How to Become a College Professor: Education and Career Roadmap

Jan 18, 2020

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.

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  • 0:01 Should I Become a…
  • 1:02 How to Become a…

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Should I Become a College Professor?

Degree Level Master's degree; doctoral degree often required
Degree Field(s) Varies based on discipline
License/Certification None
Experience Teaching experience; work experience in your specific field; research and publication typically required
Key Skills Research, critical thinking, communication, writing, and computer skills; knowledge of classroom management
Mean Annual Salary (2018) $76,990 (for postsecondary teachers)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

The minimum level of education required for college professors 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. You should be prepared to earn an undergraduate degree in your chosen subject area, go to graduate school, complete a Ph.D. program, conduct independent research, and write and publish articles in scholarly journals.

In addition, you may need to gain teaching and research experience as a graduate assistant, or gain work experience in settings like governmental, nonprofit, and the private sector related to your field of study. The key skills you want to build include critical thinking skills, communication skills, computer skills, and knowledge of classroom management.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual salary for postsecondary teachers in May 2018 was $76,990.

How to Become a College Professor

The following are steps you can take to become a college professor.

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 are just a few of the subjects you can specialize in. You can base the choice of field on several factors including individual preference or the likelihood of obtaining a position in a particular field. You might enjoy philosophy, but 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, you should keep in mind what's required to graduate from a bachelor's degree program and 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, you 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. You need to contact your chosen college and determine what prerequisites you need to complete. While in graduate school, you can expect to form a strong academic relationship with your professors. You may have the opportunity to co-author a paper with one of your professors.

At the doctoral level, you may specialize within your chosen discipline. For example, a sociology student may specialize in a topic like medical sociology or the sociology of religion.

Publication is important for individuals who want to become professors. Establishing a publication record during graduate school will make you more competitive when applying for tenure-track teaching positions.

Consider learning 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, you need to participate in any available internships or employment opportunities that build your teaching and research experience and aid in advancing your career. This often means holding a 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, you 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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