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How to Become a Professor

Drexel University School of Education

Developing a career at the highest levels of academia doesn't happen overnight. But how long does it take to become a professor? What steps are involved? What is your career outlook? In this article, you can learn more about the steps involved in how to become a college professor, as well as some of the various incentives and rewards involved in pursuing a career in higher education.

What Do Professors Do?

First, the term professor refers to a rank in an academic setting for those who teach in higher education, it does not indicate the type of degree one has. Usually, the rank goes from the instructor level to assistant professor to associate professor to full professor, earned over multiple years through tenure and/or promotional review processes. Professors usually work in a college or university, public or private, performing a variety of academically related tasks. Specific responsibilities vary widely and are generally dependent on a person's particular academic field, career track, and institution of employment. However, broadly speaking, a college professor is responsible for work in three areas – research, teaching, and service. There may be some nuances based on someone’s contract; but the three are fairly typical in the U.S.

Teaching may involve designing curriculum, creating lesson plans and syllabi, mentoring students, and teaching students at an advanced level within their chosen field. Teaching may be in or outside of classroom settings. Teaching may occur not only in a typical brick and mortar classroom, but in other spaces including online or in virtual realities.

In addition to teaching, there may be service requirements at your university, college/school, professional, or community levels. These roles typically support civic engagement efforts. Other service roles may be on committees tied to your profession such as being on an editorial review board, or reviewing grants for an organization, or a volunteered leadership role in an organization.

Many professors undertake research responsibilities, especially those who are on track for tenure. For instance, a Learning Scientist who specializes in the design of technology for learning may also maintain a lab and investigate how people learn and how to best design technologies for people to engage in transformative learning. This would involve interacting with teachers, students, and others as they engage with technologies for learning in a process that includes collecting, analyzing, designing, and presenting data from these interactions and design-based research process for peer review and eventual publication. The research may be sponsored or non-sponsored. Research plays a central role in the lives of professors to investigate ideas related to their professional interests or their teaching or their service commitments.

Since there are different ways of entering into academic and non-academic careers, and different career tracks within academia to consider, not every professor will have the same credentials or responsibilities. Responsibilities range from whether someone has a doctorate degree or not, their contract, and the type of doctorate degree. For instance, there are professional doctorate degrees such as an EdD and research-oriented doctorates such as a PhD and there is tenure-track or non-tenure track roles.

What Degree Do You Need to Become a College Professor?

There are several types of teaching positions within the realm of higher education; but those roles are primarily distinguished by part-time vs full-time responsibilities, financial compensation, and which courses you're allowed to teach. For example, becoming a professor with a master’s degree is possible within a few constraints.

Many two-year schools only require instructors to have their master's degree for teaching introductory courses, while some four-year institutions accept these types of instructors on a part-time basis. However, most four-year institutions require a research or professional doctorate in the field you intend to teach. The doctorate also allows you to engage in different levels of work and to standout compared to job candidates with only their master's degree.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Professor?

In addition to requiring a bachelor's degree and occasionally requiring a master's, the overall average time to complete a doctoral program is around five to seven years nationally, about 5 years on average for U.S. nationals and 6 years for international students. However, an enormous range of factors can influence the time required, ranging from your decision to attend a full-time or part-time program, where you choose to study, and whether additional certifications will be necessary, and so on.

6 Steps to Becoming a Professor: Qualifications and Requirements

Like any occupation, becoming a professor has a progression to be followed if this is your desired career path. Mapped out for you here are the qualifications and requirements to become a professor with a doctorate degree.

Obtain a Bachelor's Degree

Learning the fundamentals of your field is essential before moving onto the kind of advanced analysis and application of theory that you'll find in graduate programs. There are rare cases where extensive career experience may serve as an adequate substitute; but for nearly everyone, a bachelor's degree is the most basic prerequisite for entering a graduate program.

Decide What Field You Want to Specialize In

Someone who wants to become a professor will want to be deeply involved in their field; that might mean studying the subject independently of your career and education. It might also mean looking for internship programs that allow you to both gain applied career experience and confidence in your decision to specialize in one field over another.

Attend Graduate School

If you want to teach at a community college or a vocational school, you may only need to earn a master's degree; especially if you don't aspire to train the next generation of PhD students. If you're aiming for a tenure track position with a large four-year institution, your best chances will be earning your PhD. This is especially true when job positions are more competitive, since institutions often favor those with higher credentials.

Become a Teaching Assistant

If you're accepted into a graduate program, you may be offered an assistantship program. Assistants are usually involved in research, administrative work, or teaching. Apart from the critical experience obtained in these programs, you may also be able to reduce or eliminate the cost of tuition, obtain a stipend, and get credits towards your degree. Becoming a teaching assistant isn't the only way of earning this type of experience, but it's the most common.

Earn a Doctorate Degree

The most critical step in how to become a professor – earning your doctorate. In addition to required coursework, most programs require a dissertation, which is your own work of original research. It serves as a demonstration of your abilities to add new knowledge to your field, and your abilities to train future scholars. While many programs allow you to earn your doctoral degree without a master's, others require you take that intermediate step.

Gain Teaching and Research Experience

Assistant teaching positions and research assistantships are some of the best sources of career experience in teaching and research. But outside of graduate programs, you can find numerous opportunities for professional development, which can be important as many doctoral candidates enter the job market during the final year of their program.

Get Certified

Depending on what you intend on teaching, the qualifications for being a professor may also include additional certification requirements. These requirements are usually for vocational fields rather than purely academic programs. For example, someone who teaches medicine may need to earn an RN (registered nurse) certification, while someone teaching accounting may need their CPA.

How Much Do College Professors Make?

According to the American Association of University Professors, the average salary for a full time professor was $101,810 for the 2020-21 academic year. Yet, earnings depend on many factors, including things like the subject you teach, the institution where you work, whether you have a full-time or part-time position, and how much experience you have. Figures also depend on your job title and career track: lecturer, instructor, assistant professor, associate professor, or professor.

College Professor Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment opportunities for professors are expected to grow at a rate that's higher than average. With the number of students attending institutions of higher education only projected to continue rising over the next decade, there's a consistent and rising demand for these types of professionals. Owing to new workplace technologies requiring workers to have more training, these rates of employment are assumed to remain high.

Get One Step Closer to Becoming a Professor with Drexel’s School of Education

Becoming a professor can be equal parts challenging and rewarding. In addition to helping instruct the next generation and add to the body of human knowledge, college professors can develop a personally rewarding and lucrative career. But starting a career in academia starts with finding the right program for your current stage of progress.

Drexel has programs for every stage of the process, from starting your undergraduate degree to finishing your PhD. Get your journey started by requesting information from Drexel University's School of Education today.