What is a Professor?

A professor is someone who instructs students in a wide variety of academic and vocational subjects beyond the high school level. They also conduct research and publish scholarly papers and books. They work in public and private colleges and universities, professional schools, junior or community colleges, and career and vocational schools.

What does a Professor do?

A professor is someone who instructs students in a wide variety of academic and vocational subjects beyond the high school level.

Professors typically do the following:

  • Teach courses in a wide variety of subjects, such as chemistry, culinary arts, and nursing
  • Work with students who are studying for a degree or a certificate or certification or are taking classes to improve their knowledge or career skills
  • Develop a curriculum for their course and ensure that it meets college and department standards
  • Plan lessons and assignments
  • Assess students’ progress by grading papers and tests
  • Advise students about which classes to take and how to achieve their goals
  • Stay informed about changes and innovations in their field
  • Conduct research and experiments to advance knowledge in their field
  • Supervise graduate students who are working toward doctoral degrees
  • Publish original research and analysis in books and academic journals
  • Serve on academic and administrative committees that review and recommend policies, make budget decisions, or advise on hiring and promotions within their department

Professors specialize in any of a wide variety of subjects and fields. Some teach academic subjects, such as English or philosophy. Others focus on career-related subjects, such as law, nursing, or culinary arts.

Professors usually work for large universities. In this setting, they often spend a large portion of their time conducting research and experiments and applying for grants to fund their research. Frequently, they spend less time teaching. Classes may be taught by graduate teaching assistants, who are supervised by a professor. Professors may teach large classes of several hundred students (usually with the help of several graduate teaching assistants), small classes of about 40 to 50 students, seminars with just a few students, or laboratories where students practice the subject matter. They may work with an increasingly varied student population as more part-time, older, and culturally diverse students are coming to postsecondary schools.

Professors keep up with developments in their field by reading scholarly articles, talking with colleagues, and participating in professional conferences. To gain tenure (a guarantee that a professor cannot be fired without just cause), they must do research, such as experiments, document analysis, or critical reviews, and publish their findings. Full-time professors, particularly those who have tenure, often are expected to spend more time on their research. They also may be expected to serve on more college and university committees. Part-time professors, often known as adjunct professors, spend most of their time teaching students.

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What is the workplace of a Professor like?

Many postsecondary teachers find their jobs rewarding because they are surrounded by others who enjoy their subject. The opportunity to share their expertise with others also is appealing to many. However, some postsecondary teachers must find a balance between teaching students and doing research and publishing their findings. This can be stressful, especially for beginning teachers seeking advancement in four-year research universities.

Classes are generally held during the day. Some are held on nights and weekends to accommodate students who have jobs or family obligations. Many professors do not teach classes in the summer, but they use that time to conduct research or to travel. Professors’ schedules are generally flexible. They need to be on campus to teach classes and keep office hours. Otherwise, they are free to set their schedule and decide when and where they will prepare for class and grade assignments.

Frequently Asked Questions

Steps to becoming a Professor

The pathway to becoming and being a professor is a rigorous one, involving a multi-level educational track and a career-long commitment to research, writing, and publication.

How long does it take to become a Professor?

It generally takes between eight and eleven years to become a professor.

• Undergraduate Education – four years • Graduate School / Doctoral Dissertation – four to seven years

Are Professors happy?

Professors rank highly among careers. Overall they rank in the 79th percentile of careers for satisfaction scores. Please note that this number is derived from the data we have collected from our Sokanu members only.

While a career in academia is not without challenge, the high happiness index among professors may be rooted in the community aspect of their jobs. They are typically closely connected to their faculty colleagues, to their research groups, and to the students they teach. And it has long been believed that happiness does not come in a vacuum; it comes in a community, with the help of others.

What are Professors like?

Based on our pool of users, professors tend to be predominately artistic people. The work of professors is to teach and to conduct research. Both of these endeavors are artistic in their essence. Teaching must be creative or artistic in that one single, unwavering, approach will not reach every student. The goal of research – to increase knowledge – naturally encourages creative dialogue, discovery, and sometimes even drama.

Should I become a Professor?

As is the case when considering any career, it is wise to listen to those who have gone before you, to insiders who speak from experience. Below is some practical information from a compilation of interviews and writings of several working professors.

Summer off? Not exactly If the lure of three months off in the summer, a month off at Christmas, and spring break is prominent in your mind as you contemplate becoming a professor, think again. While those breaks do, of course, exist, most professors spend them grading, preparing for the next semester, writing a paper to stay relevant in their field, or teaching an extra class. In the words of one professor: ‘It’s an all-year job with big chunks where you don’t have to go into the office, but you still have to work.’

Don’t expect your students to be you Many professors admit to having been a nerd who loved school and reading and writing and history. It’s important to realize that the majority of your students will not be as scholastically geared as you were; and some may be total disasters. Most of them won’t think like you. Some will skip class, blow off assignments, and then claim that they were not clearly told what was required. So, as a professor you have to find ways to discover what motivates each student. Your ultimate goal is to have every student be better at the end of the semester than they were at the beginning.

Getting tenure is a grind A tenured appointment is pretty much lifetime employment with great benefits and no performance evaluations. There is a catch, though: the years leading up to tenure will be the longest and most stressful job interview of your life. While professors on the tenure-track receive guidelines regarding research and publication requirements and evaluation criteria, there are also some unknowns, because ultimately your fate lies in the hands of the tenure committee, which will inevitably be composed of some members who like you and others who do not.

Grading papers takes forever Consider this scenario. You have 40 students in three classes. They all turn in one assignment per week. If you are going to consistently give valid – and important – feedback to each student, you are very likely going to be working at least six days a week.

Bad things happen to young people It’s something that does not automatically come to mind for aspiring professors. Considering the number of students you teach and make connections with, you will eventually encounter some sad stories. Injuries, viruses, infections, mental illness, anxiety, depression, paranoia, and grief. Your compassion will be called upon, even as you must continue doing your job.

You’ll spend a lot of time with your colleagues The goal of tenure means that not a lot of people leave academia. The ability to get along with colleagues, therefore, is paramount, because there is a real possibility that you could be working with them for a rather long time. While senior faculty can provide mentorship and guidance, they can also prove to be frustrating if they are stuck in the past. How do you deal with this? You just do. Because you have to.

Students are the best part As articulated by one professor: ‘Because they’re young, because they're excited, because they're naive, because they're hilarious. Because when they are kind to each other, it makes your heart happy. Because they say thank you at the end of the semester, or even at the end of class. Because they laugh at your jokes or roll their eyes at appropriate times. Because they tell you their secrets. Because they push back. Because they ask good questions. Because they force you to bring it, every day. Because they have great ideas. Because they give your life meaning.’

A life of learning ‘I became a professor because I needed a job that encouraged a life of learning. I must continue reading and investigating in order to do my job well. I knew I wanted to influence young people to be interested in ideas and to be curious about first principles. I wanted to push students to really learn how to think.’

It’s a competitive field The reality is that getting a professorship is extremely difficult. Job prospects differ tremendously based on your field. Those who get their doctorates in professional fields like business or public administration or in the scientific or technical disciplines typically have positive job outlooks. Competition in the social sciences and humanities is generally very strong. The overall job market is somewhat protected by the ABD factor. There are many people who get as far as the all but dissertation stage; but far less who actually complete it.

Universities are communities In a perfect world, all schools prize teaching and character formation of students; and they look for professorial candidates with a passion for the classroom and mentoring. While teaching skills, experience, and dedication are naturally important, those in the field know that universities are communities, and they like to hire like-minded people. Academic freedom is the utopia. The facts are this: conservatives like conservatives and liberals like liberals.

Publish or Perish Many schools are highly research driven and therefor seek out faculty members with a number of scholarly publications. In academia, you publish and move up or you move out.

Research versus teaching Faculty at teaching oriented schools typically teach four courses per semester. At research focused institutions, professors may teach only two courses, but will be expected to produce significant research.

The worst part of the job As noted above, the majority of professors will tell you that the best part of the job is teaching students who care and want to learn. They will also say that the worst part of the job is teaching students who don’t care. In the words of one interviewee, ‘You may think we don’t care if you’ve checked out, but we do. This is heart and soul stuff for us.’

What I wish I knew when I was a student I wish I knew… …that professors get paid a nine-month salary for twelve months of work …that college students are essentially kids …that the discipline can be very political …that universities get rid of bullies and other serial troublemakers by waiting for them to retire …that university communities are often old boys clubs

The best advice

• Use the papers you write while completing coursework to build a foundation for your dissertation. This way, it won’t seem so unconquerable. Don’t make your dissertation your masterwork. Focus on finishing.

• As a graduate student, do not be anonymous. Form relationships with your professors. They are the people you will need as advocates when you begin to look for work.

Professors are also known as:
College Professor University Professor Teaching Professor Adjunct Professor