How to Become a College Professor

Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire. William Butler Yeats

If you are passionate about teaching and feel that your skills would best suit the academic rigor and seriousness of purpose that comes with adult education, you are a great candidate to pursue a career as a professor.

Becoming a professor can provide a means to invest in your own personal research as well as imparting your knowledge onto the next generation of thinkers. It is an excellent choice for those who are deeply interested in a particular academic subject and also have a desire to teach.

College professors instruct students in a variety of different areas at the post-secondary level. They produce scholarly articles, perform research and teach. Many college professors find their work rewarding since they are usually interested in the course of study they have chosen.

Establishing a career as a college professor requires a great amount of work and dedication, but the rewards of the job can be very compelling, as they can offer long-term job security that is unparalleled in many other professions. Full-time university professors typically have the goal of obtaining tenure. This allows professors to maintain their job permanently without fear of being fired for unjust cause.

This article provides a primer for anyone interested in teaching at the college level. It includes an overview of college professor requirements, college professor salaries by state, a guide to how to become a professor by the age of 30, and more. For answers to all your questions and more, read on.

Qualities of a College Professor

Those interested in becoming a college professor should have excellent verbal and communication skills. They should have a high level of knowledge and be well organized.

Good personality traits for college professors include:

  • High level of enthusiasm
  • Self-confidence
  • Willingness to mentor students
  • High engagement with your area of study
  • Flexibility and adaptability
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How Do You Become a College Professor?

Those interested in becoming a college professor should first choose an area to specialize in.

The next step would be to earn a Bachelor's Degree in your desired field. While obtaining this Bachelor's Degree, one should consider the requirements necessary to enter into a graduate program.

Education Requirements for Becoming a College Professor

college professor teaching full classUpon completion of your bachelor's degree, you would need to enroll in graduate school.

College professors need at least a master's degree. However, in many cases, a doctoral degree is required as well.

While in school, those who wish to become a college professor should participate in available internships or employment opportunities that could enhance their teaching and research experience. This could include holding an assistantship in Graduate School (TA) and maintaining good academic and working relationships with professors.

Many educators at the college level may earn a degree in Adult Education.

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Experience Requirements for Teaching as a College Professor

teaching lesson at whiteboardAfter completing graduate school, you should be able to begin climbing the ranks in order to become a college professor.

Many universities require a specified number of years of teaching at the college level as an associate professor or other position prior to earning the title of college professor. In addition, each university may have their own additional requirements, such as publications and more.

How To Become a College Professor by Age 30Becoming a professor takes dedication and years of hard work, as the expected qualifications to teach college are great. However, those who are especially determined can not only establish thriving careers but can make their first professional steps before they turn thirty years old. (This is, to be clear, by no means standard - many who pursue college professor careers are still in school well into their thirties.)

If you are dead set on becoming a college professor as quickly as possible, what's imperative is to find your area of study quickly and let it focus your academic efforts.

Those who complete their bachelor's degrees at 22 are on track to apply for advanced degree programs, leading ultimately to the completion of a PhD. While PhD coursework can vary dramatically, leading to very different program durations for students, it is possible to complete this work before age 30 and get your first professorship opportunity right away.

Here are a few college professor tips for those who are launching their careers at a young age:

  • Let your teaching responsibilities take the foreground in your first few years. While you will have time to continue building upon your graduate research, acclimating to the schedule and workload of a professor can be complex and difficult work that is worth appreciating in full. Give yourself time to get the lay of the land and learn the college professor hacks that will improve your productivity and performance.
  • Be approachable. Forging strong dynamics with your students will be critical as a teacher, and will provide you with an opportunity to receive useful feedback that can help influence your career. This will also help you settle within your new academic community.
  • Dress professionally. It may sound silly, but your college professor outfit will go far in communicating the respect you deserve. Especially as a young professor, it's important to show your seriousness of purpose - after all, if you are younger than 30, you'll be quite close in age to your students!

What Does a College Professor Do?

College professors are responsible for preparing course materials and teaching classes to graduate and undergraduate students. These courses may be in lecture, seminar, field study or laboratory formats. Many university professors also conduct related research in their field of expertise.

College professors tend to spend a lot of time in a classroom setting conducting lectures, or in an office setting meeting with students, colleagues and preparing materials. College professors work anywhere from nine to 12 hours per week teaching classes, an additional 20-30 hours preparing for classes and around 10 hours a week grading, reviewing and evaluating course assignments.

Often times, college professors conduct research in order to publish work in their field.

In addition, many college professors take on more responsibility by seeking positions such as Department Chairs.

College Professor Jobs & Job Description

College professors come from all different backgrounds and are drawn to teaching - some after they attain their master's or PhD in their chosen field, and some not until years later.

College professor careers do vary in scope depending on what college and what field they're in.

Below is a typical job description for a college professor without tenure, and with tenure.

Untenured College Professor

The first two to seven years on average that a professor teaches for a college or university is considered to be untenured, meaning that he or she is an associate or adjunct professor. Some institutions offer tenured positions and others offer untenured only.

It is very rare for a professor who does not already hold tenure to be offered an immediate tenured professor position. It is much more common to spend your first several years in an untenured professorship, ideally one that is on a tenure track.

A typical untenured professor's job description will look like the following:

  • Demonstrate excellence in teaching
  • Show commitment to integrating coursework in the learning process
  • Showcase the ability to inspire, motivate, and empower students to think critically about coursework
  • Develop curriculum and program planning
  • Evaluate students and their academic progress
  • Engage in research in chosen field
  • Collaborate with colleagues regarding their research interests
  • Publish in scholarly journals
  • Present findings and research at academic conferences
  • Advise students regarding coursework, time management, and assignments
  • Participate in collegiate faculty meetings
  • Participate in departmental faculty meetings
  • Participate in committees
  • Actively serve college and community.
  • Teach advanced classes
  • Mentor teaching assistants
  • Model a service leadership mind-set in all activities and interactions with stakeholders
  • Design, revise, and update courses and materials based on new developments in current events and research findings
  • Consult with program and course directors, other faculty members, advisory committees, industry partners, potential employers and students.
  • Define, evaluate and validate course objectives
  • Specify or approve learning approaches and necessary resources.
  • Develop individualized instruction using a variety of well-designed instructional material including multimedia presentations and current interactive technologies, focusing primarily on experiential and project-based learning.
  • Select or improve textbooks and learning materials
  • Ensure student engagement, awareness of course objectives, approach and evaluation techniques
  • Support faculty-student channels for dialogue
  • Carry out regularly scheduled instruction
  • Provide tutoring and academic counseling to students
  • Provide a learning environment that makes effective use of available resources, work experience, and field trips
  • Evaluate student progress/achievement and is responsible for the timely overall assessment of the student's work within assigned courses.
  • Contribute to other areas as well as professorial role, such as student recruitment and selection, timetabling, facility design, professional development, student employment and control of supplies and equipment

Tenured College Professor

After the first two to seven years of employment as a college professor, often there is an option to be granted tenure or job security which allows further development in research, teaching and service as they align with the values of a particular university, college or department. Some institutions offer tenured positions and others offer untenured only.

Tenure is one of the most attractive features of a college professor career, offering long-term job security and academic freedom.

While there are many professor jobs in academia that do not offer tenure, it is the goal of most academic professionals to find a tenured professor position.

A typical tenured professor's job description will look like the following:

  • Contribute in departmental staff meetings
  • Join relevant committees
  • Enthusiastically serve college and community obligations
  • Teach advanced classes and seminars
  • Mentor and support teaching assistants
  • Specify or approve learning approaches and required resources.
  • Use a variety of well-designed instructional material including multimedia presentations and current interactive technologies, focusing primarily on experiential and project-based learning.
  • Support student engagement, awareness of course objectives, approach and evaluation techniques
  • Empower students to think critically about coursework and its applications
  • Develop course curriculum
  • Plan program arcs and timelines
  • Objectively evaluate students' academic progress
  • Collaborate with colleagues regarding their research in the interest of generating new academic lines of inquiry
  • Present findings and research at academic conferences
  • Design, revise and update courses and materials based on new developments in current events and research findings
  • Consult with program and course directors, other faculty members, advisory committees, industry partners, potential employers and students
  • Support college-student channels for dialogue
  • Lecture on a regular basis
  • Support graduate students
  • Demonstrate excellence in research
  • Direct research and publish findings at regular intervals
  • Integrate relevant course materials in the learning process
  • Define and evaluate course objectives in light of research
  • Advise students regarding coursework, team skills, time management, and assignments
  • Provide tutoring and academic counseling to students
  • Provide a learning environment that makes effective use of available resources, work experience and fieldwork
  • Evaluate student achievement and assess the student's work within assigned courses
  • Contribute to other administrative areas to support students, department and institution such as student recruitment and selection, timetabling, facility design, professional development, student employment and control of supplies and equipment

Both tenured and untenured college professors have many types of institutions open to them for employment opportunities - read on to learn more.

To Adjunct or Not to Adjunct? The Pros and Cons of an Alternative Professor Career PathWhile arriving at a tenure track position can be very difficult to achieve, in recent years, many who enter the field of academia are starting their careers as adjunct professors. Adjunct professors are part-time instructors who teach courses on a contract basis. These contracts can vary, with some schools offering health benefits and others not. Some professors are only offered adjunct positions in the short term, while others are able to renew their contracts over long periods of time.

One of the main advantages of being an adjunct professor is the flexibility it provides. Adjuncts can usually choose which courses to teach and when to teach them. For those who would like to fit teaching among other career goals or family responsibilities, this can be a path that provides an accommodating schedule.

However, there are also several drawbacks to being an adjunct professor. One major disadvantage is the lack of job security. Adjuncts are often hired on a semester-to-semester or year-to-year basis, and their employment may depend on enrollment numbers or budget constraints. This can make it difficult to plan for the future or establish a sustainable path for years to come. Adjuncts are also typically paid less than full-time faculty, and may not receive the same benefits.

For this reason, if you are interested in becoming a professor, most experts would not advise you to opt for an adjunct's path, although it is not always avoidable. Still, if you are still in planning stages of your career trajectory, it's best to aim for tenure track positions that will offer competitive compensation and ensure a viable career in the long term.

Where Can Certified College Professors Work?

College professors can work in state universities, private universities, community colleges and in trade colleges.

State Universities

This type of university receives support from state funding as well as tuition. Since funding is given by the state, oftentimes the state may dictate curriculum taught. Class size can be high but pay is typically higher compared to private and community colleges.

Private Universities

This type of university mainly relies on tuition, fees and contributions from private donors. Some private universities may have strict guidelines or statements of faith in regard to whom they hire as part of their staff.

Community Colleges

Students in community college typically attend to save money before attending a state university. Sometimes this type of college will offer an associate's degree after the completion of two years of study. Community colleges may offer technical or vocational programs for their students that offer a more hands on approach.

What is the Salary of a College Professor?

So do college professors make a lot of money? They absolutely can. As a professor, your salary will be largely determined by the institution where you work, where it is based, and the specific requirements of the position you've been offered.

The best-paying college professor positions offer generous compensation with a rare level of job security.

On average, college professors earn between $44,870 and $168,320, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2022 data. The gap between salaries of public and private college professors runs counter to that of the elementary and secondary roles, with , that is, professors at private colleges make on average $18,000 more.

As a professor, one's subject area can be a significant factor in determining one's salary. The top-paying subjects for professors are Law, which offers a median annual salary of $123,470, as well as Engineering and Economics, which both offer median annual salaries of $104,940. There is a wide range of salaries for other subjects, which can be anywhere from $63,910 (for those in the field of Education) to $102,270 (for those specializing in Health-related fields).

Professors can teach at both private and public institutions, and they can teach at four-year colleges and universities with graduate programs as well as junior colleges. The BLS reports the following median salaries depending on their employing institution:

  • Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state: $81,250
  • Colleges, universities, and professional schools; private: $79,820
  • Junior colleges; local: $79,810
  • Junior colleges; state: $63,590

Experience is an important factor for post-secondary educators. Most come to the role with more than 10 years of experience. and are compensated up to $168,320 for that experience, depending on field and location. In order to teach at this level, a doctorate degree is required. Additional bonuses and income streams become available the more a professor researches and publishes.

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College Professor Resources

2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Postsecondary Teachers, All Other reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed June 2023.

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Can I become a professor with a bachelor's degree?
In most cases, no, it is not possible to become a professor with just a bachelor's degree. This is because professors are expected to have vast knowledge and experience in their fields of study, which are built over the course of a PhD program. However, with a bachelor's you are eligible to apply for PhD programs, which will begin with your Master's coursework. (If you hold a master's degree, your PhD will not include this coursework.)

Can I be a professor with a master's? Do all professors hold a PhD?
Generally speaking, one is expected to hold a PhD in order to become a professor. However, there are some disciplines, particularly in the arts, which require only a master's degree in order to start a college professor career. It is worth determining if this is the case for your chosen area of specialty before embarking on your professorial career path, making sure that beyond short-term opportunities, there will be a path toward a career that will sustain you for years to come.

What is tenure and why do university professors get it?
Tenure is a system within academia that provides job security for professors while ensuring their freedom of expression and research. It is an agreement ensuring that a professor cannot be fired from an institution without just cause, meaning they cannot be removed for voicing a particular opinion or pursuing particular research.

Tenure track positions are coveted among professors, as they offer a kind of job security that is uncommon among most professions. Though tenured professors must continue to meet professional benchmarks and can lose their status over serious matters such as misconduct, they are able to advance their careers with an enviable level of stability. This is one of the most attractive things about the career of a full-time professor.

Do professors get paid in the summer?
It depends on the school. Some universities pay professors over a year-long period, while others maintain nine-month contracts with professors. In many cases, professors are expected to perform administrative duties during summer periods, including teaching summer courses. Institutions also sometimes offer research grants to professors that keep them on campus during summer break. While all tenure track positions are designed to encourage employee retention, it is worth reviewing the opportunities at the institutions where you are applying to work.

Do university college professors make a six-figure salary?
They certainly can. Different institutions offer different compensation for professors, and promotion and raise schedules can also vary. While not easy to achieve, the best-paying jobs in academia do offer six-figure salaries and can even involve sabbaticals and other research opportunities to entice faculty members to commit to their employer institutions in the long term.

Do college professors choose the classes they teach?
Sometimes. As a college professor, you will be hired within whatever subject you have developed as your area of specialty. Your sub focus within that can become a kind of professional calling card for you, making you an attractive candidate for schools seeking an instructor with a particular body of knowledge. However, it helps to have generally applicable knowledge within your field, as many professor positions - in particular those for new professors - mean teaching several classes simultaneously. It is usually only upon advancing to a more senior level of professorship that you will have full control over which courses you teach.