A college professor career is one of the most popular and competitive professions out there. This profession won’t make you rich; according to the American Association of University Professors the average salary is $79,439. But the perks of teaching college are awfully sweet. Most people with this career enjoy bargain basement tuition rates for family members, loads of time off and lots of freedom. "Besides teaching and office hours, I get to decide where, when and how I get my work done," Daniel Beckman, a biology professor at Missouri State University, told CNN. It’s no wonder that these jobs finished third in that network’s 2009 Best Jobs in America rankings (behind Systems Engineer and Physician Assistant). If you’re worried about how students now rate college professors, don’t be. If you work hard, you’ll be on the list with the positive reviews. If you’re thinking about applying for these education jobs, you may be wondering how to start on this career path. Becoming a college professor takes time and you'll need to meet certain education requirements before entering the field. These tips will help you learn how to become a college professor.
Most accredited four-year universities require that their professors have PhDs, though the requirements do vary depending on the academic discipline and institution. You’ll need to research what education is needed to work in your area. Studio art and creative writing faculty, for example, even at four-year universities, often hold MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degrees, rather than PhDs. Community colleges will hire instructors with master's degrees, though in the current tight job market many PhDs are applying for and accepting community college jobs that would, in flusher times, have gone to master's level candidates.
So what’s the bottom line? It’s a long road from high school to any kind of advanced degree, but believe it or not, high school is where teaching college starts. Graduating with a high grade point average, impressive SAT scores and a strong extracurricular resume are essential if you want to gain admission to a good college and become a professor. These are also the early requirements for this career.
It goes without saying that your undergraduate performance will make or break your chances for admission into a top-flight graduate study program. Graduating with honors should be a goal if you want to become a professor, as should doing well on the Graduate Record Exam (or GRE). That’s the SAT for aspiring grad students, which most institutions require applicants to take. To do this job, you’ll at least need a master’s degree, so you’ll most likely have to pass the GRE to start teaching college. Make the effort to research the best graduate programs and professors in your discipline of choice and apply accordingly. The university you attend and the instructors you work under may help you when applying for these jobs. Studying under, say, a leading marine biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will improve your chances of becoming a college professor and getting tenured (more on that later) in a respected marine sciences department when you finish your advanced degree. That’s the kind of pay off you want after such a steep investment of time and money for meeting the requirements of this career.
Depending on the academic discipline, and your motivation and drive, earning a PhD can take three to eight years after your bachelor studies. The cost will vary based on the school, your academic specialty, the the number of years it takes you to complete the program and whether you’ve managed to secure financial aid. However, if you are interested in becoming a college professor, you should be fully prepared for the amount of education ahead. If you’re lucky, you might be offered a teaching or research fellowship, in which case your tuition and fees are waived—and you’re paid a small monthly stipend—in exchange for teaching undergraduate classes or working in a lab. But let’s say you’re an out-of-state student studying for a PhD in literature, one of the cheapest doctorates, and paying your own way at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Tuition alone will run you about $23,000 a year (for two semesters). If you manage to finish in six years, you’ll have spent about $135,000—on tuition. Add six years of rent, food, books and any other fees and expenses and you’re looking at an investment of well over $200,000 to start a teaching profession. (Mathematical Finance, one of Rutgers’ priciest PhDs, will set you back $190,000 in tuition costs, assuming you graduate in six years). The cost at a private university will be even higher. Still, it’s best not to dwell on the financials when considering how to start your career. When counseling undergrads aspire to a college teaching job, says Tom Amorose, Professor of English at Seattle Pacific University in Seattle, WA., “We tell [them]: ‘Go to the very best grad program you can get into, publish before leaving grad school, and hope for the best.’" It takes a while to prepare for education jobs because you’ll be teaching college students so you’ll need to be an expert in your field.
Once you’ve been accepted into a graduate program, you’ll need to choose a sub-specialty and a faculty advisor to help you figure out how to become a professor at a college. If you’re earning that PhD in literature, for example, you might go with the department’s premier Shakespeare scholar, and devote yourself to comparing the Bard and Sylvia Plath. Generally speaking, the requirements are choosing a subspecialty that shows some job potential and a faculty mentor who is a leader in his or her field. Once you make these choices, you’ll join a tight-knit academic circle of professors and fellow graduate students, who will train, educate and commiserate with you during your grad school career, and serve as a valuable professional network once you finish and enter a teaching profession. Cultivate them. When you’re ready to apply for jobs, having a network of other professionals in the field will help.
Your graduate coursework will consist of increasingly specialized and more seminar-style classes, culminating in a dissertation. When you first consider becoming a professor, you should also know a field in which you’d like to specialize. (You may also complete a master’s degree along the way.) It’s important to know what education is needed for this job before you start on this career path. The dissertation is an original work of research or scholarship, usually a paper that attempts to explore and answer some unique question in your field. This could be about a problem that professors teaching college courses face, or it can be something more specific to the subject you wish to teach. The dissertation is conceived of and carried out by you, but with guidance and support from a dissertation committee. This committee includes your advisor and two or three other faculty members that you handpick, usually based on their expertise. Depending on the field of study, most PhD candidates finish their dissertations within a year or two. Many are then required to successfully present and defend the work before their dissertation committee, and sometimes before the department faculty at large, before they are awarded their degree. The career savvy doctoral candidates publish their dissertations in a scholarly journal usually prior to working education jobs. Publishing, even during graduate school, may be critical to finding these jobs. In some disciplines, most notably the sciences, new degree holders will often go on to do post-doctoral work under a veteran researcher. Post-doctoral work is a way to burnish your resume, hone skills and master new techniques to become a professor. Post-doctoral fellowships or appointments typically come with a modest salary or stipend. These fellowships or part-time jobs can last three to five years, or be extended until the post-doctorate finds a full-time job. Some science PhDs will do more than one post-doctorate degree.
The Holy Grail for all those post-docs, and for every college professor wannabe, is to find tenure teaching jobs at an accredited college or university. If you’re thinking about what you need to enter this career, the next thing you should look into is how to get tenured education jobs. The number of these jobs is shrinking, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics’ 2010-2011 Occupational Outlook Handbook, which states that colleges and universities “are relying more heavily on limited-term contracts and part-time, or adjunct, faculty, thus shrinking the total pool of tenured faculty.” But let’s be optimists here, shall we? Let’s assume you land a job as an instructor or assistant professor at a four-year school that offers graduate level study. You can expect to divide your time among teaching, advising, administration and publishing, and expect the proportion of time you spend on each to shift as you move through your career. At the beginning, you’ll probably teach several classes or sections each semester, which involves preparing syllabi and lectures, selecting texts, grading papers, tests and other class assignments, and maintaining regular office hours to meet with students who may need extra help. In this profession, you’ll also be expected to attend various departmental meetings, serve on committees, publish original work in scholarly journals or books, and act as an advisor to graduate students. (The grad students can help shoulder some of the prep, teaching and research burden—especially in the beginning when you are just learning how to become a college professor.) If all goes well, these jobs usually journey from assistant professor through associate professor to full professor. There is an evaluation at each stage by your colleagues on the basis of your teaching chops, scholarship (quantity and impact of research and publications), and contributions to the institution (such as service on committees). (It doesn’t hurt if you attract top-notch graduate talent too.) If all goes really well, and you meet the requirements, you’ll be eligible for tenure in five to seven years. What’s so great about earning tenure? It protects you from being fired—without a really good reason and lots of due process. How do you become a college professor with tenure? Make sure you get any necessary teaching certification, know how to deal with students, and consistently work hard.
It takes a lot of time and hard work to meet the requirements to become a college professor. But teaching college students can be interesting and rewarding. It will allow you to continually shape young minds—and challenge your own. Plus, if the students enjoy your lectures, you may get a great score on those websites that rate college professors. Students look at these positive reviews to help them decide which classes to take, so the more positive your reviews, the more popular you’re classes are likely to be. Now that you know what's required, you can start preparing and applying for these jobs.