Home How to Become a College Professor: Degrees & Requirements

How to Become a College Professor: Degrees & Requirements

By Jon Konen, District Superintendent

Particularly as an undergrad, college professors all seem a little mysterious. They all seem to fit the archetypal description of the all-powerful source of wisdom and judgement, an intimidating figure with enormous influence over your grades and progress as a student.

The truth is, most of that is probably in your head.

The goal of your professors is not to judge you, but to help you learn and expand your potential. It’s a job that comes with a lot of control and freedom, but also involves a real commitment.

Professors are dedicated to knowledge and education. They thrive on teaching and intellectual reasoning and discovery.

Becoming a professor is a dream job if you thrive in the world of theory and knowledge. If your dream is to expand the bounds of human knowledge, to share what you have learned, and to change lives, then a professorship is right up your alley.

Many college professors don’t set out to join that profession. It’s a job that sneaks up on some people. After years studying or working in a field, suddenly the option to teach in that field becomes a viable option. It offers up new opportunities to explore and innovate. Maybe just as important, it’s an opportunity to pass along what you have learned to the next generation of professionals. You can shape your industry, and the world.

Although college professors are definitely educators, that doesn’t mean they need a degree in education. In fact, they flip the script for teaching on its head. They are expected first and foremost to be experts in their own field, and learn pedagogical techniques and principles later on.

This means that becoming a professor doesn’t always follow a straight path, but in a basic sense the process will almost always include these five steps.

How to Become a College Professor in 5 Steps

Although there aren’t always a lot of steps on the path to becoming a college professor, that doesn’t make it a fast process. You can spend a decade or more going through some of the steps it takes to meet college professor requirements.

One unique thing about getting started down the path to learning how to become a college professor is that you don’t really need to take the prescribed steps in order.

Sure, some of them have to come before others—you need an undergraduate degree before anyone will admit you to a PhD program, for example—but otherwise it’s a list of requirements you can check off at almost any stage of your career.

There is enormous competition for these jobs, though. The further you go along to path, the harder each step will become. You’ll need brains, dedication, and a lot of luck to make it all the way to becoming a college professor.

How long does it take to become a college professor?

For the typical pathway to professorship, you can expect a minimum of 8 to 11 years from high school graduation to the front of the lecture hall. But this depends a great deal on your field of study.

Fields that require real-world work experience can add another five years to a decade to your journey. And most professors find their calling along the way, not necessarily pursuing a straight path to the job. Those years of gaining experience and sharpening your skills can add decades to the process.

1. Get a Four-Year Bachelor’s Degree

If you want to teach college, you had better be a college graduate. In every case, that starts with earning a four-year bachelor’s degree.

Because becoming a professor is a long process, with a lot of different paths that can lead to it, your bachelor’s doesn’t necessarily have to be in the field you want to teach in. Many people shift interests through the course of their academic career.

It is important to lay the groundwork for developing your knowledge through education over the long-term. As you’ll see, becoming a professor requires a lot of advanced research and study. Your undergraduate program should equip you with the kind of skills you need to branch out into further learning and research.

Just about any bachelor’s major relevant to your general area of interest can lay the foundation for more advanced study if becoming a professor is your long-term goal.

Want to become a professor of education? Then it’s going to take a degree in education to get you started down the right path. Ready to take the next step? Find teaching degree programs near you!

2. Earn an Advanced Degree in Your Area of Expertise

To teach any material at the college level, you need a deep understanding of the theory and concepts behind it. That’s always going to mean earning an advanced degree in the subject.

Research can be an important part of professorial work, and master’s and doctoral level programs are exactly where you learn how to do that work.

The research required as part of your studies, and eventually your thesis and dissertation projects, are also a primary way for you to develop an advanced understanding of your field.

This is also an important time to cultivate mentors and relationships in your field. When you get to the point where you are applying for positions, you’ll find that the academic field is a pretty small community, so who you know matters.

Your professors in grad school will know people on the hiring committees at the colleges and universities where you will be interviewing later on. If you impressed them, you can expect a good word in the right ears.

What degree do you need to be a college professor? … Does a college professor need a PhD?

The PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy, has long been the standard degree requirement for college professors. Many community colleges and other two-year schools may require only a master’s degree, however. There are also certain areas of study where a PhD is not considered necessary, such as acting and music. Almost all traditional academic departments at four-year universities definitely prefer to higher doctoral graduates as professors, however.

For example, you’ll want to earn a doctorate in education if you plan to become a professor of education.

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

It’s most common to find professors teaching with only a master’s degree at the community college level, or working as adjunct faculty at four-year colleges. Adjuncts are the academic version of temps, but they make up the majority of faculty in American universities. According to NCES, in 2018, 54 percent of instructors at degree-granting post-secondary institutions were adjunct faculty.

In many fields, however, there is a surplus of PhD graduates, which makes competition stiff even for adjunct positions. In these fields, a master’s-level professor position is rare.

3. Build Real-world Experience in Your Field

There are some fields where academic preparation alone is enough to become a college professor. If you are an aspiring professor of Gothic literature, you’ll do just fine climbing your way up the ladder in the halls of learning to that lofty position. There’s nowhere else that particular set of knowledge or skills has much use.

But if you’re aiming to be a professor in journalism, medicine, engineering, or just about any other field with practical applications, most colleges want to see that you have what it takes to do what you will teach. That means holding down a job and racking up some accomplishments to build up that CV you’ll be submitting to the hiring committee.

Colleges and universities actively seek out professors who have expertise in cutting-edge subjects in their field. You’ll want to look for jobs that will give you experience in the kinds of topics that will be most important to the future of your field. That’s exactly what students are going to come to school to learn.

How To Be a College Professor Without a PhD

The drive to be the school with the most cutting-edge curriculum in a given field is one that can push hiring committees away from that PhD standard. If you can develop the right expertise, and a reputation to match, then it’s possible you can meet the college professor requirements without having a doctorate.

If there is big demand for professors in a particular field, you can sometimes find temporary work with only a master’s degree. If you earn a master’s degree in education, for example, you might be able to get a job instructing teachers as an adjunct professor.

It’s also much easier to become a professor without a PhD if you want to teach in a field where PhDs aren’t the standard mark of expertise. Arts programs, for example, generally show preference to instructors with experience and expertise over those with impressive academic credentials who may not have a lot of experience because the paths to those industries often don’t run through college.

4. Get Hired as a College Professor

Once you have the experience and the education to become qualified, you can start hunting for jobs teaching in college classrooms.

At first, you’ll almost certainly start as an adjunct, teaching part-time or in a visiting position at community colleges or small universities. Since there are no real professional pedagogical standards in college instruction, this serves as a sort of apprenticeship where you cut your teeth learning how to actually transfer your knowledge to students.

At the entry level, college professors don’t have a lot of options in the job market. You will very likely have to relocate to an area with a school willing to hire you. You’ll go through a lot of interviews and apply to a lot of positions to get your foot in the door.

The process and timing will vary from field to field. Many have specialized publications, like PhilJobs.org for philosophy positions, where openings are posted.

Your qualifications and specialties are very important. Schools are often looking for very specific areas of expertise to shore up their existing faculty range. Frequently, the pedigree of your education will matter. A degree from a big-name school gets you further than a small state college no one has ever heard of.

Different colleges and different departments within those colleges have different priorities when it comes to hiring. At research driven institutions, your record of exploration and publication may be all-important. At schools that value teaching, your classroom expertise will be more valued.

What qualifications do you need to be a professor?

Though a master’s to start, and then eventually earning a doctorate, is the general rule for full-time tenure positions, here are no state or national standards for teaching college. The question is only truly answered by college hiring committees. Every school is different. They value different qualities ranging from research experience to real-world know-how. And it can differ from job to job or even year to year.

The most important quality you need when figuring out how to become a college professor may be your desire to learn. If you want to get your students interested in the material, you need to live and breathe it yourself. Academia is all about the process of expanding and understanding new knowledge. You’ll never fit into the field if you don’t have a passion for that.

5. Earn Tenure at Your University

This might be the hardest step of all. We just told you a few paragraphs back that less than half of faculty positions are tenure-track. So your first step will be getting hired to a full-time position that will lead to tenure.

Tenure is the end of the line for college professors. While almost any other kind of job can fire you with or without cause, once a professor has tenure, they are all but assured a position for life. Tenure insulates the academic community from trends and fads, allowing unpopular opinions to be expressed and unusual lines of research to be pursued. These are the hallmarks of liberal thinking and a liberal education.

But you have to earn that kind of freedom.

That first involves getting a fixed-term contract that offers possible tenure. It probably won’t be your first professorship, so you can expect to jump around between a few schools before it comes up.

That contract will mark you as an assistant professor, starting the long road to tenure. You will teach for a few years at that level, being observed by your department and undergoing evaluation by both students and other professors.

Assuming you survive that process, you will earn promotion to associate professor. This means a salary bump but also increased scrutiny for several more years. Your teaching, research, and publication accomplishments will all be weighed during this period. You may also take on additional administrative responsibilities in your department, and be evaluated in your performance.

In the end, a tenure committee of other faculty will decide whether or not you are worthy of becoming a full tenured professor.

Do professors make good money?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020 the median salary for postsecondary teachers, the category that college professors are included in, was $80,790 per year.

But that also includes educators at vocational schools and other training academies outside of traditional colleges. The top ten percent of the group make excellent money, over $180,360 per year. The field you teach in can also affect your salary, with in-demand areas like law, economics, and engineering commanding six-figure median salaries.

Is a college professor a good career?

Like any career, becoming a college professor can be great if it delivers what you are looking for in a job. It’s perfect for people who enjoy exploring intellectual ideas, passing them on to students, engaging in cutting-edge research, and discussing it with other academics. Professors have tremendous flexibility in their personal schedules and in their freedom to teach topics that interest them. They have to be self-motivated and enjoy engaging with students. The opportunity to take long sabbaticals without risk of losing your job is also a big benefit that many enjoy.