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How to Become a College Professor in 2021

October 4, 2021 | Staff Writers

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If you’d like to help the next generation learn more about a field you’re passionate in, giving them a head start in their careers, becoming a college professor is a good option. Teaching can be a rewarding profession, especially for those who work for colleges and universities, where students are there out of personal interest and motivation, rather than because they’re required to be at school.

Working as a tenured professor at a graduate school, or teaching at a higher education establishment means you’ll have the chance to share your love for your subject with others who are interested in learning it to a high level.

Getting a job as a college professor is not easy. There are more people who are qualified to teach than there are openings for lecturers and professors, so finding work is hard, and becoming a tenured professor is even harder. Fortunately, if you hold a master’s degree in an in-demand specialization, you’ll have plenty of other career opportunities, so you’ll have other jobs to fall back on if you find it takes a while to get the teaching job you were hoping for at your desired college or graduate school.

Steps to becoming a college professor

The road to teaching begins in much the same way as most other jobs, with a bachelor’s degree. Some people start a bachelor’s degree having a clear idea of their long-term career goals and specialization plans, while others decide during their undergraduate studies, or even after graduation.

While it’s possible to go straight into teaching, many people choose to work in industry and get some experience before becoming a professor. Lecturers with real-world experience are invaluable because of the expertise and perspective they can bring to their classes, and the way they can use that to prepare their students for the working world.

What are the steps to becoming a college professor?

College professors are expected to have a robust education, usually including not just a master’s degree, but a doctoral-level qualification in the field in which you’d like to teach. You can teach at high school level without a PhD, but for undergraduate and graduate classes, you’ll need to continue your education at the postgraduate level.

It helps if you can earn some teaching experience, too. Many would-be college professors gain their teaching experience while they’re graduate students themselves, by leading undergraduate classes or working as an assistant professor while they’re studying. Some universities offer the opportunity to work as a Graduate Student Instructor, which means students can teach full classes under the supervision of a qualified teacher, and get valuable skills and experience along the way.

Other institutions allow students to work as teaching assistants, doing day-to-day work such as leading small classes, grading papers, and preparing teaching materials. TAs may also assist students, and will get to spend a lot of time around qualified teachers, learning what goes into the role of being a professor.

If your goal is to become a teacher in a technical or a vocational field, you’ll need to have the certifications or licenses that you’re preparing your students for. Not all subjects have licensing requirements. An English professor, for example, would just need a Ph.D. in a specialization relating to English Language or English Literature. An accountant, however, would need to pass the CPA examination in their state, since they’ll be helping their students prepare for that examination.

What is the difference between a professor and a doctor in a university?

Teaching titles can vary between countries. For example, in the UK there are lecturers, senior lecturers, readers, and professors, with professors being the highest level of academic achievement. In the UK, anyone with a Ph.D. can call themselves a doctor, but only someone at the highest level of academic achievement can call themselves a professor.

In the United States, all college and university teachers can call themselves professors, with newly-qualified professors being classed as assistants. The job titles, in order of experience, are:

  • Assistant professor
  • Associate professor
  • Full professor

In the United States, a Doctor is a professor that has a Ph.D., and this means most professors can also call themselves doctors.

What type of grad school do you need to attend in order to become a professor?

If you’re hoping to land a tenure-track position once you graduate, you’ll need to have a high-quality master’s degree and be enrolled in a desirable Ph.D. program. Competition for tenured positions is fierce, and the majority of those positions go to graduates from one of the Ivy League schools or a similarly prestigious institution such as Johns Hopkins, UC Berkeley or MIT.

The institution you attended for your bachelor’s degree is not as important, but it’s a good idea to look for a top-ranked school for your master’s degree and to make sure your grades are as high as possible throughout your graduate and undergraduate studies.

Everything from your GRE scores through to your grades at the undergraduate level and the research projects you choose to work on as a postgraduate will make a difference to the chances of you being accepted to a quality doctoral degree program.

Take advantage of any opportunities you have to get teaching experience, network as much as possible, and try to add publication credits or research work to your CV. This will help you stand out from other applicants when you pursue your Ph.D.

It’s still possible to become a professor even if you aren’t accepted to a program with one of the elite colleges, but you may need to work your way up the ladder, serving as an assistant professor or associate professor for a while. Tenure is highly sought-after, not guaranteed, and a

Requirements for being a college professor

Because college professors are teaching people who are studying for a degree, it’s vital they have a robust understanding of their chosen subject themselves. This means college professors are expected to have a Ph.D. in their field, and will therefore have spent many years in the world of academia themselves before they start working as adjunct professors.

What degrees are you required to have to be a college professor?

Most college professors will have a Ph.D. or a similar doctoral-level qualification before they start teaching as a full-time job. At some academic institutions, a person who holds a Ph.D. or some other terminal degree (depending on the field) is known as an adjunct professor, while those who have a master’s degree are referred to as adjunct lecturers.

Today, it’s hard to become a tenured professor, with around 73% of all teaching positions being non-tenure-track ones. A person whose long-term goal is to earn a tenured position should aim to earn a doctoral degree because that will greatly increase their chances of being considered for such a prestigious teaching role.

What job experience is needed to be a college professor?

The job experience required to become a college professor varies depending on the position. A professor who is teaching a purely academic subject at a four-year college may be considered fully qualified if they have some teaching experience they earned when they were undergraduates themselves.

A professor who is teaching accounting, medicine, or some other licensed profession will need both teaching experience and the professional license associated with that job. As a part of earning that professional license, they’ll likely need at least a year or two’s worth of experience in the profession. Many professors spend several years working in the field, so they can bring that real-world experience with them into the lab or lecture hall.

All told, this means most professors spend around eight years studying at the postgraduate level to prepare for their jobs, with some spending extra time on top of that working in their field before they return to academia to teach.

For example, nurses often work in the field after earning their bachelor’s degree and study a master’s part-time before deciding whether they’d like to earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or an MPhil / Ph.D. in Nursing. Those who go the DNP route tend to become nurse practitioners and stay in the field, while those who go the other route become nurse educators and train the next generation of nurses.

What are other requirements to be a college professor?

The exact job requirements for college professors depend on the institution you’d like to teach with. Most institutions expect professors to have good grades from the bachelor’s level upwards, and may also pay attention to the quality of the institution that awarded the Ph.D.

In addition to qualifications, institutions may ask for varying levels of teaching experience, with some being happy to admit someone as an assistant professor if they have experience as a teaching assistant, while others may want to see more experience than that. For technical or professional subjects, experience in the career in question is also desirable.

A college professor will be expected to have:

  • The ability to design a curriculum and create teaching materials
  • Good knowledge of the English language
  • Strong verbal and written communication skills
  • The ability to work in a team
  • Computer literacy
  • Good organization skills
  • Strong people skills
  • The ability to think quickly and be creative
  • Patience

Teaching is a challenging job, and while those teaching at colleges and universities are more likely to be dealing with motivated students, which makes the job easier, in some ways, than early childhood education. However, college students are challenging in their own way, and an accounting professor will need to find ways to make the subject interesting and support students who struggle with the rigors of the profession.

Whether you’re hoping to work in research, teach a liberal arts subject, or shape the next generation of leaders at business school, getting teaching experience as early as you can is essential.

Professors will usually be asked to pass a background check, because they may work with vulnerable young people as a part of their job.

Qualities of a college professor

College professors work with students who are studying for an undergraduate or postgraduate degree. This means they are expected to teach the subject they are specialized in at a high level, and they need to have the communication skills to do that effectively.

There’s a common misconception that college professors have an easy job, because they’re dealing with more mature learners, and people who have an active interest in the subject. While it’s true that people who are studying for a degree usually want to learn more about a subject, that doesn’t mean college professors can be lazy.

The job of a professor is to get a student through a course and help them get grades that are as good as possible. This means an English professor should work to make every text interesting, and a mathematics professor should help people understand confusing and opaque theories.

College professors need to be compassionate, organized, firm, and fair. They’ll deal with everything from highly motivated and talented students, to those who are hard workers yet still struggle with the content and young people who like to push boundaries and who may be difficult to deal with.

Working as a professor can be time-consuming, because of the effort required to create content, deliver lectures, devise labs, design tests, and mark coursework. Good time management skills and a willingness to put in extra effort from time to time are important. It’s also important, however, to have a good work/life balance and avoid burnout.

What are the duties of a college professor?

The duties of a college professor may vary depending on whether they’re an assistant professor or one with tenure. Experienced professors on a tenure track are considered invaluable members of the faculty and have a lot of responsibilities, including:

  • Conducting and reviewing research within their field
  • Building a curriculum for their course
  • Preparing the syllabus
  • Delivering lectures
  • Mentoring their students
  • Creating course materials
  • Devising examinations and setting coursework
  • Marking and grading student work
  • Keeping up-to-date with their chosen subject
  • Presenting research
  • Directing research in their field

What qualities make a college professor exceptional?

The difference between a college professor who does the bare minimum and one that is exceptional at their job is the commitment they have to their subject, and to their students.

By the time a college professor starts work, they will have been focused on their chosen subject for a decade already, if not more than that. Many professors who teach in fields such as accounting, engineering, or medicine have a decade of professional experience, and it’s easy for someone in that position to burn out on the subject.

Burnout is an issue because it means the professor may lose interest in the latest developments in the field and become closed-minded in their teachings. This is detrimental to their students because it means the professor is not delivering the best possible education.

Some professors go into teaching because they’re no longer able to do the job they trained to do. For example, a nurse could suffer a back injury and be unable to work in the emergency department because they can’t lift patients or medical equipment. A physiotherapist may suffer an occupational injury that prevents them from delivering vigorous hands-on treatments.

In those cases, teaching may seem like a natural progression. However, teaching means dealing with students every day, while remaining enthusiastic about the subject.

The best professors are people who are genuinely passionate about the subject they teach, willing to learn new things and continue learning for decades, and willing to take an interest in the people they teach.

How do you know if being a college professor is suitable for you?

If you’re considering becoming a college professor, it’s a good idea to get some experience of teaching early on, before you start working towards your doctoral degree.

Even the best teachers often say they found their first few times in the classroom challenging. Speaking in front of a group of people can be intimidating. If you find that even after some practice with teaching, you don’t look forward to getting up there and delivering a class, then perhaps teaching isn’t for you.

Teaching could be a good career choice if you find the idea of sharing your skills and knowledge appealing, and if you’re passionate about helping people. Professors work with large groups of students, delivering content, but they’ll also get the chance to work one on one with motivated students and guide them through their courses.

An effective teacher knows how to explain things in multiple ways, so they can help every learner under their tutelage progress as well as possible.

If you’re considering getting into teaching for the money, think twice. The average salary of a postsecondary teacher is $80,790 per year. This may sound appealing at first, and it is around double the average salary in the United States across all professions. However, that pay is not high compared to many other jobs that require a Ph.D.

Professors are reasonably well paid, but they work very hard for their earnings, and there are quicker routes into jobs that pay similar salaries. The professors who are going to last a long time in the job are the ones who pursued the profession because of a love of teaching, learning, and research.

Education requirements for becoming a college professor

It takes many years of preparation to become a college professor. As a postsecondary teacher, you’ll be expected to have a strong understanding of the topic that you want to teach.

The exact requirements for teaching at the postsecondary level vary depending on the institution you want to work for, and whether you’re teaching a purely academic subject, one that involves a lot of practical work and research, or one which has strict licensing and certification requirements.

What are the educational requirements to become a college professor?

A college professor who wants to work at a major university will most likely be expected to have a Ph.D., but one who is looking to join the faculty at a community college or technical school may be accepted with a master’s degree.

Some institutions place a lot of value on work experience. For example, a computer science expert with a master’s degree and a decade of experience in the industry may be viewed more positively than someone who has a Ph.D. but no, or limited, work experience.

How long can it take to achieve the educational requirements to be a professor?

It takes a long time to become a college professor. Most people will spend four years earning an undergraduate degree, then two more years to complete a master’s degree.

After earning a master’s a student can then enroll on a Ph.D., which typically takes 5 to 6 years, although some people take as long as eight years to complete that level of qualification.

The cost of a Ph.D. can vary between $25,000 to $40,000 per year, but it’s possible to get scholarships or sponsorships to offset the cost of studying. If your chosen research project or thesis is interesting enough you may be able to get a full scholarship.

Scholarships at the undergraduate level are often offered based on demographics, and financial need. For example, a foundation may offer funding for women, ethnic minorities, or people who are the first in their family to attend university.

At the post-graduate level, however, scholarships tend to be focused on academic merit. This means you’ll need good grades, a strong personal statement, and a good proposal. Letters of recommendation from previous lecturers may be beneficial too.

If the thought of spending ten years or more in academia before getting a job as a professor is worrying to you, then you may want to work part-time while pursuing your Ph.D., this will give you the chance to get some experience in a related field; something that could help you earn tenure later.

Part-time studies usually mean devoting 20 or 30 hours each week to the Ph.D. Many postgraduate students find it less stressful to study part-time than to try to keep pace with the challenges of a full-time doctoral project.

By the time a person is ready to work as a professor, they’ll most likely be in their late 20s or early 30s. This means they’ll have the life-experience and maturity required to guide young undergraduates through their bachelor’s degree, and they’ll have seen their field of study evolve over many years.

Why is it necessary to have so much education to be a professor?

College professors need to be educated to the doctoral level because they’re the people who are responsible for postsecondary education. They design the curricula that a student is required to study when they pursue a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree.

Doctors, nurses, engineers, accountants, and lawyers are all taught by someone, and that person needs to know enough to teach the next generation. The same applies to the scientists that make medicines, design new computer hardware, and even develop new ways of preserving foods, or new, more efficient engines for vehicles.

Whether someone studies at a community college or a prestigious university, if they’re working toward an accredited degree that means they’re learning a minimum amount about a subject. Accreditation means that a person who graduates with a passing grade in a course knows the subject to a specific level.

College professors, therefore, need to have at least enough understanding to teach undergraduate-level courses. That, ideally, means a bachelor’s degree and some real-world experience in the subject, or a doctoral-level qualification.

It’s common for lecturers and instructors to have master’s degrees, while professors are more likely to be in possession of a Ph.D. or other equivalent terminal qualification.

Remember that the education of a postsecondary teacher should not end when they start teaching. These teachers are training the next generation, and are working with people who have already decided they have an interest in their chosen subject. Professors should embody the philosophy of lifelong learning and a willingness to keep an open mind.

Many of a professor’s students will be people who are interested enough in a subject to do independent learning. They’re highly motivated individuals, and they’re aiming to pursue postgraduate qualifications themselves.

This means professors should do the same thing. Whether they hold a master’s degree or a doctorate, they should be committed to engaging in ongoing research, adding to the body of knowledge in their field.

If you’re interested in becoming a professor yourself, start working on your academic credentials as soon as possible. It helps if you can demonstrate publication and research credits, and if you invest some time into being a teaching assistant during your postgraduate studies.

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