Professor How to become, career path, income potential

What is a professor?

A professor is an instructor who teaches at a college, university, or other post-graduate institution. They teach in a classroom setting and typically specialize in one subject or field, such as chemistry, business, or psychology. They also conduct research and publish papers in academic journals. These instructors may work in a public or private college or university, but they also teach in professional schools, community colleges, and career and vocational schools.

Professors develop curriculums for their courses that meet university and department standards. They plan and give lessons and lectures, hand out assignments, and grade papers and tests, to assess the progress of their students. They may advise students on a course of study, class selection, internships, or other things that can help them achieve their goals. 

Professors specialize in one or more of a wide variety of subjects and fields. They may teach such subjects as English, math, biology, communications, art, education, and many more. Some focus on career-related subjects, such as law, nursing, and medicine. 

Most individuals in this role work for large universities where they spend part of their time conducting research and experiments in their field. Some may spend their summers in remote locations conducting field studies. They receive grants to fund their research. They may give presentations on their research.

Professors may teach in large lecture halls with several hundred students or small classes of 20 or 30 students. Those in the sciences, engineering, and other similar fields, may teach labs as part of their class, helping students practice the subject matter, although most delegate lab instruction to their graduate teaching assistants, whom they supervise. These instructors may teach students working on their associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate degrees. They may also teach adults of all ages and backgrounds who are taking continuing education classes. 

A professor must keep up with changes, trends, developments, and innovations in their field by reading academic articles, talking with peers and colleagues, and participating in professional conferences. They gain tenure by conducting research and publishing their findings in books and academic journals. 

Tenured professors have very good job security. It essentially means these individuals have been granted lifetime employment with a college or university where they can only be fired without cause. It takes about 5 to 7 years for most professionals to gain tenure. Tenure is highly competitive, and not all full-time professors have it.

Some instructors teach part-time and are often known as adjunct professors. Many of these professionals work for organizations and businesses in their fields. 

Professors rank very high in job satisfaction. Although the job can be challenging, it is also highly rewarding. They conduct research in areas they are truly interested in and help students they teach reach their goals.

Qualifications and eligibility

To become a professor and teach at the postgraduate level, you will need at least a master’s degree. Many start working after completing their master’s degree and earn their Ph.D. while they are working. To become a tenured professor, you will need a doctorate. Some individuals in this role have 2 or more graduate degrees. Many students complete a one-year teaching fellowship as part of their Ph. D., which provides them with practical experience in the classroom. Others complete postdoctoral fellowships, providing them with additional training in research and teaching in their field. 

A professor must have excellent verbal and written communication skills to clearly and effectively present lectures and lessons to students and to write course material and research findings for publication. You will also need to be skilled in giving presentations on your research. Having solid research skills is essential. Research should be accurate and should be your own work, not plagiarized. 

A professor needs to be organized and have good time-management skills. They need to follow the course syllabus and not get behind to ensure all the material is covered by the end of the semester. 

Critical thinking is important as professors need to make decisions on how to teach a subject, and what subject matter to cover. They also need good collaboration skills as they work closely with other faculty members in the development of new courses, advising and mentoring students, and conducting research.

Work environment

College professors spend time in their offices and research labs, and in classrooms and lecture halls. They may spend much of their time standing while teaching and speaking. They need to develop lectures and class schedules and keep track of assignments, labs, tests, and grades of a large number of students. In the research lab, they may spend a lot of time directing graduate students helping them with their research, as well as observing, testing, and documenting results.

Typical work hours

Most professors work full-time, but the hours can vary depending on class schedules and can change from semester to semester. You might have early morning classes or others late in the afternoon or evening. Hours in the lab can also vary as they work around classroom time. Some professors may teach on certain days and conduct research on others. They may also have to travel on occasion to conferences or other academic meetings. 

Adjunct professors typically have flexible schedules and may teach at multiple colleges in an area or teach in the evenings after working their jobs in the private sector. 

Types of professors

Many professors are tenured and split their time teaching and conducting research. However, some may only teach on a full-time or part-time basis. Some of the common types of professors include:

Instructor

Instructors typically have a minimum of a master’s degree and primarily teach classes. Many full-time instructors are working on their Ph.D. where they can advance to become assistant professors. 

Adjunct Professor

Adjunct professors work part-time, usually around a day job in the private sector, teaching specific classes or entry-level classes at universities, colleges, community colleges, and vocational schools. Some of these professionals may conduct research. 

Visiting Professor

A visiting professor is typically a lecturer from a different institution who gets invited to teach at a university or college for a limited time. Individuals in this role are typically asked to lecture or teach because they are very knowledgeable and respected in their fields. Most times, a visiting professor only teaches for 1 semester, but they may be contracted to work for an academic year or longer.  

Assistant Professor

Assistant professors are usually individuals who have recently earned their Ph.D. and are starting out in their careers at colleges or universities. These professionals typically are working toward becoming tenured professors. They don’t generally conduct their own research but help with the research of tenured professors in their departments. 

Associate Professor

An associate professor is the next step up from an assistant professor. This role has more teaching and research responsibilities and may have tenure. With experience, these individuals are promoted to full professors.

Emeritus

Professor Emeritus is an honorary title given to an individual who has been recognized for lifetime contributions to the university, to their field, or both, after they have retired. 

Income potential

The earning potential for a professor can vary greatly depending on geographic location, education, experience, and area of research.  

  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for postsecondary teachers was $79,640 in May 2021. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $46,690, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $172,130.
  • The top-paying fields for postsecondary teachers in May 2021 were as follows:
    • Law – $123,470
    • Engineering – $104,940
    • Economics – $104,940
    • Health specialties – $102,720
    • Atmospheric, earth, marine, and space sciences – $98,070
    • Anthropology and archeology – $97,340
    • Agricultural sciences – $95,910
    • Architecture – $95,160
    • Business – $94,360
    • Physics – $93,070
  • In May 2021, the top industries for postsecondary teachers were as follows:
    • Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state – $81,250
    • Colleges, universities, and professional schools; private – $79,820
    • Junior colleges; local – $79,810
    • Junior colleges; state – $63,590
  • The salary range of the most popular college positions, including Law, Dentistry, Economics, Architecture, and Chemistry, typically falls between $77,180 and $247,422.  
  • The 5 states with the highest average pay on ZipRecruiter were:
    • Tennessee – $78,582
    • Massachusetts – $77,143
    • Hawaii – $76,903
    • Minnesota – $76,580
    • Connecticut – $75,937  
  • The bottom 3 states were:
    • Florida – $55,451
    • North Carolina – $55,181
    • Georgia – $51,700
  • The top paying cities as of October 2022 on Indeed were:
    • New York, NY – $86,112 
    • Boston, MA – $85,277
    • Los Angeles, CA – $81,557
    • San Diego, CA – $79,606
    • Atlanta, GA – $78,102 

Position trends

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an overall increase of 12% in the employment of postsecondary teachers from 2021 to 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations. An average of 32,600 openings for postsecondary teachers are projected each year over the decade.

The number of people attending postsecondary institutions is expected to grow over the next 10 years, which means the need for postsecondary teachers will increase. Colleges and universities are expected to hire more part-time teachers to meet demand as the number of full-time nontenured and tenured positions is expected to be limited. 

The employment of postsecondary teachers is expected to vary by occupation. Some of the top projected occupations for postsecondary teachers are:

  • Business 
  • Computer science
  • Mathematical science
  • Architecture
  • Engineering
  • Agricultural sciences
  • Biological sciences
  • Forestry and conservation sciences
  • Atmospheric, earth, marine, and space sciences
  • Chemistry    

Career path

The typical career path of a professor is to become tenured at a college or university. This usually begins with a master’s degree where you can gain teaching experience at a two-year community college. Once you earn your doctorate, you are eligible to teach at a four-year college or university. A Ph.D. can typically take 4 to 7 years to complete. Most Ph.D. students teach classes and labs under the supervision of a full-time professor. 

A doctoral student writes a dissertation, an original piece of research, that can take up to 3 years to complete, before working as a professor. Some doctoral graduates apply for fellowships where they gain additional experience. To stay on track for tenure, assistant professors conduct and publish research in journals and books and remain active as teachers. Building relationships with professors is important. About one-third of these professionals are working part-time or in non-tenured tracks as gaining tenure is very competitive. 

The career path for an entry-level assistant professor is to be promoted to an associate professor position after gaining several years of experience. They may be awarded tenure as an associate professor or may have to first become full professors with more years of experience and hard work. Tenured individuals have job security and a certain amount of academic freedom as to what to teach and conduct research on.  

A tenured professor with many years of experience can advance into leading a department or a college within a university, or become a college or university administrator. Some move on to become the dean, president, or provost of a university. 

Some other career paths for professors are to work for the government or in the private sector.

Steps to becoming a professor

1. Prepare in high school

Work hard in high school, maintain good grades, and do well on standardized tests such as the SAT. This will be very beneficial when applying for scholarships and admission to universities and colleges. 

2. Carefully consider the schools you want to attend

It’s important to consider what field you want to work in, such as education, physics, architecture, or business. Research the colleges and universities with excellent programs in your field of study while in your junior year of high school. Apply early to the schools you’re interested in. Forbes ranks the top 10 universities for 2022, private and public, such as:

3. Get your bachelor’s degree

At the undergraduate level is where you will choose your field of study. Think about where your interests lie and which field you are most interested in.

4. Maintain good grades and relationships

By maintaining strong grades as an undergraduate, you will open up many more opportunities for scholarships and grants when applying to graduate school. Building strong relationships with undergraduate professors in your chosen field will also help when you’re looking for advice on graduate school, references, and internship opportunities. 

5. Find internship opportunities

Completing internships as an undergraduate can help you gain practical experience and enhance your chances of getting into the graduate program you want.   

6. Do well on the GRE

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a standardized test that many colleges or universities require for admission into graduate programs. Prepare well before taking the exam to ensure that you pass it. Check out Udemy’s The Ultimate GRE Course for helpful test preparation!

7. Get your master’s degree

It’s important to complete your master’s degree and keep good grades. Most graduate programs require students to maintain a 3.0 average GPA. 

8. Become a teaching assistant

Working as a teaching assistant while pursuing your master’s degree is a great way to gain valuable teaching experience. 

9. Get your doctoral degree

Research your options for a doctoral program to find the right one for you. A doctorate involves developing knowledge in your chosen field, building relationships, and researching and writing your dissertation. Your dissertation is very important because it will become the foundation for your career. 

Some of the best graduate schools in the country for doctorate degrees include:

10. Apply for a postdoctoral fellowship

While not required, a fellowship can help you gain more experience and can be very beneficial when applying for your first job. 

11. Join professional organizations

A professional organization is great for finding job opportunities and online resources. You’ll also find networking opportunities and be able to build relationships with others in the industry. Some of the top organizations for professors are:

Tips for becoming a professor

If you are planning to become a professor, there are a few things that can help give you the edge you need. Here are some tips:

  • Consider closely what you want to get your degree in and what areas you’d like to teach and conduct research in because the job market for this role can be very competitive, especially for highly specialized fields. 
  • Take advantage of any research opportunities because actively doing relevant and dynamic research in your field can help you later on when you’re applying for jobs. 
  • Become published while in graduate school to better your chances of getting the job you want. 
  • Gain experience as a teaching assistant. This is another way to enhance your chances to get hired when you get your doctorate. 
  • Study hard in high school and keep your grades up.
  • Build relationships with your professors, especially in your field. They will be valuable resources for advice and references. 
  • Develop good written and verbal communication skills.

Professor interview questions to expect

  1. What professional organizations are you a member of related to your field of study?
  2. How do you engage your students?
  3. What is your teaching philosophy?
  4. What do you personally do in your classroom to promote diversity and inclusion?
  5. Do you have experience giving presentations or publishing research?
  6. A student is having a hard time adjusting to living alone. They are suffering from mental health episodes. How do you handle this?

Professor FAQs