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Career paths to be a college professor

At a glance

Depending on the field and role, you may need a PhD or master’s degree to become a college professor, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • A graduate degree requires one to four years of specified courses and the completion of a thesis project.
  • Gaining teaching experience while in graduate school can help you build skills to be a college professor.
  • Interested in getting into teaching or becoming a college professor? Learn more about the online education programs at University of Phoenix. 

Can you be a college professor with a master’s degree?

To become a college professor, you typically need to hold a terminal degree. This means your degree is the highest you can earn in your specific field. For many areas of study, this is a doctoral degree. However, for fine arts disciplines, a Master of Fine Arts can be considered a terminal degree. If you want to teach at a community college, a smaller institution or a fine arts program, a master’s degree can help you land a job.

How to become a college professor

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists college professors as postsecondary teachers. As noted above and by BLS, often a doctoral degree is required to join the faculty at most institutions, but sometimes a master’s degree will suffice to meet open-role education requirements. Depending on the role, some employers may seek out someone who gained teaching experience along the way as well. Either way, a graduate degree is a foundation needed to move forward to become a contending candidate.

Get a graduate degree in the subject you want to teach

The path to becoming a college professor starts after you have graduated with an undergraduate degree. The undergraduate degree can be in teaching or in the field in which you plan to teach, such as business or psychology. After a bachelor’s degree, you need to apply to graduate programs that offer degrees in your chosen field, find professors to write letters of recommendation, and take any qualifying exams such as the GRE® test, unless your program specifies otherwise.

Once accepted into a graduate program, you’ll spend anywhere from one to four years earning a master’s degree, depending on your program. The day-to-day consists of taking specified courses and completing assignments to gain expertise in your field of choice. By the end of your program, you will likely have to write or create a thesis project that showcases the specialized knowledge you cultivated during your master’s program. Students are often asked to present and defend their thesis to a panel before graduating.

Gain teaching experience by working as a tutor or teaching assistant

While earning your master’s degree, you can start gaining teaching experience by working as a tutor or a teaching assistant. This will be valuable experience to include on your resumé when applying for positions in academia. It will teach you how to work with students and teach your subject to first-time learners.

After graduation, you can apply for temporary or part-time positions such as a guest lecturer, an instructor, a teaching fellowship or a writer/artist-in-residence. These positions may last for one semester or one academic year and can provide you with more teaching experience and professional connections.

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Write articles and books about your subject area to build your reputation as an expert

For a college or university to hire you, they need to know you are an expert in your field. One of the best ways to prove this is to write articles or books in your subject area. It would be ideal if your written work was published in reputable journals, newspapers or with esteemed press companies. Publishing your work not only helps you prove your expertise when applying for jobs, but it can also help make you a recognizable figure to others in your field.

Join professional organizations related to your field of study

Nearly every profession has a professional organization you can join. These organizations host yearly conferences where you might present your work and also provide a way to connect with professionals in your field of study. Some of these organizations also provide job listings to members, provide professional training opportunities, and run magazines where you can publish your work.

Apply for faculty positions

Becoming full-time or part-time faculty at a university such as a lecturer can help you gain teaching experience. Requirements for this may not be as rigorous, and becoming full-time faculty may serve as a stepping stone to becoming a full professor.

Serve on committees and attend conferences to network with other professors

Taking an active role in your field of study and networking is a great way to land a job as a professor. If you join a professional organization, consider serving on a committee or holding a leadership position. Attend conferences, even if you’re not presenting, to learn more about other professors’ work and make connections with them. While your qualifications are important to getting a tenure-track position as a professor, you must network with professors who can vouch for you when you begin applying for jobs.

Apply for professor positions at universities

Once you have graduated with your master’s degree, gained teaching experience, published work, and networked with professors in your field, it’s time to start applying for professor positions at universities.

If your field requires a doctoral degree to earn tenure, then you might start by applying for adjunct faculty and assistant professor positions to get your foot in the door at a large university or applying for professor positions at smaller institutions and community colleges.

Desirable soft skills

While there are definite hard skills universities and colleges look for when hiring, there are also certain soft skills that may help you stand out as well.

Strong communication and organizational skills

Teaching others requires strong communication skills, especially when evaluating and explaining a student's academic progress. Not every expert is meant to be a professor. Your passion for your field of study can carry you far but being able to communicate with others about your expertise, either in a classroom or at public speaking opportunities, is vital.

You also need to be able to keep your records organized, whether they be your student’s academic assignments or the findings of your research. Having a solid understanding of curriculum and instruction methods can help you to stay on track as you begin your teaching career.

The ability to inspire students

Working with students can be an incredibly rewarding experience, and cultivating your ability to inspire the next generation of scholars is essential to your success as a professor. If you are struggling with how to relate to and inspire your students, try reaching out to your mentors and other professors to see what advice they might offer.

Passion for your discipline

Your passion for the subject matter is what will keep you going through the years of schooling and work that it takes to get a position as a full professor. As mentioned, a master’s degree can take anywhere from one to four years, and a doctoral degree can take up to eight years. Staying passionate will also better engage the students you teach and ideally inspire them on their learning journey as well.

Education degrees at University of Phoenix

If you’re interested in expanding your skill set to better prepare you for a career in teaching, consider one of the online education degrees at University of Phoenix!

Master of Arts in Education/Curriculum and Instruction — In this program, you’ll learn to develop curriculum assessment skills, use curricular research to adopt best practices in the classroom, adopt coaching strategies, and better understand ethical, social and political issues in education.

Doctor of Education — In this program, you’ll learn how to use leadership theory and principles to help organizations with strategic planning, address legal, regulatory and compliance issues within educational organizations, and evaluate current research and use statistics to solve complex educational issues. You’ll also learn to address modern education issues using social, historical and philosophical research and develop an evolving personal leadership style based on ethical and moral principles.


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