College Professor Requirements: Steps to Become a Professor

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The professor career path encompasses many possibilities and outcomes depending on the subject, level of instruction and college or university. While prospects for professorial roles may come from a wide variety of backgrounds, there are some commonalities in the educational and professional experiences that go into joining a higher education faculty.

The Pathway to a Professor Role

Anyone wanting to become a professor should take stock of the steps they’ll likely have to complete, ranging from formative professional experiences to helpful educational pursuits and priorities. Though each individual path will differ in its details, the general theme is typically the same: Applicants’ ability to build relevant experience will separate them from fellow candidates and elevate them in administrators’ eyes.

The differentiators that determine each candidate’s ideal journey include factors such as whether they envision themselves beginning work at a community college, or perhaps at a four-year college or university. Even within the same institutions, requirements can also differ widely by subject and field, with humanities, sciences and more specialized subject matter all requiring unique forms of resume-building. The following are four general steps toward becoming a professor:

1. Gaining Work Experience

While not every professor will have a long history of work experience in a related field, in many subjects this can influence hiring decisions. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics highlighted some of the specialties where related work experience is most likely to be required. These include health care, art, law and education. Spending years in these professions full time, potentially while also taking graduate-level degree courses, may help aspiring professors build their experience and strengthen their candidacy. For instance, candidates who hope to become postsecondary teachers of education can benefit from accumulating teaching experience.

In other academic fields, especially the sciences such as biology, physics and chemistry, research work after earning a doctoral degree may be necessary for professorial candidates to be successful. These research roles, often found at colleges and universities, can last for two or three years and demonstrate candidates’ subject matter expertise and research experience. In other cases, aspiring professors may spend time as teaching assistants in courses related to their chosen subjects.

Candidates will be able to determine early on whether their field of choice prioritizes years of employment, or if it is better to pursue full-time studies to receive an advanced degree. In nearly all cases, academic credentials and background will receive heavy scrutiny from potential employers.

2. Studying for a Doctorate

While the work history component of professors’ required experience differs widely between subjects and specialties, there is a strong preference throughout the academic world for incoming professors to have advanced degrees, preferably doctorates. The BLS noted that at four-year colleges and universities, a doctorate is the standard credential for a professor. While some specialized fields may require a master’s-level education rather than a doctorate, or take on doctoral candidates, requiring the full degree is far more common.

When applying to become a professor at a community college, technical school or other institution outside of the four-year college and university space, minimum hiring requirements may include master’s degrees rather than doctorates. In these cases, however, a doctorate may still be the best option, as department heads choosing between applicants for an open position may prefer the person with superior academic credentials.

Due to the centrality of a doctorate to finding work as a professor, prospective educators should begin considering how to earn a degree as soon as possible. Programs will differ in their requirements for master’s or bachelor’s degrees, and will include a combination of structured classwork and self-directed research projects. Today, universities offer doctorate programs in multiple subjects through online distance-learning models that allow students to keep up a full-time work schedule while earning a doctorate. These may prove especially helpful in fields that require years of professional experience alongside academic credentials.

3. Earning Licenses and Certificates

People seeking professorial roles in highly specialized fields such as medicine and education may find professional certifications and licenses are critical to their hiring and success as professors. The individual processes involved in earning these credentials will differ from one subject to another, with examinations to become registered as a nurse or other health care professional contrasting with those to become a licensed teacher.

These requirements are functionally similar to colleges and universities looking for professors who have years of practical experience in their chosen fields. Being certified, whether in teaching, medicine or any other specialty, demonstrates to faculty and students alike that a person is capable of performing a role at a high level and will uphold those standards when teaching the next generation of students.

4. After Hiring: Working Toward Tenure

The initial hire is merely the first step in becoming entrenched as a professor. Some educators will move into tenured professor positions immune to termination without just cause, moving up the ranks from assistant professor to associate professor and then full professor. The professional path along the tenure track culminates in a board review that assesses research, instruction style and overall performance as part of the faculty.

While not every professor will earn a tenure-track position, with the BLS pointing out that some universities are providing fewer of these roles, the goal of earning tenure remains an enticement for prospective professors to build their resumes with doctoral degrees and relevant work experience. Tenured professors may be the first people schools turn to when considering candidates for open administrative roles such as deans.

Salary Expectations and Hiring Trends for Professors

Salaries in the profession tend to be high, reflecting the years of study, research and work required to become a professor. The pattern allows for significant variation between different colleges and universities, as well as a trend toward the longest-serving educators having a much higher than average earning potential. PayScale reported that the median pay for a professor across all subjects and institutions is $86,796 a year, with expectations nearly reaching six figures for instructors who remain in the field for 20 or more years.

Per PayScale’s data, professors who have specific skill sets such as clinical research and analysis expertise tend to make more than the average salary for instructors of their experience level. Some highly specialized fields such as molecular biology are also highly compensated, with professors in that scientific niche making 39 percent more than the average university educator.

Trends around hiring in academia are promising for prospective professors. The BLS outlook for postsecondary educational hiring indicates that between 2016 and 2026, the number of teaching roles at colleges and universities will increase by 15 percent, an impressive contrast to the 7 percent rise expected across all roles in the same period. The need for professors is also greater than the general increase in positions across education, training and libraries as a whole, which comes in at 9 percent.

One number to watch in the coming years is state budgeting for public education. Some of the biggest employers of professors are public universities, therefore the priority given to spending at these institutions will serve as a driver of educator employment over the next few years. While these figures remain uncertain, the general trend underlying higher education, toward greater levels of student enrollment, is positive for new professors’ prospects.

The Doctorate in Education from Bradley University

Potential professors seeking roles in education departments or planning for a career path that incorporates a move into an administrative role may find the Bradley online doctor of education program will prepare them to apply for and excel in their chosen positions. Courses are taught by experienced and dedicated faculty members with long, productive and influential higher education careers. To give students valuable academic experience, the program includes a doctoral research requirement that naturally integrates action research methodology.

The educational field is one of the professions singled out by the BLS as often requiring candidates to have backgrounds that incorporate both relevant professional roles and strong academic credentials. The online Ed.D. program allows Bradley students to also maintain full-time positions, combining the two types of experience as they work toward their degrees.

With the competition for professor roles becoming increasingly tough at all levels, Ed.D. graduates can use their doctorate degree as a vital part of their resumes. The kinds of strong credentials earned in Ed.D. programs can prove relevant for aspiring educators who are interested in finding promising and challenging instructor roles, as well as people who have goals of taking on administrative duties.

Reach out to learn more about the online Ed.D. program, a promising step along the educational journey for aspiring professors.


Recommended Reading

What is The Difference Between an Ed.D. and a Ph.D.?

What is the Average College Professor Salary?

Online Doctor of Education Program, Bradley University



Postsecondary Teachers, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Average Professor, Postsecondary / Higher Education Salary, PayScale