Home / Career Guides / Professor

Professor Career Guide

What is a professor?

A professor is a highly knowledgeable individual working with an academic institution, usually a university or college. They hold advanced degrees, most often a Ph.D., in a chosen field of expertise. These educators provide students with high-level education in their subject of expertise while fostering critical thinking, analytical skills, and independent research abilities. As scholars, their quest for knowledge leads them to engage in cutting-edge research that can shape the future of their chosen field, contributing to societal development and growth.

Their role transcends beyond instructing students, with their influence being significant in shaping learners’ intellectual character, driving research in academic communities, and contributing to their respective fields’ body of knowledge. They are integral to the university environment, fostering learning and sparking innovation through their dedicated work.

Duties and responsibilities

A professor is responsible for designing and delivering lectures to students, monitoring and assessing students’ progress, and providing them with constructive feedback. They are often under obligation to structure the syllabus for their course and maintain a favorable learning environment. Assisting in student academic issues and mentorship are part of their responsibilities. They also play a role in academic advising and career guidance for students, helping them navigate through their education and aligning with their career paths.

The other significant aspect of their role is carrying out research in their chosen field. They are responsible for securing funding, conducting studies, publishing their findings in scholarly articles, and presenting their work at professional conferences. Beyond these, they may contribute by taking on administrative tasks within the department or the university. This could include serving on committees, contributing to the course curriculum, or collaborating with other universities or organizations for joint projects.

Work environment

A professor typically works in a university or college setting. It is a scholarly environment characterized by classrooms, laboratories, offices, and libraries, depending on their teaching and research areas. They will interact with students, fellow professors, university administrators, and perhaps research professionals if they are involved in research work.

Their work necessitates a high degree of intellectual engagement and creativity. It can often be mentally demanding due to intense research and remaining current in their knowledge field. There can be pressure regarding the requirement to publish or secure research funding. However, the environment typically nurtures intellectual freedom, allowing these professionals to explore their academic interests and contribute significantly to their fields.

Typical work hours

Typically, professors have flexible schedules, but the actual number of working hours can vary significantly. They are often on campus for teaching classes, office hours for student queries, meetings, and other administrative duties. This could largely follow a standard business week. However, additional hours are often spent preparing for classes, grading student work, researching, and writing. These tasks can be performed outside traditional working hours and may often extend to weekends or holidays.

Additionally, those deeply involved in research might find themselves working irregular hours, depending on the nature of their research. It’s also worth noting that their work can sometimes be seasonal, with intense work periods during the semester and potentially lighter loads during breaks, depending on their research and administrative commitments.

How to become a professor

This career guide section outlines the process of becoming a professor. The journey to a professorship is a complex one that includes higher education, practical teaching experience, and ongoing research within a chosen field.

Step 1: Obtain a bachelor’s degree

The journey begins with a bachelor’s degree. While the fields of study may vary depending on individual interests and projected career paths, one must successfully complete an undergraduate program to qualify for the next step. The area of study chosen now should align closely with the subject matter you plan to teach in the future.

Step 2: Complete a master’s degree

Following completion of undergraduate studies, aspiring professors are often required to complete a master’s degree in their chosen field. Some universities allow for simultaneous enrollment in a master’s and doctoral program. A master’s degree deepens the understanding of a chosen field and can provide early opportunities in teaching or research assistantships.

Step 3: Enroll in a doctoral program

Further study at a doctoral level is the minimum requirement for most professorships. A doctorate degree or Ph.D. is an essential step to demonstrate the ability to participate in scholarly research and contribute original knowledge in the field. The candidate is expected to complete in-depth research on a specific topic and write a dissertation or thesis, which they must successfully defend before a committee.

Step 4: Gain teaching experience

While pursuing graduate studies, it’s often possible to gain valuable teaching experience, usually as a teaching assistant. This opportunity allows for the development of teaching skills, leading lectures, and managing classroom logistics. Some institutions may require these educators to have more experience, which you can obtain by teaching part-time or at a community college.

Step 5: Conduct research and publish findings

Having your work published in reputable journals and presenting at conferences is an important step for those looking to enter academia. This kind of exposure helps build a reputation within the academic community. It’s also one of the ways successful applicants for professorships can distinguish themselves.

Step 6: Apply for a position as a professor

After acquiring the necessary qualifications, knowledge, and experience, the next step is to apply for available positions. Job openings are often posted on university job boards or industry-specific journals. While the selection process is highly competitive, having a substantial amount of original research and a proven teaching record increases your likelihood of securing a job.

Step 7: Continuous professional development

Once employed, it’s essential to stay on top of the latest developments in your field, continue publishing research, and strive for teaching excellence. This will put you in a good position for promotions or tenure within the institution.

How much do professors make?

Professor salaries vary by experience, subject, and institution. Specialization in certain academic subjects such as law, business, or the sciences may significantly influence compensation.

Highest paying specializations

  • Law – $100,340
  • Healthcare – $98,360
  • Business Administration – $89,250
  • Engineering – $85,290

Highest paying states

  • California – $112,870
  • New Jersey – $108,160
  • New York – $106,870
  • Massachusetts – $104,700
  • Connecticut – $101,500

Browse professor salary data by market

Types of professors

Below, we explore common career types and areas of specialization for professors. This section will offer a comprehensive overview showcasing the profession’s diversity and broad scope.

Research professor

In the academic world, research professors make significant contributions. They are primarily focused on conducting, presenting, and publishing high-quality research. This role may involve teaching, but their main aim is always to advance knowledge in their field. Typically, they must hold a doctoral degree and have a solid track record of published research.

Teaching professor

Teaching professors are responsible for providing direct instruction to students. They prepare lectures, create course materials, assess student performance, and guide learning. While these professionals may also engage in research, their primary focus is teaching. In most cases, they require a master’s degree in their subject area and occasionally a doctoral degree depending on the institution’s requirements.

Adjunct professor

An adjunct professor is a part-time academic faculty member. They are often professionals working in their field of expertise, bringing additional hands-on experiences to their instruction. Their main duties are to teach a specified number of courses each semester. They are typically required to have a master’s degree, though many institutions prefer a doctoral degree.

Clinical professor

In professional fields such as medicine, nursing, and law, clinical professors come to play. These professionals combine teaching with work in a clinical setting. They guide and assess students during their practical experiences while contributing to their field’s clinical practices. They often have a Doctor of Medicine, Juris Doctor, or other professional degrees relevant to their specific discipline.

Emeritus professor

An emeritus professor is a title given to retired professors who have made significant contributions to their field and institution. Though they are no longer obligated to teach or perform research, these professionals often remain active in their areas of expertise. They are seen as valuable resources and are often called upon for their expert knowledge and advice.

Top skills for professors

This section highlights the skills and traits that will lead to career success as a professor. The following provides a descriptive account of the fundamental abilities required to excel in an academic environment.

Grasp of subjects

An in-depth understanding of related subjects is essential. Professors should have extensive knowledge of their field and always be open to learning more to stay updated with the latest advancements and discoveries.

Teaching skills

In this role, you will need excellent teaching skills. Being able to convey complex ideas in a straightforward and understandable manner is a vital requirement.

Communication and interpersonal skills

In the academic environment, exceptional interaction capabilities are key. These educators must communicate clearly and effectively, not only to deliver lectures but also to engage in meaningful discussion and give reachable feedback to students.

Research ability

Superior research skills are of great importance. Professionals in this role often conduct their own research endeavors, publish papers, and stay current on innovations in their field.

Patience and dedication

Patience and dedication to educating others are crucial in this role. Understand that learning takes time, and each student’s progress will be unique.

Critical thinking

A deep level of critical thinking helps professors develop intriguing and relevant questions for study, analyze information objectively, and find innovative solutions for problems within their field.

Professor career path

A professor typically starts their academic journey as an assistant following their post-doctoral studies. This is a tenure-track position, which allows them to secure a permanent place in the academic institution. Assistant professors engage in research, teaching, and service to the institution. After around six to seven years, and upon showing significant progress in their area of expertise, they may be promoted to an associate professor.

The associate professor role still involves research and teaching but with more emphasis on contributing to the body of knowledge in their field, often through publications in scholarly journals. After approximately five to seven years of demonstrated excellence in their roles, they may be promoted to full professor.

The full professor position is the pinnacle of the academic career ladder. It involves a closer involvement in setting the course for the department or faculty, guiding junior faculty, and leading larger research projects. They might also get involved in administrative roles within the university, such as department chair or dean. However, some may choose to focus solely on their field of specialization, engaging in high-level research and offering courses at the graduate level.

In academia, there are higher positions that some members of this role might aspire to. Endowed chairs and distinguished professorships are titles bestowed upon faculty members who have made significant contributions to their field. These positions come with additional funding for research and are often prestigious appointments that acknowledge expertise and scholarly impact.

While many individuals in this role choose to stay in academia, other avenues are available for those seeking a career change. Other sectors, such as government, research institutions, non-profit organizations, and even industry, might value the skills and expertise acquired as a professor. They could work as research scholars or consultants or hold leadership positions in these sectors.

In recent years, this profession has seen numerous shifts. Of the most notable is the increased trend toward online education. Many professors now find themselves navigating virtual classrooms, something that was uncommon a decade ago. This change takes place in consort with another prevailing trend: globalization. These educators often find themselves working with a diversified cohort of students from all around the globe. Coupled with rapidly evolving technology, these changes have called for enhanced digital literacy among these professionals.

Despite these challenges, opportunities for this career have expanded significantly. Multidisciplinary studies are gaining momentum in academia, attracting attention from both students and educators. Those with expertise in multiple fields are, therefore, in high demand. As such, those willing to acquire knowledge across multiple disciplines are finding new and promising academic opportunities.

Employment projections for professors

Projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest a 12% job growth for postsecondary teachers through 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations. The age composition of the general population and the continuing rise in college enrollments will drive employment growth. Online classes and programs, as well as the development of new programs and subjects, are expected to create more opportunities in the profession.

Professor career tips

Stay up-to-date with educational trends and technology

One of your main responsibilities is not just to educate but to effectively engage your students. This requires a firm grasp of the latest educational trends and technologies, which can improve teaching methods and make learning more accessible for students. Stay updated by regularly attending webinars, workshops, and industry conventions. Read scholarly journals, listen to educational podcasts, and explore new technology platforms designed specifically for education.

Explore interdisciplinary teaching methods

Learning is not confined to a single discipline. You can create a more holistic and enriching learning environment by integrating principles and knowledge from other fields. Consider working with colleagues from other departments to share ideas and collaborate on multidisciplinary projects or courses. Participating in interdisciplinary teaching can also make your classes more engaging and appeal to a wider range of students.

Invest in your research

In academia, research is of paramount importance. It not only adds to the body of knowledge in your field but also helps secure funding, grants, and higher positions in the academic hierarchy. Allocate a part of your time and resources to undertake research projects, write research papers, and involve your students in research whenever possible.

Build a professional network

Networking plays a significant role in academic success. It can lead to collaborative research opportunities, speaking engagements, and even job offers. Attend conferences, engage in online academic communities, and connect with peers and industry leaders on professional platforms like LinkedIn. Membership in professional associations also provides numerous networking opportunities.

  • American Association of University Professors (AAUP)
  • Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association (HETL)
  • National Education Association (NEA)

Embrace continuous learning

The pursuit of knowledge is continual, and as an educator, you’re in a prime position to embrace lifelong learning. Your commitment to learning can be an inspiring model for your students. By keeping yourself open to learning, you maintain relevancy and bring the latest insights and methods into your teachings.

  • Participate in professional development courses or workshops
  • Take part in webinars and online courses related to your field or pedagogy
  • Read the latest books and scholarly articles in your discipline
  • Seek and pursue advanced certifications in your field

Where the education jobs are

Top employers

  • Harvard University
  • Stanford University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • California Institute of Technology

Top states

  • California
  • Massachusetts
  • New York
  • Illinois
  • Pennsylvania

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • HigherEdJobs
  • ChronicleVitae
  • Academic Positions
  • Indeed


What are standard work hours for a professor?

Their work hours can vary based on the university’s schedule, the number of classes they teach, and any additional roles they carry out within the institution. Their job is not only limited to teaching but also includes preparations for classes, grading, conducting research, and attending meetings. Hence, their work hours are not strictly confined to typical business hours. Some days might be more work-intensive than others, requiring them to stay late or come in early. Flexibility is a significant aspect of their work schedule.

Does the subject matter affect a professor’s daily responsibilities?

Indeed, the subject matter can impact their daily responsibilities. For example, science professors might spend a lot of time conducting experiments and research in labs, whereas English professors might focus more on literary research and reading. Despite these differences, all professors generally carry the common responsibilities of lecturing, grading, conducting research, and advising students.

What impact does location have on a professor’s job?

Location can play a significant role in a professor’s employment. In larger, urban areas, there might be more universities and hence more opportunities. Still, competition for positions can also be higher. In smaller towns or rural locations, there might be fewer universities, but also less competition. Moreover, the cost of living, which can significantly differ by location, can also affect a professor’s lifestyle and financial situation.

What skills and personality traits make for an effective professor?

An effective professor should have a solid command of the subject matter, good communication abilities, and a passion for teaching and learning. They should also have effective leadership skills since they often guide students in their studies. Patience is also pivotal, as students learn at their own pace. As for personality traits, being open-minded, dedicated, approachable, and credible is often beneficial.

How does technology impact a professor’s role?

Technology plays a significant part in educational roles these days. They use technology to enhance their lessons and teaching methods, including online learning platforms, PowerPoint presentations, video lectures, and instructional tech in the classroom. Technology also allows for more flexible types of learning, like online classes, which they may need to facilitate.

How do professors stay up-to-date in their field?

They often engage in continuous learning to keep updated on the latest developments in their field. This can include attending conferences, enrolling in advanced courses, reading industry-specific journals, and collaborating with other professionals in the field. Many also conduct their own research, which requires a deep understanding of current trends and theories.

What is the relationship between a professor and students?

The relationship between professors and students is critical for effective learning. They serve as mentors and guides for students. They can influence a student’s learning motivation, engage them with inspiring discussions, assist with difficulties in study or personal issues, and guide them toward their future career. It is often a good idea for students to form genuine, respectful relationships with their professors.

What is the biggest challenge professors face in their job?

One significant challenge they might face is balancing the varied aspects of their role. This includes teaching classes, preparing lesson plans, grading assignments, guiding research projects, and serving on committees. Time is often limited, and juggling these responsibilities can be demanding. Another challenge can be staying updated with the latest developments in their field, requiring ongoing learning and adaptation.

Can professors have other jobs besides teaching?

Yes, they can have other responsibilities besides teaching, especially if they’re part-time faculty members. Some might work as consultants, writers, or researchers within their fields of expertise. However, considering the varying and intensive job duties of full-time professors, juggling another full-time job might be challenging.