The Cambridge dictionary gives the following definition of the adjective assistant:

"used as part of someone's job title to show that their job is below the level of a more senior person, and that they help that person to do their job"

Now I'm wondering if this can be used as a synonym for the noun assistant, or if it can only be used for people who are next in line for their superordinate's job. That is, which is the correct use of the following phrases – only the a alternatives or the b alternatives as well as the a alternatives?

  1. assistant professor

a) '(person who assists a professor), and who will become a professor next time they get a promotion'

b) 'a professor's assistant'

  1. assistant director

a) '(person who assists a director), and who will become a director next time they get a promotion'

b) 'a director's assistant'

I have also checked Merriam-Webster and Longman without being able to determine whether both alternatives are possible, or if only the a) alternatives are correct.

(If my question is bad/not allowed, I'd be very grateful if anyone down-voting it could please tell me in a comment what's wrong with it, because I seem to have some problems understanding what questions are allowed and not...)

  • There's nothing about the job title "assistant" that implies such a person will eventually take over the role of whoever they're "assisting". That sense is inherent in similar words such as "trainee" and "apprentice", but not "assistant". Nor does it apply to the title modifier "vice-" (though that one does imply that if the full holder of the relevant title is dead or otherwise unavailable, the vice- [office-holder] will at least temporarily take on his duties (but he usually won't assume the higher title permanently). Commented Oct 9, 2021 at 17:48
  • @FumbleFingers Thank you! Just to be absolutely sure: you're saying that e.g. the assistant director can be used to mean 'the director's assistant'? That is, it can refer to a person who has no qualifications to become a director, but who is (probably) a trained secretary? Commented Oct 9, 2021 at 17:57
  • Companies can make up any job titles they like. Maybe in one company there's a guy with the job title "Assistant Director" who actually never sees his titular boss, and doesn't actually "assist, help" the director in any meaningful way. But in another company, the same title could identify the director's Personal Assistant (basically, just a glorified "secretary" who has no chance of ever taking over the boss's job). And in a third company, the assistant director might be a trainee director who's expected to take over in the fullness of time. Commented Oct 9, 2021 at 18:06
  • I used to know a guy who had a fairly senior position within GlaxoSmithKline. He said that at any given time the company had several dozen people like him being posted to various different divisions of GSK throughout the world, and moving on every few months. Only 2-3 of them would ever get to the board of directors; the company just wanted to make sure it always had plenty of top candidates to choose from. Commented Oct 9, 2021 at 18:12
  • @FumbleFingers Haha – clever of them... :) Commented Oct 9, 2021 at 18:16

1 Answer 1


Using the phrase assistant [profession] to mean "assistant to the professional" may have been valid at one point, I'm not sure. In modern English that is not how the phrase is used; instead it means someone who performs some but not all duties of the profession, possibly delegated by the master professional.

Due to the vagaries of academia, "Assistant Professor" is a job title in its own right. It commands less prestige and salary than "Full Professor" but it does not imply that the position is an assistant to the Full Professor.

Depending on the organization "Assistant Director" may have a little bit more of the "assistant to" connotation, but still probably not. It just means that the person is Director of a smaller number or scope of activities compared to the overall director who is responsible for everything.

"Assistant to" implies more of a secretarial or organization role, that is, someone assisting the person rather than the position. "Assistant [profession]" refers to someone who is assisting the position rather than than the person, by taking on certain related duties.

  • Thank you randomhead! Hm – so you disagree with FumbleFingers then? Commented Oct 9, 2021 at 18:29
  • (Apparently I can't upvote answers yet, otherwise I would have upvoted yours) Commented Oct 9, 2021 at 18:29
  • 1
    Yes, I would say I disagree that it commonly refers to a personal assistant. But as they said, some organizations may define it that way.
    – randomhead
    Commented Oct 9, 2021 at 18:46
  • Ok – thank you! Commented Oct 9, 2021 at 19:18

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