What is a College Professor?
A college professor is any teacher in a postsecondary institution. This includes any assistant or full professor in any college or university, whether tenured or not. These educators teach a variety of simple to complex subject matter in everything from proper grammar to polymer science.
Due to the specificity of the subjects they teach, all postsecondary teachers must earn at least a master’s and often are required to have hands-on experience in their field. The best teachers are those who can draw from personal experience, whether that’s writing a novel of their own or having solved a complex engineering issue to create a breakthrough technology.
If college professors continue their education and earn a doctorate, they’ll have the opportunity to conduct research or acquire tenure, which is a highly coveted permanent position.
Steps to Becoming a College Professor
You will have to acquire a master’s degree to gain work as a college professor. It doesn’t matter if you plan to teach at a two-year or four-year institution, this degree is mandatory.
Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s & Student Teaching
Step 2: Certification & Experience
Step 3: Master’s Degree
Step 4: Doctorate
Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s & Student Teaching
Begin at the undergraduate level and earn your bachelor’s degree in education. You should also earn a degree in the field in which you plan to teach, such as engineering, psychology, biology, education, communication, or any field in which you are interested.
Begin your college journey by researching several universities in which you are interested. Once you find the right education program, request admission; after you are admitted, you’ll enroll in your first classes. As you are working on the admission process, you’ll be required to submit your ACT and SAT exam scores, as well as an official transcript from your high school. Then you simply pass your courses as necessary, meeting with your advisor to make sure you graduate on time.
You’ll be required to spend one semester as a student teacher. This begins with a mandatory informational meeting at most universities. Here, you’ll learn what you need to do to prepare for your student teaching experience.
You will contact your cooperating teacher (the teacher who supervises your student teaching experience). You should be able to find out what educational units you will be teaching to your students, so you can make preparations. Discuss with your cooperating teacher’s expectations for your student teaching. Don’t forget to discuss the curriculum you will be teaching.
You will be assigned to a specific school and it is unlikely that you will be able to get this changed. Only if your situation demands it will you receive an alternate assignment. Your preferences will be considered, but there is no guarantee you’ll receive the assignment you want.
Step 2: Certification & Experience
As you near graduation, you should begin applying to take your teaching certification and licensing exams. As a college professor, you will be preparing groups of students for their chosen occupations. if this occupation is one that requires a certification or license from their state, then you will be expected to hold licensing for that occupation as well.
For instance, if you plan to teach nursing or social work classes, you would have to hold licensing to work in these professions.
You will benefit as a college professor if you have experience in the occupation in which you will be teaching. If you will be teaching chemistry, biological sciences or physics, then master’s-level research experience, working as a research associate or a researcher will give you the experience you need for the classroom.
Step 3: Master’s Degree
You’ll need to obtain your master’s degree to teach in a college setting, but you may need experience to gain entry into a master’s program. Whether this experience needs to be in teaching students at a lower level or in the professional field you will teach depends strongly on the program. You’ll want to research master’s programs that interest you and ask what type of experience they prefer.
Step 4: Doctorate
In order to gain tenure, perform research, and fulfill other possible career goals, you may need to earn a doctorate. If you’re wondering if a professional degree or an academic degree would be the best to earn, since you want to teach at a university, consider this.
With an academic degree, you will be expected to spend some time in research. It should be focused on a specific field in which you want to work or teach. Expect to complete either a thesis or capstone to graduate. The advantage of an academic degree: You can apply it to more than one career, such as teaching at a university level.
A professional degree such as Juris Doctor (JD) or lawyer, Doctor of Medicine (MD), Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD), and Doctor of Education (EdD) are all professions in which you can turn your professional efforts to teaching. However, some of these also provide you the opportunity to enter a different career at the highest levels. Before you make your choice, think about these options. Choose the one that meshes the best with you career goals.
What Does a College Professor Do?
There are a variety of responsibilities you might have as a college professor. The options boil down to three words: research, teaching, and service. While it may seem ironic, teaching isn’t the only responsibility or job role for college professors. Taken in percentages, college professors on the whole allocate their time as such: research: 40%; teaching, 40%; and service, 20%.
Now, whereas that might excite you, or upset you, you can’t put too much stock in it. The truth is that, while college professors do a lot of research, this is mostly contained to what people refer to as “research universities”, which are usually the largest schools in any state with the most graduate programs. These schools have access to federal and state grants, and also to their graduate students, who often act as unpaid or low-wage research assistants while they work to gain their degrees.
In non-research universities (smaller colleges, two-year institutions, or community colleges) the college professors main focus is on teaching and service. Service refers to assisting students with course selection, career options, and writing letters of recommendation. You might even help them get into an internship that will define the course of their career.
Professor Skills to Acquire
College professors (postsecondary teachers) have unique characteristics that suit them for teaching. For instance, the topic you love and plan to teach may not be so stimulating to young college students. While you love the topic, your students are taking it only because it’s required for graduation. Therefore, you have to help them learn to enjoy the topic. Here are some skills you’ll need:
- Stimulating teaching style
- Well-prepared and organized
- Communicate clearly and understandably
- Know your subject matter
- Excellent interaction skills
- Take a personal interest in your students
- Sound character
- Inquisitive and analytic
- People oriented
- Respect diversity
- Good motivator and inspiring
- Devoted to learning
- Good time management skills
While you may not be born with these skills, over time you can build and develop them, so that when you begin teaching at a university you will be fully equipped with the skills needed.
The only way to achieve your goal of being a college professor is to go to school and gain the knowledge you need. However, you can take a few shortcuts that may make this path a little less difficult.
Begin as an adjunct or visiting professor. A visiting professor works at one educational institution for up to three years—the shortest time period is one semester. You may have been hired to replace a faculty member on leave or you may be filling a slot that the university’s administrators don’t want to classify as tenured.
An adjunct professor may carry more class responsibilities at lower pay than those of their colleagues who are on the tenure track. You may have to share an office with another professor.
Consider working as a lecturer. While you won’t be on the tenure track, you can receive a contract of up to five years.
Tenure track: expectations are high here. You will be expected to publish papers in peer-reviewed journals and/or do research and provide work for graduate students to pursue or to assist graduate students with their research. On the positive side, you will have a lifetime position. If you are a Ph.D. student working on your dissertation, you are an instructor known as ABD (All but Dissertation).
Professor Career & Salary
Where Might You Work?
You may work at a community college (junior college), educating young college students in their first two years of college.
As outlined earlier, you may also begin as an adjunct instructor at either a community college or a four-year institution. You will not be on the tenure track at this point.
You may also work in a trade or technical school, teaching students about cosmetology, auto mechanics, and culinary skills if you have enough experience in the subject you plan to teach. However, you could not be considered a college professor at this point. Your title would be “Vocational Teacher” despite the fact that you are doing basically the same job. It’s an issue of the type of institution you that would employ you that causes the title change.
Potential Career Paths
Once you respond to a job announcement for a college professor, you need to settle in for a long hiring process. A search committee looks through all the curriculum vitae that have been sent in for the job announcement. If you make it past this committee, you’ll be one of 10 or 20 candidates for hiring.
From there, you’ll go through the conference interview, then an on-campus interview before the hiring decision is made.
Computer-Aided Drafting (CAD) Program Director
This position concerns a 10-month Computer Aided Drafting program, which will eventually transfer to the Construction Management degree program. The right director is expected to be passionate in serving and educating students. They should connect easily to the local community, work hard, and build the program. You’ll need 5-7 years of prior teaching and training experience. Hold either an associate or bachelor’s degree.
Instructor-Management, Leadership, Supervision
The right candidate has 3 to 5 years of experience providing management, leadership, and supervision. They should also have prior experience in teaching all three of these traits at either the college or corporate levels. If the candidate also has prior experience in working with corporate partners, this will be an advantage for them.
History of Comics and Narrative Practice-Adjunct Instructor
The winning candidate for this position will be comfortable being part of a team, teaching this team-taught class, discussing the comics, art history, and narrative practice. The instructor will work mostly with first-year students, giving weekly lectures and discussions on cartooning, comic strips, comic books, graphic novels, mini comics, and webcomics.
Instructor, Healthcare Administration
In this non-tenure position, the instructor will work full-time, developing and teaching undergraduate healthcare courses. Courses center on healthcare policy, healthcare finance, and ethics for both traditional and distributed learning modalities.
A supervisor will oversee senior projects, administrative practicum, and independent study activities. The instructor is expected to participate in curriculum development activities and special instructional methods while also serving on program, division, and university committees.
Construction Management/Adjunct Safety Instructor
In this part-time position, the instructor will report directly to the Executive Dean of Workforce Trades and Economic Development. The instructor will provide instruction for enrolled adults who have a wide range of academic and career goals, teaching construction project management safety measures, safety planning, and accident prevention on the job site.
Adjunct Instructor of Sociology
The adjunct will teach courses that range from introductory to upper-level. All classes are on-campus only for this position. The successful candidate should have completed their doctoral degree in Sociology; however, ABD and Masters level candidates will be considered.
Assistant Professor, Criminal Justice
The candidate for this position should have, at minimum, a PhD in Criminal Justice or Criminology from an accredited institution. If the candidate has a doctorate in a related field, this will be considered as acceptable. The candidate should have a history of teaching and scholarly publication in criminal justice. If the candidate is an ABD, they should show proof of expected completion of their doctorate.
Assistant or Associate Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering
The successful professor will be responsible for developing a new Computer Engineering Technology (CET) program, using externally funded research/economic development activities. They will also teach at the undergraduate level and mentor students. Applicants are expected to hold a Ph.D. in Electrical or Computer Engineering or a related field and they must also have experience in computer engineering.
The teacher chosen for this position will teach Psychology courses; other teaching assignments may be made as needed by the Psychology Department. They should be passionate about improving the lives of the college’s students, the faculty team, community and the world.
Candidates must hold a Master’s degree or higher in Psychology from a regionally accredited university. Alternatively, they may have 18 graduate semester hours in Psychology plus a Master’s degree by the time they start the job. (Educational Counseling, Educational Psychology, Guidance Counseling or any other non-Psychology program will not qualify for hiring.)
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the employment of college professors (postsecondary teachers) is expected to grow 15% between 2016 and 2026, much higher than the average for all occupations in the US. This projection includes part-time and full-time instructors.
With the number of students attending colleges expected to rise in the next decade, these institutions need to hire new college professors to handle the influx of students. Students feel the need to continue their educations so they can gain the skills necessary for today’s jobs.
Higher-learning institutions may hire more part-time college professors to meet their needs. Full-time non-tenured and full-time tenured positions could be limited.
Some disciplines may see a larger increase in the hiring of college professors. Health specialties expect to see an increase in students seeking degrees in a health-related field.
Advancing From Here
If you are an adjunct professor or instructor, then you can move up to a tenured position. Obtain the required education, research and publish articles, teach courses, and gain the experience you need.
Once you have reached the top pay grade in your field you have the option of becoming a dean in the department housing your field of expertise.
Finally, consider becoming a postsecondary education administrator, such as a provost of a university. At minimum, you’ll need a master’s degree for this position. You may also need special state certification. If you work at a community college, then a bachelor’s degree may suffice.
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Frequently Asked Questions
What does it mean to be tenured?
A college professor may become tenured after passing rigorous standards. Tenure allows professors to have more job security. This makes it difficult to fire a professor for reasons that not related to crime or other serious occurrences.
How much do professors make?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for postsecondary teachers is around $80,500.
What is the job outlook for professors?
The ten year growth rate for professors according to the bureau of Labor Statistics is 12%.
What qualities make a good professor?
Professors need to be well-prepared and organized, have enthusiasm, and be able to communicate clearly and effectively. The need to have a strong understanding of the subject matter and be devoted to learning. A good professor is flexible, creative, outgoing, people oriented, resourceful, and patient.
How long does it take to become a professor?
Some career and technical colleges will only require professors to hold a master's degree but most universities will require a doctorate. You will need to obtain a doctorate if you want to become a tenured professor. The whole process can take 5 to 8 years to complete.
Education Career Paths