How to Become a College Professor

Professor and students in college lecture hall
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Both fact and fiction share a long list of great professors that have inspired many students to follow the same career path. From Albus Dumbledore to Ken Carter, and Robert Langdon to Erin Gruwell, all these real and imagined characters show why educating is such an important profession and a noble calling.

So, if you’d like to join the ranks of these legends, and believe that educating is your true calling, then here’s a detailed list of how you can make your dreams come true.

1. Research the Profession

As with any job, it’s important to have a thorough look at what the job entails so that you can better prepare yourself for the long but rewarding road ahead.

Job Description

College professors are mainly responsible for educating and enriching the minds of the students they teach. They also guide and mentor them as they navigate their way towards the dizzying and sometimes overwhelming world of university life. Apart from these, their other functions include:

  • developing lesson plans and creating curriculums
  • creating a syllabus for the entire course of study
  • assigning student work and grade assignments, projects and the like
  • evaluating student performance
  • conducting additional research and studies on field of expertise
  • publishing own original reports
  • attending and assisting in important university activities.

Essential Skills and Qualities

Successful college professors, whether based on real life or imagination, share a long list of admirable skills and qualities which you should emulate to excel in your profession. To find out what exactly these traits are, read through our list below:

  • patience – getting the attention and interest of an entire class can be difficult, not to mention frustrating; you’ll need gratuitous amounts of patience to get through any school year (or perhaps even day).
  • discipline – preparing a college syllabus can be taxing; to keep up with your duties, you must be disciplined enough to create a to-do list and stick to it.
  • creativity – lessons can get boring and tedious; to keep your students interested and engaged, you must always find new fun and creative ways to teach them.
  • integrity – getting the respect of your students and colleagues is vital to succeeding as a college professor.
  • confidence – college can be challenging, even to professors; to make sure that your students don’t run circles around you, be sure to project an aura of confidence and respect.
  • multitasking skills – even when you’re already a professor, you’ll still need to draft reports, conduct research and submit papers on top of teaching students; being an expert multitasker is essential to your survival.
  • communication skills – great professors are the ones who can best explain what they hope to teach, and great communication skills are the key to that.
  • writing skills – from drafting reports to creating curriculums, you’ll be doing a lot of writing, so start brushing up on your grammar and sentence construction right now!
  • presentation skills – having a flair for presentation will come in handy, especially if your class comes right after the break.

Working Hours and Conditions

If you think that you’ll get to enjoy summer vacations and Christmas breaks just because your students do, then sorry to disappoint you but you’re wrong.

College professors usually use this time preparing next year’s syllabus or grading assignments, which leaves them little time to relax. However, this profession does allow you a modicum amount of freedom to pursue other passions, especially if you’re an adjunct professor or someone who teaches part time.

There’s also incredible room for growth, particularly if you earn a doctorate degree and work hard on getting tenure. Since college professors specialise in their own fields, their job lets them indulge in their own passions while learning with likeminded individuals – think Indiana Jones and archaeology! It’s a dream job for anyone who loves university life and sharing what they know.

Salary Prospects

This profession pays reasonably well; however, it will be useful to point out that your subject area also affects your potential earnings. For example, engineering professors make more than English professors, primarily because there are less experts in that field. Moreover, the demand for engineering majors are higher than that of English majors which, again, also affects your salary prospects.

However, college professors make significantly more than high school teachers because of the additional learning they’re required to take (more on that later). According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, the annual median salary for a college professor is around $76,000 (£58,750). This number increases depending on your level of experience and knowledge. Meanwhile, adjunct professors make around $30,000 (£23,200) per year.

Job Outlook

As more and more students choose to pursue university, the future of this profession is considerably high, with a growth projection of 15% in the next decade.

2. Get the Qualifications

To become a college professor, you should first determine the subject area you want to specialise in. Do you want to become an expert on ancient artefacts like Indiana Jones? Or do you enjoy analysing human behaviour à la Sherlock Holmes? Whatever you decide, make sure to pick a bachelor’s degree that relates to your chosen subject. Being truly interested and passionate about what you learn will help you excel academically and that’s crucial to getting into a graduate programme.

Which leads us to the next step: get a master’s degree. It’s nearly impossible to get a job as a college professor without this, as most universities have it as a prerequisite. But if you really want to stand out and ensure a lasting career in teaching, get a doctorate degree or a PhD.

Pursuing a doctorate degree is beneficial for many reasons. First, competition at master’s level is extremely cutthroat, and getting a PhD is sure to separate you from the pack. Second, it will increase your salary prospects and last, but certainly not least, a PhD is your first step to applying for tenure which can secure your teaching position – for life.

Earning a master’s degree takes at least two years, while a PhD takes at least eight; put them together and that’s a decade of your life. But although earning these postgraduate degrees takes a lot of time, adding them to your belt is essential to accomplishing your dreams.

3. Land Your First Job

Universities usually post their job openings on their own websites, so it would be wise to regularly check them for possible vacancies. But if the school you hope to work for happens to be your alma mater, then use those networking skills to good use, and connect with a former professor to let them know about your intention to teach. Also, be sure to contact them while you’re pursuing your master’s or doctorate degree, as the hiring process for this position usually lasts for a year or more.

Meanwhile, be sure to create a standout CV by highlighting work experience that’s relevant to your field. If you have research that’s been published by an esteemed journal, be sure to place focus on that, too.

The more you’re able to show how you’ve put your learnings to practical use, the better. Not only will this make you stand out, it will showcase your other skills as well.

4. Develop Your Career

You can always develop your career by taking additional coursework, as well as conducting research and having your paper published. But another practical step to gain some real-life experience would be to work as a teaching assistant. By doing so, you’ll get a feel for what it’s like to be professor and be more at ease in the classroom setting.

While it’s not a requirement, it would be helpful to get some hands-on experience in your specific field, too. For example, if you hope to teach broadcast communications, having worked for a production company or a network can help your CV land on top of a very big pile. After all, there’s no better teacher than real life.

There’s no denying that the road to becoming a college professor is a long and tedious one. But if we’ve learned anything from history’s greatest professors, it’s that it’s definitely worth it.

Who was your favourite professor from university? Share your most memorable stories about them in the comments section below.


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