Anthony Forster, currently deputy vice-chancellor at Durham, will take over the role from Colin Riordan later this year.
Professor Riordan is leaving Essex to become vice-chancellor of Cardiff University.
Professor Forster specialises in political science, and is an expert on British defence policy and the duty of care owed by the government to British servicemen and women.
Following a first degree in politics at the University of Hull and service in the army, he studied for a master's and doctorate in European politics at the University of Oxford.
He has held posts at the University of Nottingham, King's College London and the University of Bristol, and has been at Durham for over five years, as pro vice-chancellor for education and pro vice-chancellor for social sciences and health.
He also serves on the Widening Access and Participation Strategic Advisory Committee for the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
David Currie, chair of the Essex’s council, said: “Professor Forster will bring wide strategic leadership and management experience to Essex.
“He has played a leading role in placing research-led teaching, growth in postgraduate student numbers, internationalisation of the curriculum and development of international partnerships at the heart of Durham's strategy.”