How to Become a Professor

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Five Steps to Becoming a Professor

Step 1 Earn an undergraduate degree

The path to becoming a professor begins with a bachelor’s degree. It is a prerequisite to entering graduate school. A student may know the subject they want to specialize in from their first day of college, or may discover it later on.

Step 2 Choose a subject to specialize in

People who want to become a professor must choose a subject to teach and begin gaining expertise in that area, usually by studying the subject while pursuing their undergraduate degree but not always. In addition to taking coursework in a specific subject matter area, participating in an internship program in their undergraduate years can also help future professors develop their knowledge and skills.

Step 3 Earn a graduate degree

Hopeful professors must continue their education with a graduate degree. Generally, those who want to work as professors at community colleges are required to earn a master’s degree, while those who want to teach at four-year colleges and universities should earn a doctorate. However, when there are a lot of job candidates to choose from, community colleges may also favor those who have earned a doctoral degree.

Step 4 Participate in an assistantship

During their graduate years, students who want to become professors should participate in an assistantship program at their school, which is a kind of financial aid that allows students to get full or partial tuition remission and a stipend as they gain work experience under the supervision of a professor. In some cases, students may also be able to earn graduate credit hours toward their degree when they participate in an assistantship.

There are different kinds of assistantships available, depending on the students’ academic department. Research assistantships allow students to perform certain duties, such as collecting, documenting, and analyzing research data. Those in teaching assistantships participate in instructional activities that may include grading tests and assignments, meeting with students during office hours, and giving class lectures. Those in an administrative assistantship work with the staff of an academic department and perform duties such as providing academic advising and career counseling to students, giving presentations, and evaluating programs in the department.

No matter what kind of assistantship students participate in, they will be expected to work a certain number of hours each week and maintain a minimum GPA.

Step 5 Get post-doctoral experience

In order to successfully compete for professor positions, people should obtain post-doctoral experience. This allows those who completed their Ph.D. to conduct original research and begin to amass a catalog of studies published in academic journals.

Post-doctoral jobs are generally positions at a college or university that last two or three years. Those who want to teach in scientific disciplines, such as biological science, chemistry, and physics, may be expected to have this type of experience in order to land a position.

FAQ on Becoming a Professor

  • Some colleges not only want professors who have academic experience, they also want those who have hands-on experience in their subject of expertise. This means prospective educators should have a work history in the area they want to teach. For example, professors who want to teach law, health specialties, art, and education are usually expected to bring some real-world experience to the classroom.

  • Professors who work with students who have to earn a license in order to get employment—such as nurses or teachers—should also hold the same license. The license requirements depend on what field the professor specializes in and the state where they work.

  • Professional organizations are a great way for professors to network with each other, get to know potential employers, and stay abreast of developments in their subject matter area. Some professional associations they can join include the American Association of University Professors, the National Education Association, the American Association of Adjunct Education, the Academy for Academic Leadership, and the American College Personnel Association.

Professor Salary & Job Growth

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May 2017 the median salary for professors was $76,000 a year, with the bottom ten percent earning around $39,000 and the top ten percent earning $170,160. There are several factors that go into how much professors earn, including the type of institution they work for. For example, professors at private colleges and universities earn a median income of $77,170 and those at state schools earn $79,340. In addition, professors who work for local junior colleges make a median income of $76,890 and educators at state junior colleges make $56,030.

Also, the agency reports that the subject professors teach can influence their earning potential. The following are some examples of the median annual income of educators in different disciplines.

Alabama Mean wage annual: $29,640
Currently Employed: 3,370
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 5%
Alaska Mean wage annual: $79,300
Currently Employed: 290
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 1%
Arizona Mean wage annual: $74,210
Currently Employed: 1,780
Change in Employment (2016-2026): N/A
Arkansas Mean wage annual: $56,410
Currently Employed: 790
Change in Employment (2016-2026): N/A
California Mean wage annual: N/A
Currently Employed: N/A
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 10%
Colorado Mean wage annual: $63,650
Currently Employed: 440
Change in Employment (2016-2026): N/A
Connecticut Mean wage annual: N/A
Currently Employed: N/A
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 1%
Delaware Mean wage annual: $66,000
Currently Employed: 50
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 9%
Florida Mean wage annual: $60,300
Currently Employed: 14,970
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 16%
Georgia Mean wage annual: $80,260
Currently Employed: 5,540
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 15%
view more

The job outlook for professors is bright. Projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics state that the growth for professors will be 15 percent between 2016 and 2026, which is faster growth than the average of all other occupations. The reason for this boom in professor jobs can be attributed to the expected increase in students who will be seeking higher education in the coming years.

These projections come with a few caveats, however. It’s important to consider that many of these positions will be for part-time instructors, rather than full-time tenured professors. In addition, available jobs at public colleges and universities will be closely tied to state budgets. Also, different academic disciplines will see different rates of growth.

Finding a Postsecondary Teaching Program

Those preparing to become professors must enroll in strong education programs themselves. This section includes information on the programs that prepare hopeful postsecondary teachers for their career.

Choosing the right school is one of the most important decisions a future postsecondary school teacher will ever make. Students are weighing their options based on tuition cost, the length of the program, and the licenses and certifications they can earn as they complete their studies. Use the following search tool to compare programs.

Higher Education Associations & Groups

Joining higher education associations and groups can help future and current professors expand their networks and get information about the latest research in the field. The following are some examples of the organizations professors can join to enhance their careers.

  • American Association of University Professors

    This association is dedicated to promoting high standards in higher education by developing and teaching best practices. Members of the AAUP can sharpen their skills through webinars, training programs, teaching toolkits, guidebooks, and journals. In addition, the association offers insurance and discounts on helpful resources.

  • American Association of Community Colleges

    Promotes the needs of community colleges through advocacy and education. Members can network at the group’s annual convention, get the latest research about the field from journals, and participate in professional development programs.

  • American College Personnel Association

    Since 1924, this organization has been providing help to those who work at public and private colleges around the country. The group offers professional networking opportunities, a career portal, webinars, industry publications, and leadership training.

  • Association on Higher Education And Disability

    Helps promote the needs of those with disabilities in higher education. Offers education about the issues people with disabilities face through publications, conferences, workshops, and webinars.

  • National Education Association

    This association meets the needs of teachers working in public education, from those who teach preschoolers to college graduate students. Members have access to resources such as lesson plans, classroom management tips, and pedagogical strategies.

  • Academy for Academic Leadership

    Organization that helps to build leadership skills among those in higher education. Provides workshops, learning programs, and consulting services.

  • American Association of Adjunct Education

    Provides professional development to adjunct professors and part-time faculty members. Organizes an annual conference to help members learn new skills and network with each other.

Resources for Professors

In order to be successful in an education career, professionals must have strong learning skills. The following are some resources that professors can use to get the latest information about their field.

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