CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become a professor.
Is becoming a professor right for me?
The first step to choosing a career is to make sure you are actually willing to commit to pursuing the career. You don’t want to waste your time doing something you don’t want to do. If you’re new here, you should read about:
Still unsure if becoming a professor is the right career path? Take the free CareerExplorer career test to find out if this career is in your top matches. Perhaps you are well-suited to become a professor or another similar career!
Described by our users as being “shockingly accurate”, you might discover careers you haven’t thought of before.
Even in high school, there are some preliminary ways that aspiring professors can prepare for their career:
• Keep up your grades / aim for a strong grade point average (GPA).
• If you have an idea of the subject you would like to teach, try to take as many classes in that subject as possible.
• Tutor in your spare time. This will expose you to the demands of teaching and will look great on your college applications.
A four-year Bachelor’s Degree may be sufficient education to teach so-called career courses at a technical school. For individuals wishing to teach at higher levels, an undergraduate degree is only the prerequisite and foundation for further study.
It is not always necessary to pursue a Bachelor’s in the subject you eventually intend to teach. Some professors earn an undergraduate degree in one discipline before moving on to a different – though, typically, related field of study – at the graduate school level.
A Master’s Degree is often the common requirement to teach at two-year colleges. In certain fields of study and for part-time positions, some universities may hire individuals with only a Master’s and some practical experience.
While in graduate school, students can expect to form strong academic relationships with their professors. They may even have the opportunity to co-author and publish a paper with one of them. This is invaluable, because publication is vital for individuals who want to become professors. Establishing a publication record during graduate school makes job candidates more attractive when applying for tenure-track teaching positions.
Gain teaching experience
Working as a Teaching Assistant is among the most valuable extra-curricular experiences for an aspiring professor. TAs not only receive a wage, but they learn a great deal about teaching at the post-secondary level.
TA duties typically include the following:
• Grading papers and assignments
• Leading small discussion or lab sections of a class, which supplement the large lecture section conducted by professors
• Performing administrative tasks for the professor
• Holding office hours during which students can ask questions or request assistance on a one-on-one basis
The only negative aspect of being a TA is the time commitment. Individuals who take on the role must be prepared to dedicate themselves to the job without sacrificing their grades and academic pursuits.
Another way that future professors supplement their learning track is by teaching online classes.
A Ph.D. is required for most full-time university faculty positions. Some doctoral programs allow students to pursue their Doctorate without first earning a Master’s Degree.
In addition to completing the required coursework, doctoral candidates choose a specialized topic for original research and write a dissertation exploring the results of their research before qualifying to receive their Ph.D. The final step to earning a Doctoral Degree is successfully defending one’s dissertation in front of a faculty committee. This process normally involves between four and six faculty members. Their role is to ask critical questions about the strength of the arguments presented in the dissertation and to offer other perspectives on the work.
The Job Market
Most academic candidates go on the job market in the last year of their program, when they are still ABD (all but dissertation), with the intention of having defended their dissertation and earned their Doctorate by the time the tenure-track jobs begin in the fall of the next academic year. Generally, these jobs have the title of Assistant Professor.
Tenure-track positions are not easy to come by. Therefore, more Ph.D. holders are taking limited term or contingent faculty positions. It is estimated that these non-tenure track jobs make up more than 70% of teaching positions in American universities. Some of these titles include Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Visiting Assistant Professor, Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, and Adjunct. Adjuncts are Ph.D. holders who are often kept on a part-time basis, so they do not receive health insurance or other benefits from the university. They are paid a per-course fee versus an annual salary. Because institutions are generally hesitant to grant adjuncts course loads that would make them full-time employees, many adjuncts are forced to teach at multiple schools in any given semester. The role provides very little job security.
There is another option that exists for aspiring professors who have just obtained their Doctorate Degree. Instead of diving immediately into the market for a long-term teaching job, they can apply for postdoctoral (postdoc) positions. A postdoc is someone who temporarily engages in ‘mentored research and/or scholarly training.’ Postdocs are employed on a short-term basis at a college or university to allow them to conduct additional research, get more of their findings published, and gain more teaching experience. All of these opportunities naturally lead to enhanced resumes.
Ongoing Research & Publication
While publications of independent research are often the key to finding a job as a full-time professor, they are also the pathway to maintaining prominent and career-long academic presence.
At most research universities, professors must continue to contribute to research in their field and publish scholarly articles. To compete for tenure-track teaching positions, they need to publish larger works and/or books.
How to become a Professor
The most common educational background for fulltime, tenure-track university professors includes a Doctoral Degree in their chosen field, teaching experience, professional certification, and prominent academic presence established through independent research and publications in scholarly journals.
It should be noted that the importance of the research component of the university professor’s academic path is continually growing. There was a time when tenure could be achieved with as little as two or three peer-reviewed articles. This is most definitely no longer the case. Educational institutions are increasingly seeking professors who have conducted fieldwork or clinical experiences and bring significant ground-breaking research to the faculty table.
The absolute minimum level of education for a professor is a Master’s Degree. This credential, however, generally qualifies an individual to teach at a community college and not at a full-fledged university. Some community colleges that consider hiring professors with only a Master’s may seek out those who are doctoral candidates.
Aspiring professors at both universities and colleges generally gain their initial teaching experience as a graduate teaching assistant while they are enrolled in a graduate program.
The rise of professional schools, in particular in the business and communications sectors, has created some demand for professors with practical experience and not necessarily with a Ph.D. and/or a resume that comprises independent research. These schools may also place a premium on professorial candidates who understand analytics and social media, who have launched their own business, or who have created a successful app.