How to Become a College Professor

Being a college professor can be a rewarding and challenging career. Professors conduct ongoing research in their field, assist in college and department administrative tasks, hold office hours, and teach their students about their chosen subject. Many professors also pride themselves in teaching valuable writing, research, and thinking skills that help their students succeed both in and outside the classroom.

In the United States, college physics professors make between $69,000 and $142,000 per year on average. (Source: Salary.com). During periods where their teaching responsibilities are reduced (summer breaks, leaves), professors may spend extra time researching, writing or taking personal time.

In order to become a professor, most institutions require an undergraduate Bachelor of Art or Bachelor of Science degree, as well as an advanced degree, such as a master’s or PhD.

Education

Education is paramount to becoming a professor, and post-high school, earning an undergraduate degree is a must. The vast majority of college professors will have earned a B.A. or B.S. degree at some point in during their academic career, although in some cases, an instructor teaching at post-high school institution may hold an associate degree. The surest advice for finding work as a college professor, though, is to first attend a college or university, whether it be online or traditional, and work toward a B.A. or B.S. degree.

Picking Your Field

Most professors study and teach within one specific academic area for their entire career. So, once you have an undergraduate college picked, and you’ve gained admission, find a subject that you enjoy, and that you’re really good at. Will you be a professor of philosophy? Or would you rather teach and study chemical engineering? Finding an area of study that is stimulating to you is crucial, because this is where you will later be doing all your research and teaching.

If you’re not sure about your interests, consider visiting your college’s career center, meeting with an academic advisor, or speaking with friends. Picking a field of study can be difficult, and academic advisors often are able to ask the right kinds of questions in order to identify your interests. Another helpful approach, if you know you’d like to be a professor, but not sure what subjects interest you, is to take a wide variety of courses early in college.

Graduate School

As mentioned above, the road to becoming a professor is all about education. After you’ve completed your undergraduate degree, you’ll need to increase your skills and knowledge by earning a graduate degree. Graduate school is where you’ll learn more about the research methods for your chosen field, and apply those methods in order to become an expert. You’ll likely complete and publish one or more original (and large) academic papers, and practice your classroom skills by teaching undergraduates.

Most colleges and universities won’t consider hiring you as a professor unless you have at least a master’s degree in the field you want to teach. A master’s is typically a three-year degree, which, as noted above, is earned after your B.A. or B.S. However, it’s even more common for institutions to require that you hold a PhD in your chosen field. A PhD is typically a four- or five-year degree, although in some cases it may take significantly longer to earn. Compared to a master’s degree, a PhD is also more research-focused, with a good portion of your time spent researching, writing, and publishing your own project, or thesis, under the tutelage of a professor in your department.

Post-School

After you’ve finished your PhD or master’s program, you’re ready to start applying for open jobs. The strength of your PhD thesis, your academic performance, recommendations from your professors, and the reputation of your graduate school are all factors in being hired as a professor. Often times, until you’ve built some years of experience as a professor, you may have more success applying to smaller colleges and universities, and/or community colleges. Later, after you’ve built a reputation as a successful educator and published more works in your field, opportunities may open at other institutions.

Compared to some other professional careers, you are somewhat less likely to find job postings on career websites or classified ads. You will likely hear about openings via the network of connections that you’ve built through your graduate career; for example, your department’s professors, their colleagues, and your fellow students. The number of openings for the positions you are seeking is relatively small; but on the other hand, you are one of the few highly specialized and educated individuals qualified to fill these positions.

Types of Professors

“Tenure” is a term used to describe a senior position as an academic instructor that is associated with increased job security. For example, a non-tenured professor may be terminated with or without cause, perhaps due to budget issues, whereas a tenured professor may not be fired without cause. (Source: Wikipedia.com: “Tenure”). Titles for tenured professors are often “Associate Professor” or simply “Professor.” Other types non-tenure professors include “Assistant Professor,” which may be considered tenure-track; also “Lecturer,” “Adjunct Professor,” and “Research Professor,” which may or may not be considered tenure-track positions. Typically, tenure follows years of successful demonstrated teaching and research at a single institution, and is a major career goal of many college professors.

Professors may be employed by state colleges or universities, community or technical colleges, or even online universities.

Summary

Becoming a college professor means committing to at least six to eight years of post-high school education. This is in order learn the subject matter, as well as to develop research and teaching skills. Duties include administrative tasks, research, and of course educating and inspiring young people. Strong research skills, grades, publications, and academic networking are all important factors when seeking a position.