How to Become a Professor

How to Become a Professor

September 24, 2021

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Indiana Jones. Robert Langdon. Minerva McGonagall. Hollywood makes being a professor seem like an adventure, Sandra Oh's Professor Ji-Yoon Kim aside. But the real-life process of how to become a professor may make academia look a lot less exciting.

Professors typically earn a Ph.D. in their field and battle it out on the academic job market before standing at the front of a lecture hall. Many professors spend 10 years or more studying their discipline and conducting research before landing an academic position.

How do you become a professor? The long process starts with choosing a major.

How to Become a College Professor: A 5-Step Guide

Becoming a college professor isn't easy. Professors generally need a doctorate for entry-level positions. Most professors dedicate a decade to their postsecondary education before teaching their first class.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Every college professor holds a bachelor's degree, but not necessarily in the same field that they teach. Before becoming a professor, educators start out as students. At the undergraduate level, prospective professors complete general education requirements, electives, and major coursework.

They also generally need strong grades. Most graduate programs require at least a 3.0 GPA for admission.


Step 2: Apply to Graduate School

Graduate school is an important step in becoming a college professor. Before standing at the front of a classroom, future professors must complete advanced training in their discipline. Gaining admission to a top grad school can increase their chances of becoming a college professor.

Grad programs typically require applicants to have completed undergraduate coursework in the field. Students may also need competitive standardized test scores and a strong GPA. Some doctoral programs admit applicants with only a bachelor's degree, while others require a master's degree. Many grad programs fund doctoral students through assistantships, fellowships, and other forms of financial aid.

After gaining admission, graduate students complete coursework requirements and choose a specialty area on which to focus their studies.


Step 3: Pass Comprehensive Exams

Once doctoral students finish their coursework, they prepare for comprehensive exams. These exams, sometimes known as qualifying exams, general exams, or doctoral exams, test a candidate's knowledge of their field.

The format varies depending on the discipline. In history, for example, doctoral students may complete written and oral exams in their primary research area. Other disciplines may require a portfolio, a research paper, and/or an oral defense. Students often prepare for and take these exams over the course of a semester or year.

After passing these exams, doctoral students complete a dissertation prospectus. In this prospectus, students propose a dissertation topic, research questions, and a bibliography. Students also put together a dissertation committee to evaluate the prospectus.

Once the committee approves the prospectus, students advance into the candidacy phase.


Step 4: Write a Dissertation

Earning a Ph.D. generally requires students to complete a dissertation. These documents are often 150-300 pages in length.

Before writing the dissertation, candidates conduct research in their field. This may include field research, trips to archives, compiling databases, and/or conducting surveys, depending on the discipline. Candidates then write multiple chapters, which they submit to their doctoral advisor for feedback.

Doctoral candidates must then defend their dissertation before their dissertation committee. After passing the defense, candidates can formally apply for their doctorate.


Step 5: Go on the Job Market

Many doctoral candidates go on the academic job market while completing their dissertation.

Colleges and universities typically post job openings in the fall. For tenure-track positions, applicants submit materials like a cover letter, CV, and letters of recommendation. Some applications also require a dissertation chapter or writing sample, a teaching philosophy, or sample syllabi.

Most hiring committees conduct initial interviews, either remotely or at major academic conferences. They then bring top candidates to campus for an extended interview. The campus visit often includes a lecture, a job talk, and meetings with faculty, administrators, and students.

Departments vote on the job candidates before extending an offer. The selected candidate can then negotiate their salary, research budget, course releases, and other benefits.

How to Succeed on the Academic Job Market

Landing a professorship on the academic job market can take years. In many fields, the number of academic openings falls far below the number of Ph.D. graduates. And the COVID-19 pandemic caused hiring freezes across academic institutions. For example, in 2020, STEM professor job openings plummeted 70%.

Several factors can shape a candidate's success on the job market. Many are uncontrollable. Timing, hiring freezes, and a saturated field may mean that even highly competitive applicants fail to find an academic job.

Academic Research and Publications

Colleges expect job candidates to show a record of academic research. In many disciplines, hiring committees look for several publications in academic journals.

Current graduate students showcase their dissertation research on the job market, while candidates several years out from their Ph.D. often bring a longer publication record. In some cases, job candidates publish an academic book before landing their first professor job.

Teaching Experience

Most college professors gain teaching experience before their first academic job. Graduate programs offer teaching assistantships in which doctoral students assist a professor by teaching sections or labs, grading assignments, or acting as graduate instructors. In some departments, doctoral candidates teach their own classes.

Teaching experience helps job candidates showcase the courses they would bring to their new department. Many hiring committees ask for sample syllabi and a teaching philosophy.

Postdoctoral Research

In many academic disciplines, particularly in the sciences, professors hold postdoctoral research positions before applying for tenure-track jobs. Universities and research institutions hire postdocs to conduct research. Some may also teach a small number of classes.

A postdoc position helps academics strengthen their research credentials before applying to academic jobs. In some fields, a postdoc can last as long as 4-5 years.

The Difference Between Adjunct and Tenure-Track Jobs

Adjunct faculty, or instructors working on short-term contracts with no job security, make up an increasing percentage of college professors. In 1975, non-tenure-track faculty made up less than 35% of college professors. By 2015, that number had jumped to 57%.

According to the American Philosophical Association, fewer than 40% of graduates with a Ph.D. in philosophy received tenure-track job offers between 2012 and 2019. Additionally, in a survey of individuals with a STEM Ph.D. on the job market in 2019, researchers found that 42% did not receive a job offer.

Academics who do not receive tenure-track job offers may take contingent positions. Adjunct or visiting assistant professor positions generally offer one-year contracts or a semester-by-semester arrangement.

Unfortunately, these adjuncts are severely underpaid. A 2020 report from the American Federation of Teachers found that a quarter of adjuncts rely on public assistance, with 2 in 5 struggling to cover basic expenses.

Due to a growing reliance on adjuncts, many professors are experiencing greater financial and job insecurity. A lack of job openings also makes it difficult for professors to choose where they live or control their working conditions.

In spite of that, the number of doctoral degrees granted in the U.S. grew 18% from 2010 to 2019. The shrinking number of secure professorships means many of those doctoral graduates need to look for jobs outside academia.


Feature Image: Tom Werner / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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