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An academic is a person who works as a teacher or researcher at a university or other higher education institution and usually holds an advanced degree.


An academic is generally a person who teaches at a university or other higher education institution and usually conducts research at the same institution. The meaning of an academic or academic work generally exists in pre-defined roles of teacher, researcher, professional, and manager. The profession is also frequently associated with autonomy, freedom, and intellectual stimulation and typically has a sense of being a profession that includes a calling, with many academics working to make a "difference" in their given field. To be an academic, besides working at an educational institution, an individual has to hold an advanced degree, such as a PhD, and must publish academic work that helps them stand out amongst their peers.

Central to many academics is the notion of "academic freedom," or an outward-looking emancipatory notion of freedom, which allows academics to explore different topics and research directions in a given academic field, and thereby push the field in different directions.

Working in Academia

The most common, and perhaps cliché, view of an academic is the professor working different roles such as teacher, researcher, grader, thesis supervisor, advisor, mentor, committee member, communicator, presenter, independent learner, collaborator, writer, and inventor. However, the amount of work an individual academic does is dependent on the roles they choose to inhabit in an educational institution, and, indeed, the position they inhabit in the institution, with different positions often requiring different levels of engagement in faculty matters. These academic positions can be classified into four types:

  • research-only jobs with little to no teaching
  • jobs that require research productivity and require the individual to teach one or multiple classes every semester
  • jobs that require an individual to teach multiple classes with minor research expectations
  • teaching-only jobs that require an individual to teach four or more classes each semester but do not require research productivity

The roles within these four archetypes can be further broken down into the following:

Academic roles


Adjunct professor

This is a part-time position, usually hired on a per-course position, and with degree requirements varying by position and institution.

Assistant professor

This is generally a tenure-track position, which means after usually seven years, a professor undergoes institutional review, which can include an evaluation of the professor's publications, their involvement in and service to the institution, their personal tenure statement, letters from fellow academics, and teaching evaluations. If reviewed favorably, the professor can receive tenure and become a permanent professor.

Associate professor

This is typically a full-time, tenured faculty position with the associated freedoms and responsibilities. Some institutions have non-tenured associate professors, but generally the associate professor is a tenured position that can last a professor's entire career if the individual does not apply for promotion, or if their promotion is denied. The promotion process is similar to the tenure review, however if the promotion is not granted the associate professor is not expected to find a job elsewhere, as is expected with the assistant professor, but rather they continue their work as before until they can apply again.

Associate research scientist

These and similar positions are generally filled by someone more experienced than a postdoc but who does not run their own lab. An individual in this role may run their own projects in a lab and have a fair amount of independence, while in the principal investigator's lab. Some institutions require a postdoc be promoted to this more independent and permanent position after a fixed amount of time, or else to depart the university.

Core facility manager

Many institutions have shared specialized equipment, such as advanced microscopy, flow cytometry, genomics and sequencing, tissue culture, and more. These facilities are run by experts in the techniques, or the core facility managers. The core facility manager is typically not involved in their own research, but are hands-on involved in other's research projects, and helping others understand different equipment and techniques. They are also responsible for maintaining the necessary equipment. This is often thought of as an ideal position for an individual with expertise on equipment and techniques that do not necessarily want to run their own lab or do their own experiments.

Academic roles within universities tend to be competitive, with many individuals competing for limited spots, or for tenured roles, in a given institution. This means an individual's specialization can be crucial for their advancement, especially if they provide expertise or specialization in an area an institution is otherwise lacking or searching for. The competition and need for specialization mean the early roles an academic can inhabit, such as research assistants or research fellows, can have outsized importance for offering an academic necessary experience to inform an individual's specialization. This can shape the job roles, universities, or institutions, and even the country an academic chooses to work in.


Tenure, or more appropriately academic tenure, is one of the more important aspects of academia and a goal of most academics. Academic tenure offers a series of job protections that virtually guarantee a professor will never be fired or let go, except in extreme circumstances, with the idea being that tenure allows an academic to speak freely and pursue potentially controversial research without fear of reprisal. This is intended as a way of giving professors the above noted and coveted academic freedom. Academic freedom can be crucial to an academic's work; in some cases, it can be the only way for an academic to fully participate in academia without fear of negative consequences.

To achieve tenure, an aspiring academic has to first secure a "tenure track" position. This position is usually awarded after the individual excels in a PhD program, which is followed by postdoctoral fellowships. The academic is then in a probationary period that can last from five to ten years, although the average is seven years, in which the individual must demonstrate academic excellence in teaching, research, and service to the community. Following this is a year-long process in which a professor's work is evaluated by peer faculty, both in and outside of the institution.

If an academic is given tenure, the individual is then promoted to a "tenured" rank, such as associate professor with tenure. However, if they are denied tenure, it usually means they have one more year to get credentials or else leave the institution for another institution, if not leave academia altogether.

History and challenges

The concept of academic tenure comes from the practices of nineteenth century German universities, where faculty at universities created autonomy for their work on the basis of their pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. This concept granted the greatest freedom and power to the professors at the top of a hierarchy.

In 1915, following the controversial firing of economist Edward Ross from Stanford, in part, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) was formed, with a list of charter members with more than 900 members from sixty-one institutions. The AAUP went on to develop the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, which became a landmark document for the concept of academic tenure. On the topic, the document stated:

Once appointed, the scholar has professional functions to perform in which the appointing authorities have neither competency nor moral right to intervene. The responsibility of the university is primarily to the public itself, and to the judgment of his own profession.

The document led to the widespread adoption of tenure among United States institutions between the 1930s and 1950s. Thus, the good intentions of academic tenure are noted. However, since its development, there have been challenges to tenure. On one hand, tenure is necessary and a foundational part of higher education to ensure academic freedom, offering a context of teaching and research that protects an individual from those who disagree with their opinion or work.

However, on the other side, many consider tenure an issue, as tenured professors can be less productive than their untenured peers. As well, institutions tend to apply unclear or inconsistent tenure policies and procedures, with decisions being criticized in the past for discriminating against individuals. Also, tenure can cause tension and friction amongst tenure-track and nontenure-track faculty in an institution.

Further, as many tenure committees are composed of tenured professors and faculty members, and without a clear framework for tenure, there have been controversies over which members receive tenure and which do not, and associated research focus and, in some cases, political leanings. This has been criticized for creating a certain homogeneity and consensus in thinking in tenured-faculty, which in many ways goes against the spirit of tenure in the first place, and has been criticized for forcing academics working to get tenure to work in specific fields and focus on specific, faculty-sanctioned research topics, rather than pursue different or potentially unique research tracks.


The term academic comes from the Medieval Latin acadēmicus and the French académique, both of which are from the Roman Latin academia, which is itself inherited from the Ancient Greek ἀκαδημικός (akadēmikós). The Ancient Greek comes from the public garden where Plato taught his school, which was the grove of Akadēmos, a legendary Athenian of the Trojan War tales.

The Academy, the Garden, the Lyceum, the Porch, and the Tub were all names used for the five chief schools of Greek philosophy. For example, the Academy referred to Plato, while the Lyceum referred to Aristotle, and the Tub to Antisthenes and the Cynics. For example, lyceum was used by the 1540s and onward in English for any school or training place for arts and sciences. However, by the eighteenth century, the term is adopted by schools run by dissenters, leading to lyceum as a description for a learning institution being discredited.


Further Resources


Academics' perception of what it means to be an academic

K. Rosewell, Paul Ashwin


July 2018

How to Become an Academic

Christopher Taylor, PhD


June 21, 2010

What Does it Mean to be an Academic? A Colloquium

Jon Nixon, Mary Beattie, Maggie Challis, Melanie Walker


October 1998


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