their personal tenure statement, several letters from fellow academics, and teaching evaluations from students and evaluators. If reviewed favorably, the professor gets tenure and becomes a permanent professor — someone who can’t be fired without due cause. If the assistant professor doesn’t get tenure, they’re usually asked to leave, to look for a job elsewhere.  The American Association of University Professors offers insights into what tenure is and is not here. A somewhat comical but info-packed guide to being an assistant professor can be found here.

Related stories

Location, location, location! Shaila Kotadia cautions that graduate school and postdoctoral stints offer a nice change of place, so you should choose wisely.

Advice for new assistant professors: Peter Kennelly makes 12 suggestions that assistant professors should consider. 

Understanding faculty salaries: Charles Brenner sheds some light on faculty compensation.

The tenured itch: Graham R. Moran and Audrey Lamb offer advice for academics mired in midcareer malaise.

Using your science beyond the bench: Kathleen H. Goss chose to not go up for tenure “knowing it would very likely not be successful”  and instead found a nonresearch career in academia.

Associate professor

This is typically a full-time, tenured faculty position with all the freedom that comes with that, as well as all the responsibilities and duties. Some institutions have associate professors who are not tenured, but generally associate professor would be the step after an assistant professor gains tenure. This position can last for a professor’s entire career if they don’t apply for promotion to full professor or if their application is turned down. As with tenure applications, promotions to full professor involve external letters and committee reviews. Unlike with tenure applications, if someone is turned down for promotion as an associate professor, they do not have to leave the university. They can continue their work as before, and, if they want, can apply again. 

Full professor

This is about as senior as you can get in the professor world.  Some reasons people may apply to be full professor would be: respect and prestige, satisfaction, pay raise, eligibility for certain awards and recognition, eligibility to chair a department and serve on certain committees, or generally having more input in how things are run. It may also come with increased academic freedom.

A subcategory here is a chaired professor. An endowed chair position title usually looks something like the “John Doe Professor of Biology” where the name is someone who has donated money for, or endowed, the position. This benefits the professor because, besides respect, it usually comes with funding, so that a part of their salary or some of their research funds come from the endowed position.

Teaching professors

Some schools have the same ranks for teaching professors (assistant teaching professor, associate teaching professor, and full teaching professor) for people devoting their time to teaching. They go through similar steps and tenure review, though the review focuses on their teaching and service rather than research.

Research professors

Many schools have the ranks of research professor (including research assistant professor and research associate professor). These professors dedicate their time to research, generally without teaching responsibilities, and, importantly, without tenure. They typically have fixed-term contracts of one to five years, and while their contracts can potentially be renewed endlessly, they do not gain the protections of tenure. Research professors can carry out many of the same activities as other professors, including obtaining grants and running a lab. They can also run or participate in core facilities, described below.

Associate research scientist

These and similar positions are typically filled by someone who is more knowledgeable and experienced than a postdoc but who does not run their own lab. They may run their own projects in a lab and have a fair amount of independence, while still being in a principal investigator’s lab. Some institutions require postdocs after some number of years (usually five) to either be promoted to this more independent and potentially permanent position or to leave.


This position can mean different things at different institutions. However, often it means a role similar to associate research scientist but with more independence and the expectation to become an assistant professor. Sometimes instructor can mean a job similar to a full-time lecturer.


The meaning of this title seems to vary from institution to institution. Often, it is a full-time, nontenured, teaching position and can be held by someone with an M.S. or Ph.D. Sometimes lecturers have research duties as well. The lecturer title occasionally refers to a part-time teacher, such as an adjunct (see next item).

Adjunct professor

This is part-time teaching position, usually hired on a per-course basis. The degree requirements vary from position to position and school to school. You can read my post about adjunct positions here.

Visiting professor

This title is typically reserved for professors who are temporarily working at another institution. A visiting professor may be a professor who is employed full time elsewhere and is taking a year away or may be someone without a permanent institution who is filling in for a permanent professor who is on sabbatical or medical leave.

Technician or lab manager

The technician and lab manager positions vary a lot. They might maintain stocks of reagents, keep the lab compliant with trainings and safety regulations, spearhead their own projects, write their own papers, and everything in between. They might work for one lab or split their time between a few. They might devote their full time to specific department-wide tasks, such as managing animal colonies. Unlike the other job titles described here that vary from institution to institution, technicians’ jobs can even vary widely between labs at the same institution. One lab might rely on techs to make media while having no expectations that they’ll ever do any experiments, while another might expect them to manage projects like a grad student or postdoc. Some act as trainers for undergrads, too. The job might be full time or part time and can be a fulfilling lifelong career or just a yearlong in-between post for someone thinking about grad school. You can see my previous post about lab techs here.

Core facility manager

Many institutions have core facilities of shared specialized equipment. This might include facilities for advanced microscopy, flow cytometry, genomics and sequencing, tissue culture, antibody production, and more. These facilities are run by experts in these techniques. This means that someone who would like to use a technique in their work but doesn’t fully know how or doesn’t have their own equipment can talk to the core manager and work out how to carry out their desired experiment — and use the core’s facilities to get it done.

The core manger typically is not involved in their own research projects but is hands-on involved in many research projects, in addition to maintaining the necessary equipment. They might run how-to sessions and teach new users how to do experiments using their equipment. They might take in samples from various labs and carry out the necessary analysis or experiments themselves.

This can be an ideal position for someone who has deep expertise on equipment and techniques but doesn’t necessarily want to run their own lab or do their own experiments. In this position, you can stay up to date and on the cutting edge of the science, putting your skills to good use without the stress of running a lab.
A subtype of this is the biostatistician and data scientist. With the increase of big data, biostatisticians and data scientists can have their own role in universities. This role is similar to a core manager in that they can take their expertise and help many other scientists with their work.  While there are certainly biostatisticians and data scientists who are professors conducting their own research, there is a growing need at universities for data scientists who function like core facilities, helping other labs analyze their data correctly.

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Elizabeth Stivison

Elizabeth Stivison is a postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University studying inositol signaling and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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