7 Myths About College Professors and Why They’re Wrong

Professors get cushy hours, high salaries, and job protection — or maybe not. Here, we break down the biggest misconceptions about college instructors.
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  • Misconceptions about college professors appear everywhere.
  • Most college professors do not earn high salaries, especially in the liberal arts.
  • Faculty don't get long breaks in the summer because they need to teach and research.
  • Students rarely see the many hours professors work outside the classroom.

In my first year as a college professor, a local paper published an article about an assistant professor of art history. One of the comments lambasted the professor as an ivory-tower elite making $250,000 a year.

But when I looked up that professor's salary in a public database, it was one-fifth that amount. Even after earning a doctorate and landing a tenure-track job, the professor barely made $50,000 a year.

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It's a persistent misconception easily disproved by data — few college professors bring home huge salaries. And that's not the only myth. Read on to learn more about the biggest misconceptions about college professors.

Myth 1: College Professors Earn High Salaries

It might be the biggest myth about professors: they earn cushy salaries. But it's not true, especially for early-career faculty, adjuncts, and liberal arts professors.

Yes, some professors earn high salaries. According to the American Association of University Professors, full professors at private, doctorate-granting institutions earn an average of over $200,000 per year. But those are the highest-paid, most experienced professors in the field. Usually, they boast long publication lists and work at Ivy League or equivalent institutions.

As for your typical professor, they earn a lot less, especially considering that nearly all professors hold a doctorate. Assistant professors report an average salary of less than $70,000 per year at four-year institutions. Lecturers and instructors earn even lower salaries.

Salaries vary a great deal by discipline, too. Just look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics' salary breakdown. Law professors, economics professors, and engineering professors report median salaries in the six figures, while other fields make much less. For example, the average English professor, education professor, and criminal justice professor earn less than $70,000 a year.

Adjuncts make a fraction of that amount. According to a 2020 American Federation of Teachers survey, one-third of adjunct professors made less than $25,000 per year — a level that the U.S. government would consider poverty for a family of four.

And these types of positions are more the norm than the exception. The same report estimates that 75% of college faculty today are not tenure-track and around half work only part time.

Myth 2: Professors Are Experts in Every Class They Teach

College professors may be experts in their fields, but they're not necessarily experts in every class they teach.

I still remember a question from my first semester teaching world history: "What was the average birth rate in prehistoric, nomadic cultures?" I had no idea. The university hired me to teach early modern European history, but the schedule demanded someone cover the history of the entire world from the dawn of time to the year 1500.

It's not uncommon to stump a college professor. Students are fantastic at coming up with insightful, detailed questions. And as highly trained researchers, professors know how to find answers.

I quickly learned to jot down questions and bring an answer to the next class.

Myth 3: Professors Get Summers Off

In 2013, Forbes published an article on the least stressful jobs. The piece claimed professors don't work from May to September and take a month off for winter break. Forbes received so many angry letters from professors that the outlet later updated the article with an addendum.

College students often only interact with professors during the fall and spring semesters. But the reality is that professors rarely take long breaks from academia.

For many tenure-track professors, teaching represents less than half their workload. They're expected to conduct research, publish scholarly articles, attend conferences, and provide service for their college.

Furthermore, many non-tenured professors teach summer classes and teach over breaks to supplement their income.

Myth 4: Tenure Means Professors Can Do Anything

Professors have tenure, so many believe they can do anything they want without getting fired. According to the New Faculty Majority, however, only a quarter of college instructors hold tenure. And even tenured professors can lose their jobs.

Colleges sometimes lay off tenured professors when restructuring, which can mean eliminating entire departments.

Tenured faculty can also lose their jobs for violating their contracts. As Professor Matthew Boedy related in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "I can be fired for abandoning my classes (i.e., not teaching) and other unethical and illegal behavior."

For example, at the University of Georgia, grounds for professor removal include "neglect of duty," "professional incompetency," and a lack of "academic integrity." Using marijuana, violating any Board of Regents policy, or criminal activity can also mean losing your job.

While tenure protects academic freedom, it does not provide complete job protection. And very few professors ever earn tenure.

Myth 5: Book Sales Make Professors Rich

Professors publish academic articles, scholarly books, and textbooks — but most never see a dime from their publishing.

Even though academic journals charge hefty fees to access articles, that money doesn't go to academics.

Similarly, most professors never expect to see money from book sales. Academic presses might offer authors a small percentage in royalties, but typically that's only if the book sells a certain number of copies. Since most academic monographs sell under 300 copies, professors rarely see royalties.

But if professors don't make money from publishing, why do they spend so much time writing? Publications are a major factor in hiring, tenure, and promotion. And academia largely prioritizes peer-reviewed publications over other forms of writing.

Myth 6: Professors Work Just 5 Hours a Week

My first semester teaching, a student asked how many classes I was teaching that term. "Two," I answered — I'd landed a "3-2" teaching load, meaning three classes one semester and two the other.

The student rolled her eyes. "That doesn't seem fair," she said. "I have to take five classes."

At the time, the comment left me frustrated. Teaching two courses for the first time took up more hours of my day than graduate school. Writing multiple lectures each week, creating assignments, and all the grading left me with no time for research.

But the student thought my "work time" only included classroom time. When I wasn't standing in front of a room of undergraduates leading discussions or presenting material, I apparently wasn't working.

In fact, most professors work for many hours outside class for each hour spent in class. On top of preparing lectures, reviewing reading assignments, and grading, professors must juggle research, service, and other responsibilities.

Myth 7: Becoming a Professor Is Easy

Sure, college professors generally need a doctorate. But how long could that possibly take? And once you've earned a Ph.D., landing an academic job can't be that hard. Right?

Wrong. On average, doctorate-holders spend nearly six years earning a Ph.D. And humanities doctorates take an average of more than seven years. It's no surprise, then, that half of Ph.D. students drop out before earning their degree.

Even after earning a Ph.D., landing an academic job is incredibly difficult. One researcher crunched the numbers on recent hires in psychology. The top positions went to candidates with an average of 16 publications and five years of postdoctoral work before they were hired. Even small liberal arts colleges, which prioritize teaching, hired candidates with an average of 11 publications.

The academic job crisis means that in many fields, the number of doctorates granted vastly exceeds the number of job openings.

Today, it's incredibly difficult to become a college professor. Debunking myths about high salaries and cushy hours — and looking at the reality of the academic job market — translates into fewer grad students with unrealistic academic goals.

Feature Image: SDI Productions / E+ / Getty Images

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