How to Become a College or University Professor


Mention the word “professor” and an eccentric, but dignified figure lecturing to students in a cavernous classroom on an ivy-covered campus is likely what comes to mind. While these people and institutions do exist, in reality, teaching at the college or university level takes many forms. Depending on the type of college or university a professor works for, and his or her  area of expertise, expectations, working conditions, and compensation can vary so greatly that placing all postsecondary teaching positions in the same category may even be misleading. That is why it is important to not only understand how to become a college or university professor but how to become a college or university professor who ends up working under optimal conditions.

How do I become a tenured professor at an Ivy League university?

First, consider the ideal—the one so often depicted in Hollywood films. This is the college professor who has a huge office on a beautiful campus, lives nearby in an opulent home, enjoys a leisurely lifestyle focused on ideas and books, and worries little about finances, meetings, or workloads. While rarely explicitly stated, these fictional professors are meant to depict tenured full professors at top-ranked research universities. In other words, these are those professors who have achieved permanent positions (tenured professors are guaranteed employment for life, as long as they stay at their current institution), at the highest rank (professors typically begin at the lecturer or assistant professor level, and rise to full professor over time).

On film and in reality, these tenured full professors are reaping the rewards of their profession. A report by the American Association of University Professors, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, reported that in 2013-2014, the average salary for a tenured full professor at Harvard University was $207,100. Princeton University professors were even better off, averaging $210,700, annually. At Columbia University, the average compensation for a tenured full professor was $215,500. These professors typically only teach three or four courses per year, and in some cases, even fewer. So what does it take to achieve this compensation, workload, and status?

Anyone who achieves this ideal position has typically completed a PhD, and published extensively in their field. More importantly, their peers have determined that their work is top-notch — among the best in the world. While there are exceptions to the rule, a 2009 survey at Harvard University reported that the average age of tenured professors was 56 years, and 24 percent of tenured full professors were 65 years of age or older. On average, similar statistics are reported across US universities. In comparison to many professions, the most coveted professor positions are rarely held by young people.

What is the career outlook for a college professor?

If achieving the ideal post-secondary teaching position takes many years, even decades, it is primarily because, in contrast to other types of teachers, professors are expected to do more than teach. Depending on the institution; position, rank, and field, most professors are expected to divide their time between three activities: teaching, research and service.

Teaching typically involves developing and delivering four to six courses per year. Teaching loads can be much higher, however, in teaching-intensive positions at community colleges and for part-time faculty.

Research involves carrying out original research in a professor’s chosen field, and publishing papers in scholarly journals (journals that only publish work that has been vetted by experts in the field) or books (typically with university presses). Indeed, at many colleges and universities, especially universities known for their research centers and graduate programs, outstanding teachers are routinely denied tenure because they have failed to publish enough, or failed to publish in the right places. This explains the popular expression, “publish or perish”. In essence, at top-ranked universities, if you fail to publish, you will eventually “perish” or lose your job.

Finally, college professors are expected to engage in some degree of service or administrative work. In theory, colleges and universities are self-governing institutions, and as a result, professors are expected to serve on committees and chair programs. Later in their career, some professors leave teaching altogether to assume higher-level management positions (dean, provost or president positions). While the weight given to teaching, research, and service varies from institution to institution, typically research is given more weight than teaching and service when determining tenure and promotion. Once again, this is why it is critical to understand precisely how to become a college or university professor who is set up to excel from the onset.

What are my job prospects when I graduate with a PhD?

Just as there are a limited number of undergraduate spots available at Harvard, Princeton and Columbia, for every tenured full professor sharing their wisdom on one of these campuses, there are many more college teachers offering courses under less ideal circumstances, and at less prestigious institutions. While some of these college teachers face similar expectations, and receive comparable compensation (a tenured full professor can make $147,900, annually), other college teachers have remarkably higher teaching loads, lower pay, few benefits, and little or no job security.

In fact, recent reports suggest that since the 1970s, the percentage of courses taught by full-time college faculty has been in steady decline, and that today, less than 25 percent of college-level teaching is carried out by tenured professors. The New Faculty Majority reports that 1.3 million out of 1.9 million college teachers do not enjoy the job stability or benefits of tenure, and that over 50 percent of these 1.3 million college teachers are employed as part-time faculty, or in what is more commonly known as “adjunct” positions.

Beyond the fact that part-time faculty generally hold higher teaching loads, and enjoy few or no benefits, wages for part-time college professors are so low that many college professors’ annual incomes are more comparable to those of fast food workers than full professors.

The Coalition on Academic Workers reported that in 2010, the medium pay per course for a part-time faculty member was $2,700 (with part-time faculty at two-year colleges making $2,235, per course on average, and faculty at four-year colleges and research universities making $3,400 on average). Taking this into account, for a part-time faculty member to make even half the average salary of most tenured full professors they would need to teach, on average, 38 courses per year (bear in mind that the average tenured professor only teaches four courses per year and teaching 38 courses would be logistically impossible). Needless to say, understanding how to become a college or university professor who makes more rather than less money is essential, but that said, even those who know the formula do not always succeed in landing a dream job. Compromise is also frequently part of one’s journey.

How to become a college or university professor who lands a great job?

Given the staggering difference in compensation, workload and benefits separating the highest ranked college professors from the lowest ranked college professors, a person would assume that the discrepancy is based on credentials, but this is not necessarily the case. In fact, these college professors typically share the same basic credential — a PhD from a recognized university. It is far more likely, however, that the college professor enjoying a solid salary, job security, and low teaching load at a top-ranked university has a PhD from an equally prestigious university, has published widely in his or her field, and been lauded by his or her peers for breaking new research ground.

While a part-time faculty member struggling to pay their rent or buy groceries may have the potential to do such research, finding time to produce outstanding research, while teaching twelve or more courses per year, makes it difficult, if not impossible, to produce the research needed to move into a tenured position at a prestigious university.

Considering the risks, is it wise to pursue a career as a college professor? Completing a PhD and building a reputation as a researcher means spending more time in school than people in most professions. Subsequently, this usually means graduating with a higher debt load and entering the workforce later in life (many college professors do not obtain their first full-time academic appointment until they are in their mid thirties or older, and many more never obtain full-time employment in their field).

A limited number of academic positions also means that obtaining a tenure-track teaching position (in order words, a full-time position that will eventually lead to a permanent job) frequently requires moving to a new city or even new country. If you’re wondering how to become a college or university professor who doesn’t need to be willing to move anywhere for a job, you’re not alone. Unfortunately, moving across state and even international borders is frequently required, especially for anyone who is truly ambitious.

However, if you’re lucky enough to find an academic position at a college or university in a city or town where you want to live, and to eventually obtain tenure at this institution, college teaching can be a well- compensated, rewarding, and secure form of employment. The first step, of course, is to understand all the ins and outs of how to become a college or university professor.

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