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What is a Research Professor?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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A research professor is an employee of an academic institution who focuses on performing research, doing little or no teaching. Research professor positions are sometimes described as “post doctoral programs on steroids,” because they allow people to focus on research and take advantage of the institution's facilities and faculty without the need to teach students. For universities, maintaining research professors is a way to add to the reputation and body of knowledge of the university, as the university can attract attention and interest when these employees publish research results.

In order to become a research professor, someone must generally hold a doctoral degree, and many universities prefer candidates with post doctoral experience. Research experience is also required by most institutions, as they want to see proof that a potential researcher has the skills, experience, and drive to actually conduct research if hired. A history of publication in academic and trade journals can also be a strong trait for an applicant, as it indicates that he or she has successfully completed and written up studies.

Research professors are also usually required to bring in their own funding. The university may provide facilities and advantages such as academic connections, but the bulk of the professor's financial support will not come from the university. Instead, he or she must seek out funding from agencies which will support the research. A physicist, for example, might request National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) funding to support research which will further the exploration of space.

Typically, research professors are not tenured, and they may have limited terms of two to three years. Applicants who want to seek tenure-track positions will need to apply for jobs as teaching professors and work their way up the ranks. For research professors, the lack of tenure can be a disadvantage, because it undermines job security, but the ability to research without having to dedicate time to teaching may be greatly appreciated. The lack of tenure can also be an incentive to work in many different environments, rather than making a professor feel tethered to the same institution.

Access to other members of the academic community, along with the considerable resources of the university, can be immensely beneficial for a research professor. Some academic institutions may also request that their research professors advise graduate students, or take very minimal teaching loads, so that they provide some services to the student body. In positions where work with students will be required, the terms are usually spelled out in the contract the research professor signs at the time of hiring.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By ElizaBennett — On Apr 22, 2012

@EdRick - I do not disagree with you that research and teaching are very different skills, and that people who are skilled at only one or the other can still have a place at a major university.

But what about smaller universities? They need people who are reasonably skilled at both. And keep in mind that a professor who does not research may not be totally up-to-date in his or her field. So such a person might be very well suited to teach intro level classes, but upper level undergraduate courses should be taught by professors who can teach, but who do at least some research.

On the other hand, high-level graduate students have reached the level where they are primarily self-teaching. Their advisors need not be gifted educators as long as they are cooperative and helpful with the student's own research process.

By EdRick — On Apr 21, 2012

I hadn't heard of this trend. I've heard of the opposite position, "professor of the practice" (for instance, "professor of the practice of French"). These are professors who carry higher teaching loads and do little research.

If you think about it, it makes sense to have these separate positions. Many people are truly gifted researchers, but lousy at teaching. They torture themselves and their students, who wind up learning little. These people may be tremendous assets to science and learning (and therefore to mankind) that we would not want to miss out on just because they are lousy teachers - a profession that requires quite different skills.

On the other hand, there are professors who are experts in their field and who are truly gifted educators, but just aren't interested in publishing much. These, too, are assets to universities. Undergraduates deserve to learn from skilled teachers who can really help them absorb knowledge.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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