How to Become a College Professor: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a college professor. Research the job description and the education and certification requirements, and find out how to start a career as a college professor.

Should I Become a College Professor?

College professors instruct students in a variety of disciplines at the postsecondary level in colleges and universities. They also perform research and publish scholarly articles and books. Many professors find instruction rewarding as they get to work with students who are interested in their chosen course of study. However, the need to research, publish and teach can be overwhelming for some. Professors may have to teach on evenings and weekends, but many get summers off from instruction.

The minimum level of education required is a master's degree, which can qualify an individual for work as a professor at a community college. A doctoral degree is typically required to work as a full-time, tenure-track university professor. Prospective college professors should be prepared to earn an undergraduate degrees in their chosen subject area, go to graduate school, complete a Ph.D. program, conduct independent research, and write and publish articles in scholarly journals. The following table contains the main requirements for working as a college professor:

Career Requirements

Degree Level At least a master's degree required; many universities require a doctorate
Degree Field Varies, nearly any field of interest
Experience Teaching and research experience as a graduate assistant, work experience in settings like governmental, non-profit and the private sector related to field of study
Key Skills Critical thinking skills, communication skills, computer skills, knowledge of classroom management
Salary $74,040 (Mean annual salary for a postsecondary teacher)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2014)

Step 1: Choose an Educational Field

College professors can choose from a huge variety of academic fields in which to specialize and teach since all subjects need to be taught. Mathematics, chemistry, English and history, for example, are just a few of the subjects a college professor can specialize in. One could base the choice of field on several factors including individual preference or the likelihood of obtaining a position in a particular field. An individual might enjoy philosophy, but he or she would have to consider the intense competition for relatively few full-time, tenure-track positions in that discipline.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

A bachelor's degree is the first step on the long educational road to becoming a college professor. Since a bachelor's degree is a prerequisite for entering graduate school, a prospective college professor should keep in mind what's required to graduate from a bachelor's degree program as well as what's required to qualify for a graduate degree program. For example, a GPA that is acceptable to graduate may not be high enough to enter graduate school. Additionally, students can begin to get an idea of how professors work and interact with students at the undergraduate level.

Step 3: Enroll in Graduate School

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, college professors need at least a master's degree, and in many cases, a doctoral degree is required. Popular or prestigious graduate schools may have stringent entrance requirements and many applicants for relatively few openings. Future college professors need to contact their chosen college and determine what prerequisites they need to complete. While in graduate school, students can expect to form a strong academic relationship with their professors. A graduate student may have the opportunity to co-author a paper with one of his or her professors. At the doctoral level, future college professors often specialize within their chosen discipline. For example, a sociology student may specialize in a topic such as medical sociology or the sociology of religion.

Success Tips:

  • Answer calls for articles. Publication is important for individuals who want to become professors. Establishing a publication record during graduate school will make an individual more competitive when applying for tenure-track teaching positions.
  • Learn how to teach online classes. More universities are offering classes, or entire degrees, online. An aspiring professor who knows how to work in at least one common online course platform could highlight his or her versatility when competing for a full-time, tenure-track position.

Step 4: Participate in Employment Opportunities or Internships

During the entire educational process, an aspiring college professor needs to participate in any available internships or employment opportunities that build their teaching and research experience and aid in advancing their career. This often means holding an graduate assistantship. Maintaining good academic and working relationships with schools and other professors can lead to potential job opportunities. After acquiring a full-time position, a college professor may eventually acquire tenure status with the school after being with them for an extended period of time. In most research universities, college professors must continue to contribute to research in their field and publish scholarly articles in addition to their teaching

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