Does the idea of being a lifelong learner appeal to you? How about the possibility of being able to inspire the next generation of students and encourage them to reach new academic heights? Or perhaps you envision yourself at a desk covered in stacks of books, doing research for your next publication.
All of these are possible when you choose to become a college professor. Although the path to get there is not without challenges, those who are passionate about academia and their field of study will find these challenges rewarding. It’s not uncommon for future college professors to start preparing for their career early on, so understanding what it takes to get there will be essential in your journey.
Preparing in High School
Your pathway to becoming a college professor can begin as early as high school. Find an academic field that appeals to you and take as many related courses as possible. You might also consider joining a tutoring program, if possible, to get some experience teaching others. Since college professors need excellent communication skills, it’s a good idea to join a debate club or participate in other extracurricular activities that nurture communication skills, teamwork and leadership.
Earning Your Bachelor’s Degree
The first step to becoming a college professor is to earn a bachelor’s degree. Since it’s still early on in your journey, it isn’t necessary to get a specialized degree in your field of interest—you can earn a broad bachelor’s degree if you wish. Alternatively, you can go ahead and specialize right off the bat. For example, you might earn a broader Bachelor of Science in Psychology, or you might want to be more focused with a BS in Psychology With an Emphasis in Performance and Sport Psychology.
While you work toward your bachelor’s degree, take every opportunity to enroll in relevant electives and college communities. Participate in clubs, sports teams and other extracurricular activities—particularly those that will allow you to practice your public speaking and writing skills.
You should also take advantage of your professors’ office hours. You might ask your professors some questions about what it’s really like to be a college professor and how they found themselves in academia. Forging these connections with your professors will give you more than just inside information—your professors will also be able to write strong letters of recommendation for you when you apply to graduate school.
Earning Your Master’s Degree
Although it is possible to go straight from your bachelor’s degree to your doctorate degree, you may still want to consider earning your master’s degree. It will give you more opportunities to immerse yourself in the knowledge of your field and will make you a more competitive candidate for PhD programs.
If you do choose to earn your master’s, look for opportunities to become a teaching assistant (TA). TAs are responsible for assisting the professor and helping teach undergraduate students, and they usually find themselves delivering lectures or working with groups of students in study sessions. TAs can also lead class discussions, answer students’ questions, grade assignments and maintain student records.
Your experience as a TA will be invaluable as you work through the process of becoming a college professor. Plus, you may earn a stipend for your work while also having the opportunity to work in close collaboration with the professor on research endeavors.
By taking on the challenging task of teaching undergraduate students, you’ll get a better idea of whether this career is really the best one for you. If you decide that it is, you’ll have solid teaching experience that will benefit you moving forward. And even if you decide that it isn’t, you’ll have a master’s degree that you can use to find other rewarding work in your field.
Earning Your Doctorate Degree
Of all the degrees on the journey to become a college professor, earning a doctorate, such as a PhD or an EdD, will take the longest. Just how long it takes may vary depending on the program, the student’s rate of progress and the requirements of the student’s original research.
A doctorate involves both completing coursework in your program and the dissertation/thesis process. Although at some schools the dissertation process is integrated into the coursework, at most schools you’ll likely have to complete course requirements and pass your exams before beginning the dissertation process. This process may last several years; it all depends on how you work, what topic you choose and what other responsibilities you have.1
Additionally, it’s important for aspiring college professors to have some published material before they begin searching for job opportunities. While you are working on your doctorate, look for smaller publishing opportunities in academic or professional journals, especially peer reviewed journals. Once you’ve completed and defended your dissertation, you can break it down into smaller components that can serve as standalone academic papers and submit these to academic journals for publication.
Acquiring Additional Credentials and Experience
After you earn a doctorate degree in your field, you may also need to start exploring additional credentials and experience in order to enhance your career qualifications. For example, if you wish to become a professor of psychology, look into obtaining board certification from the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP). Similarly, aspiring professors of nursing should possess a nursing license and other relevant certifications.
In addition, it’s often helpful for aspiring college professors to obtain real-world work experience in their field. This is especially true of non-humanities experts, such as business instructors and nursing professors. If you do decide to work in a non-teaching position for a few years to gain experience, you can simultaneously continue with your research, writing and publication endeavors to further enhance your resume.
As a College Professor
Once you complete all your degrees and start applying to be a college professor, you will most likely be hired as an adjunct professor for the first several years of your teaching experience. As an adjunct professor you will have many responsibilities, possibly including:
- Developing an instructional plan for each course, ensuring that it meets all applicable academic standards
- Establishing a lesson plan, including assignments for each course in each semester
- Delivering lectures, leading class discussions and making observations about each student’s engagement and participation in the class
- Evaluating students’ progress by grading assignments, exams and essays, and by making helpful comments on each of these
- Being present for office hours and working one-on-one with students who need extra guidance
- Engaging in research and publication endeavors
After their first couple years of teaching, there is usually an opportunity for a professor to be offered job security with a tenured position. Tenured college professors have the same responsibilities as adjunct professors, but must also participate in further research and service for their institution. A tenured college professor is also expected to publish books from time to time.2
It’s often thought that teachers have long blocks of time off, such as during the summer and winter breaks. In reality, college professors usually stay busy during school vacations. While some professors choose to teach summer classes, others find administrative work that must be handled by professors. Additionally, professors often continue publication and research endeavors during breaks.
Grand Canyon University’s College of Doctoral Studies offers doctorate-level degree programs designed to graduate individuals who aim to inspire the next generation of students in academia. Learn more about joining our collaborative learning community by clicking on the Request Info button at the top of your screen.
1U.S. News, How Long Does It Take to Get a Ph.D. Degree? in April 2021
2Teacher.org, How To Become a College Professor in April 2021
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.