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Depictions of professors in fiction: A bespectacled Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby ...

A professor is a senior teacher and researcher, usually in a college or university.

Table of contents
1 Overview
2 Differences
3 Tenure
4 Survey of the Main Systems and concepts
5 Professors in Fiction
6 Quote
7 See also


Professors give lectures and seminars in their field of study, such as science or literature. They also do advanced research in their fields and are supposed to do community service (including advisory functions, such as for the government) and train young academics who should replace them. The balance of these four classic fields of professorial tasks depends heavily on the institution, place (country), and time; professors at research universities (and all European ones) are exclusively promoted, e.g., on the basis of their research achievements.


The basic difference between types of professor according to national academic system is that in Canada and the United States, the designation is based on career, whereas in Europe, it is based on position. That means that if a North American Assistant Professor is performing particularly well, she or he can be promoted to Associate Professor, and if this is the case again, on to (full) Professor. In the Continental European system, the different fields and sub-fields of teaching and research are allotted certain (professorial) chairs, and one can only become a professor if one is appointed to such a chair (which then has to be free, i.e., unoccupied, of course). Therefore, the different professorial ranks can actually not be compared with each other.


A key concept is that of tenure. A professor who holds tenure is virtually indismissable and appointed for life. In theory, professors are free to hold and advance controversial views, as the faculty generally insists on academic freedom. Tenure was thus introduced to preserve academic autonomy and integrity, i.e. the professor was supposed to be kept out of current political or other controversies of the public because it was recognized that this was beneficial for state, society, and academe in the long run. Tenure has recently become under attack by those who want a more business-like approach to universities, including performance review, audits, performance-based salaries, etc.

Survey of the Main Systems and concepts

North American

Main positions:

Other positions:

Most other English-speaking countries

Equivalently senior academics to assistant and associate professors are generally known as "Lecturers", "Senior Lecturers" and "Readers", with professorships reserved for only the most senior academic staff. A Professor in these countries holds either a departmental chair (generally as the head of the department or of a sub-department) or a personal chair (a professorship awarded specifically to that individual). In that sense, only full professors (North American style) are equivalents of professors

French (France, Belgium)

After the doctorate, scholars who wish to enter academe may apply for a position of maître de conférences ("master of conferences").

After some years in this position, they may take an "habilitation to direct theses" before applying for a position of professeur des universités ("university professor"). In the past, this required a higher doctorate. In some disciplines such as Law and Economics, candidates take the agrégation#Higher education examination.

German (Central European)

After the doctorate, German scholars who wish to go into academe are supposed to take a Habilitation, i.e. they write a second thesis and spend some time in an inferior position. Once they pass, they are called Privatdozent and are elegible for a call to a chair.

Note that in Germany, there has been always a debate of whether Professor is a title that remains one's own for life once conferred (similar to the doctorate, which becomes part of the legal name), or whether it is linked to a function (or even the designation of a function) and ceases to belong to the holder once she or he quits or retires (except in the usual case of becoming Professor emeritus). The former view has won the day and is by now both the law and majority opinion.

Main positions:

Other positions:

The word außerplanmäßig (meaning outside of the plan (of positions and salaries)) denotes that he is not payed as a professor but only as a researcher.

Other professors:

Professors in Fiction

In fiction, in accordance with a stereotype, professors are often depicted as being shy and absent-minded. An obvious example is the 1961 movie The Absent-Minded Professor.


... and a shocked
Emil Jannings (a Gymnasialprofessor) in The Blue Angel

"Lectures," said McCrimmon, "are our most flexible art form. Any idea, however slight, can be expanded to fill fifty-five minutes; any idea, however great, can be condensed to that time. And if no ideas are available, there can always be discussion. Discussion is the vacuum that fills a vacuum. If no one comes to your lectures or seminars, you can have a workshop and get colleagues involved. They have to come, and your reputation as an adequately popular teacher is saved."
(John Kenneth Galbraith, A Tenured Professor)

See also