University Professor At A Glance
Job Outlook
Highly Competitive but Growing (Occupational Outlook Handbook)
Salary Range
$51,000-$86,000 on average (American Association of University Professors)
Degree Required
Great for People Who
like the academic environment, enjoy research, have excellent communication skills
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Yeva Ragauskayte

If you have taken a college class, you are probably familiar with the people we call professors. These gifted men and women continue the process of learning in post-secondary education for young minds everywhere. They carry a semblance of the teachers from our past in that they dispense new knowledge to us, lecturing and testing us, and constantly pushing us to excel in a given subject; however, there is an added intrigue to them because, for most, teaching is not their only focus, but rather a complement to their research.
Professors have a passion for acquiring and disseminating new knowledge in their field of specialty. They have numerous responsibilities, from teaching students and assistants to research and administration. Acquiring job security in a tenure-track position is a highly sought after prize for those seeking a career in academia. Tenure provides professors with a life of learning, flexibility, a stimulating work environment, opportunities in different sectors, and the reward of working with young minds.
For those who find this lifestyle attractive and are considering professorship as a career, it is important to understand the skills, characteristics, and abilities required of a professor. First, teaching in any field requires the ability to pass on sometimes-complicated information by fragmenting it into parts that students can understand and retain. Skills in oral and written communication, attentiveness, and a strong understanding of the subject matter are all required of teachers. These skills are learned and refined during graduate school, post-doctoral work, teaching experiences and even in other types of careers.

Preparing for Professorship

The journey toward professorship starts during the undergraduate years, when students explore their interests and skills. Different classes help students narrow down career choices, while extracurricular activities, such as lab work, summer internships, and volunteer projects, help students find work environments in which they perform well. The undergraduate years are also the time to research different options for careers and their corresponding educational requirements. These days, professorships usually require a Ph.D. and some post-doctoral experience; however, secondary schools, community, technical, and engineering technology colleges only require a Master’s degree. The decision of whether or not to pursue professorship should be made carefully; the road to tenure-track positions at a university can take up to fifteen years from the beginning of graduate school.
Undergraduate students who decide to go to graduate school must then find a leading institution in the field of their interest. The logic behind such selectivity is that a school that specializes in and has better resources for a certain field will be better able to train its graduate students. Graduate schools are ranked according to specialty by a number of sources, including USNews and The Princeton Review.
Once accepted to graduate school, the road toward a Ph.D. can be long and arduous. A doctor of philosophy degree (Ph.D.) is the highest academic degree that you can attain in North America. Ph.D. programs produce scholars who seek to discover, integrate, and apply knowledge, and then communicate and disseminate it. Doctoral programs consist of lecture or laboratory courses, seminars, examinations, discussions, independent study, research, and, in many cases, teaching. A probationary period, during which evaluation and examination of the student is required, occurs in the first two years. After that, the student is eligible for Ph.D. candidacy, during which most of his or her research toward a dissertation will take place. Dissertation research can take a few years under the supervision and advice of a faculty member called an advisor.
When deciding on an advisor, it is imperative to find a well-known, respected advisor in your field since he or she will help to shape your academic reputation. Advisors also help you prepare for the final oral defense of your dissertation for Ph.D. candidacy. Your work will be more valuable than that of other graduates with less prominent advisors. Multiple advisors can broaden your experiences and expose you to new opportunities.

A professor works with undergraduate research students in a mine in South Africa. Image courtesy Susan Pfiffner, University of Tennessee.

Graduate school is also the time to become a positive contributor in the department and the advisor’s program by making your research novel. Innovation and contribution will help you stand out in recommendation letters. Graduate students choose a specific topic for a dissertation, which generally marks them as a certain type of scientist (i.e. theorist or experimentalist), sometimes limiting future career options. Therefore, a dissertation should also be chosen wisely, taking into account all of one’s interests.
After completing research, the next step is to get published, especially in prestigious journals. Publication demonstrates your ability to conduct research and communicate results effectively to the science community. Academic institutions take publications into serious consideration during the hiring process for professorships (hence the phrase “print or perish”).
Finally, students must strive to be at the top of their field by keeping up with major breakthrough and key players. Conferences and national meetings are excellent places to network, collaborate and exchange ideas. Networking opens the door to many more career opportunities.
Currently, more and more students fresh out of graduate school choose to do post-doctoral work before applying for teaching positions at universities. Post-doctoral work is a continuation of research and training in a lab outside of the graduate lab. These positions are harder to come by now that they are not the “fallback job” they used to be. People see post-docs as valuable experience in addition to their graduate work, also giving them more time to get published before applying for professorships. On the other hand, according to a study conducted by the National Science Foundation in the 1990s, one drawback to post-doc positions is that, by extending the time between earning a Ph.D. and applying for professorship, they lower the likelihood of getting a tenure-track appointment, especially in sciences outside of biology. Thus, there is a balancing act to be played: get extra experience to be competitive in the applicant pool, yet do not prolong your post-doc experience longer than necessary to attain a teaching position.
Finally, a solid base in teaching experience increases your chance of being accepted for a teaching position at colleges and universities. Great researchers will benefit their institutions more if they can also teach students effectively. There are many ways to gain such teaching experience. Graduate students can work as teaching assistants (TAs) to master routine yet essential teaching responsibilities such as problem sessions, examinations, office hours, experiment preparation, and grading. Sometimes, graduate students can teach classes during the summer term, either at their home or other institutions. One useful tactic to land any of these opportunities is to let people know you are interested in teaching and line up for opportunities that open up when other graduates or post-docs leave.

Getting Competitive

Once you have acquired the necessary degree, research and publication base, and teaching skills, the next step is to apply. Professorships are highly competitive; most applicants apply to many schools, and they often reapply if they do not get a position on the first try. Once hired, candidates start as assistant professors or the equivalent in order to build up experience and respect at their institution. After a few years, candidates may be promoted to a tenure-track professorship, which guarantees job stability, health benefits and a rigorous working environment. According to the 2002-2003 survey by the American Association of University Professors, the average salaries were $86,437 for professors, $61,732 for associate professors, and $51,545 for assistant professors. Tenured professors usually have their own office and research lab. They can devote more time to teaching, or limit their focus on teaching and concentrate more on their research. Some professors can take a leave of absence from teaching in order to concentrate solely on important research or writing. Professors also serve on department committees, advise students (undergraduate, graduate, and post-doc), and work on administrative matters.

A professor collaborates with students on a research project. Image courtesy Idaho EPSCoR Program.

For those who are unable to earn tenure at a university but are still passionate about teaching, there are other options. A growing trend in the education market is the hiring of adjunct professors. Adjunct professors, or “freeway flyers” as they are commonly called, must straddle multiple colleges at the same time, teaching one class here and one or two there. They are only hired one quarter, one semester, or a year at a time, according to the fluctuating needs of the universities. This type of job used to be only for local professionals who taught occasional classes part time, but now that the funds for education are rising, schools are trying to find ways of keeping the cost of tuition down. They are increasingly hiring adjunct professors instead of fully tenured professors in order to be more cost-efficient. Some universities pay adjunct professors a few thousand dollars per class with no benefits. Such a situation is far from the ideal that graduate students may envision when working toward their Ph.D., but some may have to take such positions if nothing else is available.
The typical age trajectory from graduate school to tenure track is approximated as: 22 after your B.S., 25 after your M.S., 28 after some work in industry or lab, 33 after your PhD, 35 after a post-doc and around 40 by the time you get tenure (and job security). The career training for this includes research, technical reviewing, proposal writing, supervision of other students, publishing, conference presentations, relations with industry, and teaching. Industry and government relations are helpful in this career because academic institutions want people who can work with the other two sectors to promote collaboration and idea exchange.

There are many different paths toward a professorship in academia; the key is perseverance, passion and information. Like any career, the best-informed and best-trained have better chances of succeeding.

For more information:

“Advice on Pursuing a Career as a Professor in the Sciences”—Bruce M. Railsback

Tomorrow’s Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and Engineering--Richard Reis (IEEE Press, 1997)

“Preparing for a Career in Academics”—Rita Cydulka

“How to Get All-Important Teaching Experience”—Richard Reis


“Career Outlook”

“What Follows the Postdoctorate Experience? Employment Patterns of 1992 Postdocs in 1995”—Mark C. Regets (National Science Foundation)

“Professor of Desperation”--Eric L. Wee

“Teaching as a Career", National Post-Doc Organization

Occupational Outlook Handbook (2004-2005 Edition), U.S. Department of Labor