College Professor Careers

Want to become a college professor? This in-depth guide will give you all the information you need about the educational requirements to becoming a professor at a university or community college.

What Is a Professor?

If you want to teach students beyond the high school level, a career as a professor could be for you! As a professor, you'd focus on a specific subject area (like business, engineering, law or psychology) in which you've been highly educated and/or have extensive professional experience. You could work for a 2-year community college or vocational school or for a 4-year college or university.

If you choose to teach at a 2-year school, your primary job would be teaching students; however, if you become a professor at a 4-year college you would likely divide your time between teaching undergraduate and/or graduate classes and conducting academic research. At either level, your duties would include:

  • Developing course curriculum, including lectures, labs and course materials
  • Evaluating student performance, including correcting exams and assigning grades
  • Maintaining office hours and/or establishing other ways to communicate with students, like phone calls, emails and/or conferences
  • Mentoring students and/or assisting them in securing internships, observations and other professional experiences

This career field has great potential; employment opportunities for professors are expected to increase by 15% in the decade spanning 2016-2026, which is more than double the projection for all occupations nationwide. However, it's important to note that job growth for professors can vary greatly by subject area taught. Also, part-time openings are expected to significantly outnumber full-time positions.

Let's take a closer look at the different levels within the professor career and their requirements.

How to Become a College Professor

The education requirements to become a professor vary slightly by school and the position, but you'll typically need a doctoral degree (such as a Ph.D.) in your chosen field. You must first earn a bachelor's degree and a master's degree before enrolling in a doctoral program. As a candidate for a doctorate, you'll complete advanced graduate-level coursework and conduct and present original research; many programs also include a teaching component to help you prepare for your future career.

Getting hired by a college or university is just the start of becoming a college professor; you'll still have to climb the rungs from assistant professor to associate professor to tenured professor, and meet the education and experience requirements for each one, if you hope for guaranteed full-time employment.

Let's examine the requirements for these positions so you know what to expect as you begin your career.

Type of Professor General Requirements
Assistant Professor Doctoral degree
Associate Professor Doctoral degree and demonstrated excellence in teaching and research
Tenured Professor Doctoral degree and at least seven years of demonstrated excellence in teaching and research
Adjunct Professor Master's degree with extensive professional experience or a doctoral degree
Online Adjunct Professor Master's degree or doctoral degree
Community College Professor Master's degree, although professional experience is valuable

Assistant Professor

Assistant professor is the bottom rung on the tenure-track scale, ranking immediately below associate professor. To secure work as an assistant professor, you'll likely need a doctorate related to the field that you wish to teach, as well as potential to earn tenure, which is shown through strength in your teaching and research.

Assistant professorships usually are granted for a set number of years (generally between one and five years, depending on the hiring institution) and might be renewable if you've not already been promoted to associate professor. Now, let's see the difference between assistant and associate professorships.

Associate Professor

Associate professor is a step up from assistant professor and just below tenured professor. To become an associate professor, you'll need to hold a doctorate and demonstrate excellence in teaching and academic research (for example, showing innovation in delivering classroom material and/or securing substantial grants for your department). You also might need to have made a significant contribution to your campus community, such as leading an extracurricular group, mentoring/supervising students or representing the school in community affairs, like serving on a town board or committee.

Depending on the college or university, you might be appointed as an associate professor for one to five years. It's important to note that some institutions have a limit to the number of years you can be on their tenure track before you make tenure; otherwise, you could lose your position.

Tenured Professor

Once you've achieved a tenured position (usually at least a seven-year journey), you've reached the top rung of the college professor ladder! Tenured professors are full-time faculty members who hold a doctorate, have earned a national or international reputation in their field and have been granted academic tenure at a college or university. Some ways you might reach this point:

  • Earn an award or prize for your teaching or research
  • Get elected to a scholarly society
  • Give a keynote address at an international academic meeting
  • Have your work published in a scholarly publication
  • Write all or part of a book
  • Receive an honorary degree from an academic institution

Academic tenure provides you with legal protection, ensuring that you can't be terminated from your job without just cause. This is intended to allow you to teach classes and conduct and publish research without influence or control from your employer.

Adjunct Professor

Adjunct professors are part-time faculty members who focus on teaching - without any requirements to conduct academic research. Colleges and universities use adjunct professors for various reasons; for example, you might be tapped to teach a highly specialized course or to fill an unanticipated staffing shortfall.

These positions typically require you to have a doctorate, though some positions might be available with a master's degree and significant experience or knowledge in your field. As an adjunct professor, you would not be eligible for tenure or, in most cases, promotion. Additionally, your contract likely would be up for renewal on an annual basis, and you wouldn't receive benefits.

Online Adjunct Professor

As an online adjunct professor, you might work for an exclusively online school (with no physical campus) or for an institution that has a physical campus but also offers online courses. These positions are unique because your professional experience might play just as big a role in landing a job as your education does.

While you'll likely need at least a master's degree to meet the requirements to be an online adjunct college professor, you won't necessarily need the teaching or research background required for other professorships. However, to prepare for this position, your prospective employer might require that you complete a training course that focuses on best practices for online teaching and effective use of technology, as well as cultivation of an online learning community.

How to Become a Community College Professor

The requirements to work as a community college teacher, often include a master's degree; however, some career-based/vocational teaching positions (for example, plumbing instructor or radiography instructor) might be available with a lesser degree of education combined with professional experience.

If you are a career professional looking to transition into community college teaching, several colleges and universities offer certificate programs in community college instruction. You usually need at least a bachelor's degree for admission (many programs require a master's degree), and you'll have to complete around 15 semester hours of courses covering topics like course design, instructional methods and evaluation for adult learners. Some programs include an internship.

How to Become a College Professor Without a PhD

What if you want to become a college professor, but you don't have a doctoral degree? As we noted above, there are a few options for you. In addition to working as an online adjunct professor or community college instructor, you might find teaching positions with certain departments within 4-year colleges and universities (such as fine arts and some health care specialties) where you could get hired with only a master's degree.

Additionally, some schools will hire you as an assistant professor contingent upon receiving your Ph.D. within a set time period, typically two years. However, jobs at both 2- and 4-year schools tend to be highly contested, and candidates with a Ph.D. tend to be chosen over those with a master's degree.

All statistics come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2018).