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. In this career guide, you will explore how to become a college professor.
In This Article:
- How To Become a College Professor: Start Preparing in High School
- Deciding Which Field To Specialize in as a College Professor
- Earning Your Bachelor’s Degree
- Earning Your Master’s Degree
- Earning Your Doctoral Degree
- Acquiring Real-World Experience
- Climbing the Career Ladder as a College Professor
- Are College Professors in Demand?
How To Become a College Professor: Start 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.
Because 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. In addition, you can look for part-time job and internship opportunities that can help you develop relevant skills and bolster your competitiveness in college admissions. It’s not strictly necessary to find positions that are closely related to teaching; instead, look for opportunities that enable you to work on your communication, leadership, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Remember that aspiring college professors are expected to keep their grades up and do well on standardized tests. Practice good time management habits to ensure you have plenty of time to study for your regular classes, as well as for college admissions exams like the SAT and ACT tests.
Deciding Which Field To Specialize in as a College Professor
For some people, choosing a field of specialization is a no-brainer, whereas others may find it more challenging. It can be very difficult to transition to a completely different field once you’re already working as a professor, so be sure you choose the right one the first time. It’s best to choose a field that you are passionate about and that will hold your interest for many years to come.
If you aren’t quite sure which field is right for you, brainstorm a list of the possibilities. Write down all of your personal interests and then look for a pattern. For example, if you’re interested in early childhood development and emotional wellness, then perhaps psychology could be the right field for you. If you’re passionate about sports and health, then you might choose to specialize in athletic training.
After you’ve developed a list of the possibilities, do a little online research. Explore academic journals and professional organizations for the fields you’ve selected. See if anything grabs your attention.
Instead of researching the various fields in general, another approach could be to consider which particular topics within those fields are of interest to you. Perhaps you’re fascinated by all things pertaining to the U.S. Civil War and dressing up as a reenactor on the weekends is your idea of a good time. If so, a career as a history professor could be the right choice for you.
Earning Your Bachelor’s Degree
After high school, the first step to becoming a college professor is to earn a bachelor’s degree. Because this is 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.
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.
On average, a master’s degree will take two years of full-time study. You may be able to complete all or part of your program online. You may be required to write a master’s thesis, which is a lengthy research paper that does not require original research, unlike a doctoral dissertation.
While you’re working toward your master’s degree, take the time to develop good working relationships with your professors. Discuss your plans to become a college professor and ask them questions about the process of becoming a professor. You might even be able to work more closely with your professors if you become a teaching assistant (TA).
Becoming a Teaching Assistant Before Becoming a Professor
If you do choose to earn your master’s, look for opportunities to become a teaching assistant. 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.
At some universities, TAs serve as the sole instructor of record for certain introductory courses. For instance, if your field is history, you might teach an introductory course on U.S. or Arizona history. If your field is psychology, you might teach Psychology 101 to freshmen.
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.
Bear in mind that TA positions are often competitive, with many applications being submitted for one position in any given semester. It’s best to apply early. The requirements to become a TA will vary from one school and department to the next, although it’s a safe bet that you’ll be required to demonstrate an excellent academic record.
Earning Your Doctoral Degree
Of all the degrees on the journey to become a college professor, earning a doctoral degree, 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. At some schools, the dissertation process is integrated into the coursework; however, 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.
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 doctoral degree, 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 Real-World Experience
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.
Instead of — or in addition to — gaining real-world experience in your field, you may need to obtain professional certifications 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.
Climbing the Career Ladder 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 few years of teaching, professors usually have the opportunity to pursue 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 and/or academic journal articles from time to time.1
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, such as by teaching summer classes. Additionally, professors often continue publication and research endeavors during breaks.
Are College Professors in Demand?
Although you may be primarily guided by your personal passions, it can be helpful to consider job growth projections when making career decisions. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job growth for postsecondary teachers is expected to increase by 12% from 2021 to 2031 (much faster than the average for all professions), generating 132,600 job openings each year through this time period.2 As of January 2023, postsecondary teachers have a median annual salary of $79,640, according to the BLS.3
Grand Canyon University’s (GCU) College of Doctoral Studies offers doctoral degree programs designed to graduate individuals who aim to inspire the next generation of students in academia. At GCU, you can choose from a broad range of disciplines and subfields as your plans for your future take shape. Learn more about joining our collaborative learning community by filling out the form on this page.
1 Retrieved from Indeed, How To Become a Tenured Professor in 9 Steps (Plus FAQ) in February 2023.
2 COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 and 2021 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on September 2022, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Postsecondary Teachers, retrieved on Feb. 2, 2023.
3 The earnings referenced were reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (“BLS”), Postsecondary Teachers as of May 2021, retrieved on Feb. 2, 2023. Due to COVID-19, data from 2020 and 2021 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may also impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the BLS. BLS calculates the median using salaries of workers from across the country with varying levels of education and experience and does not reflect the earnings of GCU graduates as postsecondary teachers. It does not reflect earnings of workers in one city or region of the country. It also does not reflect a typical entry-level salary. Median income is the statistical midpoint for the range of salaries in a specific occupation. It represents what you would earn if you were paid more money than half the workers in an occupation, and less than half the workers in an occupation. It may give you a basis to estimate what you might earn at some point if you enter this career. You may also wish to compare median salaries if you are considering more than one career path. Grand Canyon University can make no guarantees on individual graduates’ salaries as the employer the graduate chooses to apply to, and accept employment from, determines salary not only based on education, but also individual characteristics and skills and fit to that organization (among other categories) against a pool of candidates.
Approved by the dean of the College of Doctoral Studies on Feb. 22, 2023.
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.