How Can I Become a College Professor?

Explore what it takes to become a college professor. Learn about education requirements, job outlook and salary potential to determine if this might be the right career path for you. Schools offering Adult Education degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a College Professor?

College professors spend their professional careers conducting research and teaching classes focused on a particular subject. Depending on their area of study, they may teach students through lectures, discussion seminars and/or hands-on lab or studio courses. Professors who work at four-year universities may also serve as thesis and dissertation advisors for individuals who are seeking master's and/or doctoral degrees. Alongside teaching responsibilities, professors are expected to advance their field through high-level investigations, which can lead to the publication of books or journal articles. In addition, professors may be involved in curriculum development for the department in which they work, as well as overall university policy.

The chart below provides an overview of education requirements, job duties, job outlook, and projected earning potential for the field.

Degree Required Ph.D.
Education Field of Study Dependent on field
Training Required Teaching experience as a graduate student
Key Skills Research, lecturing, advising, writing
Job Growth (2014-2024) 13% (all postsecondary teachers)*
Average Salary (2015) $71,060 (all postsecondary teachers)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Education Do I Need To Be a College Professor?

Education requirements depend on your field of study, and where you teach. In general, a master's degree is sufficient to teach at community colleges, but 4-year colleges and universities require you to have a doctorate. A master's degree may be earned in 2-3 years and a doctoral degree in 5-6 years, depending on the specialty.

As a graduate student, you're usually required to serve as a teaching assistant. You may have other opportunities to hone your teaching skills through workshops and mentoring programs.

Depending on the field of study, other experiential training may be required. For example, you're more likely to obtain a professorship in religious studies if you complete a seminary program along with a conventional doctoral degree program. If you aspire to teach medicine or law, you'll typically need an advanced degree and experience via a clinical residency or judicial internship.

Admission to a master's degree program generally requires a bachelor's degree in, or related to, your chosen field. For example, a master's degree program in civil, mechanical or electrical engineering may accept you if you have either an engineering or a physics degree. Most doctoral programs require you to have a bachelor's degree in a related subject.

Where Could I Work?

Your potential employers include the 4,207 accredited public, private nonprofit and private for-profit postsecondary schools operating in the U.S. as of the 2014-2015 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (nces.ed.gov). However, not all schools offer a full program of courses in your subject area.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that approximately 1.5 million people were employed as postsecondary teachers in 2015 (www.bls.gov). The BLS projected employment in this category would increase 13% from 2014-2024, which is faster than average.

What Duties Will I Have?

As a professor, you'll have various teaching duties, including devising lesson plans, delivering lectures, leading discussions, setting assignments, grading papers and tests, advising students and writing evaluations. The subject matter you teach will affect what you do in class and what assignments you give. For example, courses in engineering, the natural sciences or behavioral sciences will likely have a lab or a field research component, requiring students to conduct experiments or collect samples outdoors. Courses in the music, visual or performing arts may require you to help students produce works of creative expression in a particular medium. Courses in the social sciences and humanities may involve teaching a study abroad program.

You also may be required to attend faculty meetings or serve on committees, which set school-wide policies and make budgetary and hiring decisions. Finally, you'll be expected to conduct your own research, submit articles for publication and attend seminars and professional conferences.

What Could I Expect to Earn?

Multiple factors will influence your salary, including your field of study, the type of employing institution, its geographic location and your tenure at a school. The BLS reported that, as of May 2015, the five highest-paying fields were law, engineering, economics, and health specialties, with median salaries between $90,780 and $105,250.

The same report indicated that the five lowest-paid professors were criminal justice, foreign languages, education and English language and literature, with median salaries between $58,770 and $61,990 in 2015. In addition, a 2013-2014 survey by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources indicated that community college professors earned an average of $59,705 (www.cupahr.org).

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Another career option in the field of higher education is a job as a postsecondary educational administrator. These professionals, who need at least a master's degree, oversee the many aspects of college and university life in order to ensure that the institution runs smoothly and that the needs of all students and staff are met. Alternatively, individuals who are passionate about teaching their subject of interest may consider a job as a high school teacher. Although high school teachers usually need only a bachelor's degree, it is important to note that they must also earn a teaching license if they want to work in a public school.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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