The 7 Steps to Becoming a Professor

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Lorelei Yang718
Wonky consultant with a passion for words
If you enjoy teaching but don't see yourself teaching in a K-12 school setting, being a professor might be of interest to you. This is especially true if you're interested in a specific topic, enjoy research and like helping young adults reach their fullest potential during their college years. With that said, it's important to understand how exactly one goes about becoming a professor. It's equally important to recognize that academia is a long and challenging road that doesn't lead to tenured positions for many people.

7 Steps to becoming a professor.

1. Earn an undergraduate degree.

Before you can become a college professor, you'll need to go to college yourself. Earning an undergraduate degree is the first step towards achieving the educational credentials needed to become a professor. While it would probably behoove you to earn an undergraduate degree in the topic(s) you want to teach as a professor, it's not absolutely necessary.

2. Pick an area to specialize in.

During your undergraduate studies, you'll want to identify your areas of interest and deepen your knowledge of them. Generally, this means conducting research on the topic(s) of interest, taking relevant courses and pursuing other enrichment opportunities (e.g. participating in conferences or interning in the field) while still in college. 

3. Apply to the relevant type of graduate school.

After college, you'll need to earn an advanced degree in order to teach as a professor. As a general rule, community college professors will need master's degrees, while four-year college and university professors will need doctorates, although there are some exceptions.
Given that many master's degree programs are only one to two years while most PhD programs range from four to five years, it's worth seriously considering what your professional goals are and tailoring your educational plans to best suit them. If you don't see yourself teaching at the four-year college level, getting a PhD may not be worth the extra time and effort. However, with that said, when community colleges have their pick of applicants for a position, applicants with doctorates are at an advantage in comparison to those with master's degrees, so it's worth also keeping this variable in mind, especially if you're looking to teach in an area with a high concentration of highly-educated people down the line.
To apply to graduate school, you'll generally need to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), a standardized test that's an admissions requirement for many U.S. and Canadian graduate programs (it's essentially the SAT for graduate school), provide your official undergraduate transcript and submit recommendation letters from professors. Many programs will also have application essays that you'll need to write. In some cases, you can also expect an interview.

4. Earn a graduate degree.

Once you've been accepted, you'll need to successfully earn a graduate degree from your program of choice. Just as in college, attending classes, earning good grades and thoroughly learning the subject matter you're studying is essential. With this in mind, it's important to note that many graduate programs require students to earn at least Bs in all their classes or otherwise risk being kicked out of the program altogether — so it's more important than ever for you to maintain a strong academic record in graduate school.
If you're in a graduate program with the explicit goal of wanting to become a professor after graduation, you'll also want to make sure you achieve some other goals during your program. For more on this, see steps five and six below.

5. Gain teaching experience while in graduate school.

If you're looking to become a professor after you finish your graduate program, gaining teaching experience is one of the most important things that you must do in graduate school. If you're a Ph.D. program, odds are you're going to be required to help with or even teach undergraduate-level classes as part of your program. This is also likely to be the case in many master's programs as well. For those seeking to become professors after graduate school, the opportunity to teach during their program is incredibly valuable, as it helps them build the specific skills and experiences they will need to successfully apply for teaching positions after graduate school.
However, even if your specific program doesn't offer teaching opportunities to all students, it's important to find ways to gain teaching experience during graduate school if you want to teach as a professor afterward. To this end, seek opportunities to work as a teaching assistant or teacher's aide (the functions are the same, but the title varies by educational institution) so you can develop a track record of success teaching at, or assisting with teaching at, the undergraduate level.

6. Conduct research and publish.

In addition to gaining experience as an instructor, it's important to start racking up publications while in school. To do this, you'll need to find opportunities to conduct research and publish the results. Because there are far fewer teaching jobs than there are qualified applicants applying to them, publication records are an important distinguishing factor among candidates. Remember this phrase: publish or perish.

7. Apply for postdoc positions and/or teaching jobs.

In your last year or so of your program, you'll want to start applying for teaching positions. In some cases, these are post-doctoral positions (also called "postdoc" positions) that combine research and teaching; in others, they're adjunct positions that are paid on a per-class basis; and in others still, they're teaching-only positions. Whatever you apply for, expect to be asked for references (you may want to ask your professors to serve as references) and to be faced with stiff competition. In many cases, you'll be asked to teach a demonstration class for faculty (and sometimes students) at the department you're interviewing with.
While it's possible to skip the postdoc position and go straight into applying for full teaching positions as described above, many professors say that their postdoc work benefitted their careers overall by helping them bolster their resumes before they applied for full teaching positions. Given this, you may want to seriously consider the possibility of applying for postdoc positions in order to improve your credentials before applying for full-time professorships.


Is it hard to become a professor?

In short, yes. Whenever a full-time, college-level, tenure-track position opens up, there are many qualified applicants vying for the position. Thanks to the supply-demand mismatch in academia, there are far more candidates for professorial positions than there are such positions. Consequently, it is quite difficult to become a professor.

How long does it take to become a professor at a university?

It takes about eight years of education to become a college professor, including a four-year undergraduate degree and a four-year or so doctoral program. If you choose to pursue a postdoc position after a doctoral program, that will add another two years or so, increasing the length of time it takes to become a professor to about a decade.

Is a professor higher than a doctor?

A professor isn't "higher" or "lower" than a doctor. While physicians hold MDs, professors generally hold PhDs. Since PhDs are also referred to as "doctoral degrees," this can be a source of confusion for those trying to understand the relationship between a professor and a doctor (in fact, a professor is actually a type of doctor for the most part). In reality, there's no good way to compare professors and doctors' relative rankings.

How much do professors make?

Based on the results of its 2018-2019 AAUP Faculty Compensation Survey, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) reports a broad range in compensation for full-time faculty. Full professors' salaries are the highest by far, at an average of $136,506 per year. On the other end of the spectrum, professors without rank, who make the least amount of money, earn an average of $75,277 per year.

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Lorelei Yang is a New York-based consultant and freelance writer/researcher. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.