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Online Degrees

Part of Western Governors University

June 9, 2022

Teaching & Education

10 Simple Steps to Become a College Professor

professor helping student learn

Do you love leading, teaching, and engaging in discussions on your favorite topics? Would you consider yourself a lifetime learner? If so, then becoming a college professor might be an excellent career choice for you.

College professors are postsecondary academic instructors who are experts in their subject or field. They often hold the highest-ranking instructional position at a university or college and teach a wide variety of students. Professors often work in a broad selection of environments, from large, nationally-recognized universities to small, private institutions. Currently, the median salary for a college professor is $79,640 per year, with an expected job growth of 12% over the next 10 years. Since students are expected to continue to pursue advanced degrees, postsecondary teachers will always be in demand. 

The day-to-day responsibilities of a college professor can vary from field to field, but a general overview looks something like the following: 

Teaching Lessons

A large majority of most college professors’ time is devoted to teaching courses. Depending on their field of expertise, they might instruct in a variety of subjects. For example, an instructor in an English department can teach courses on writing, journalism, literary criticism, or poetry.

Helping Learners

The heart of teaching is helping others learn. College professors guide students in improving their knowledge and gaining skills in order to help them succeed in earning a degree or certification. Professors also help learners by assessing their progress with papers, tests, projects, and one-on-one tutoring.

Designing Curriculum

Professors use their expert knowledge to write assignments and design curricula. They often take into consideration their students’ various learning styles and needs while developing their course outlines or syllabi from semester to semester.

Researching Subjects

Remaining a constant learner is important for college professors. They do this through researching and publishing for books and academic journals, attending conferences, and remaining current on the innovations and ideas in their field of study.

Supervising Students

College professors often serve as advisors to students eager to learn from them. At the graduate-school level, this mentor-mentee relationship is an important experience for students hoping to earn doctoral degrees.

Serving Administration

Many institutions rely on individual departments to make hiring recommendations and review policies. Professors, especially those who are employed full-time, are often expected to serve on their department’s committees as part of their contractual duties.

What Is the Difference between a Teacher and a Professor?

It’s not uncommon to hear people use the terms “teacher” or “professor” interchangeably, but they actually have very different audiences. Simply put, a teacher teaches younger learners, ranging in ages from elementary to high school, while a professor instructs students at the postsecondary level. Typically, professors are the highest level of educators and specialists in their academic subject or field. While both a teacher and a professor are trained professionals, a college professor’s journey requires more steps and academic requirements.

10 Simple Steps to Becoming a College Professor

Most four-year colleges and universities require a professor to have a Ph.D. in their field of study, while some part-time positions or community and vocational colleges require only a master’s degree. You should expect at least six to nine years of academic work after high school in order to complete the steps to becoming a college professor. It’s important to keep the following aspects in mind at each step of your journey: 

High School

Step 1: Get Good Grades and Standardized Test Scores

High school transcripts and placement tests will make a difference when you’re applying for scholarships and admissions. Make sure you focus on getting good grades and placing well on your standardized test for guaranteed success.

Step 2: Prepare for College

It’s important to start thinking about college applications as early as your junior year of high school. Since many colleges and universities limit the number of new students each semester, you want to make sure to submit your college applications early. WGU does not limit the number of students accepted, and students can start the first of each and every month.

students studying

Bachelor’s Degree

Step 3: Earn a Degree in Your Chosen Teaching Field

Your specialty as a professor begins at the bachelor’s level, so it’s important to think about the subject or field you’re most interested in. For example, if you want to eventually be a professor of poetry, then majoring in English will provide you with a strong foundation in the field.

Step 4: Perform Well and Utilize Relationships

Maintaining strong grades while earning a bachelor’s degree can be a challenge, but the grades you earn in your bachelor’s program will set you up for scholarships or grants when applying to graduate school. The strong relationships you make with your undergraduate professors are also important when considering references or internship opportunities.

Step 5: Take the GRE and Apply for Graduate School

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a standardized test that many colleges or universities require for admission into graduate programs. You’ll want to determine if an institution requires a specific GRE grade and apply for graduate school at least six months in advance of the fall semester. Conveniently, WGU does not require the GRE for admission into its graduate programs, and since coursework is solely online, students can work on a schedule that best fits their lives.

Master’s Degree

Step 6: Have Excellent Grades and a Strong Thesis

Keeping strong grades while in your graduate program is very important. Many graduate programs require students to maintain a 3.0 average GPA in order to stay in good academic standing. In addition, most programs require a master’s thesis (a long-format academic paper) to be completed as the last step in obtaining your master’s degree. Similarly, WGU’s competency-based education focuses on a capstone project, which many students find more applicable to their career field.

Step 7: Become a TA for Practical Experience

Gaining classroom experience as a teaching assistant (TA) will help you understand the daily responsibilities of lecturing, grading, and time management as a professor. And the more time you spend in the classroom as a TA, the more confident you can feel facilitating student learners. 

Doctoral Degree

Step 8: Build Relationships and Write a Winning Dissertation

The priority of your doctoral program is centered on developing your knowledge in your field, building relationships, and researching and writing your dissertation (a more in-depth version of a thesis.) The dissertation will become the foundation for how you position yourself in seeking and competing for employment after your doctoral program. 

Step 9: Apply for Post-Doctoral Positions

While at the end of your doctoral program, you’ll want to begin to apply for teaching positions at colleges or universities of your choice. Many professors start out as adjunct or contract-based professors to gain experience before being hired full-time within a department.

Post-Doctorate

Step 10: Continue Applying and Accept an Offer

As faculty positions in higher education are highly prized, you should expect it to take some time before receiving an offer. It’s always good to continue to deepen your teaching experience as an adjunct professor or guest lecturer while going through the interview cycle.

Crucial Tips for Becoming a College Professor

The job market for college professors can be very competitive, especially for highly specialized fields, which is why you want to seriously consider your degree, school, research, and professional development when building your résumé.

Research

A professor who is actively doing relevant and dynamic research in their field is going to be more appealing as a new hire for colleges and universities. For instance, many institutions are eager to welcome a professor into their department whose research can bring their institution recognition and funding.

Publish

Actively publishing is an important part of being an academic. For a potential hire, being able to see your work in publication garners respect in the academic community and places you at a unique advantage.

Gain Experience

Having teaching experience will set you apart in the hiring process. Many colleges and universities want to have confidence in your ability to lead the next generation of thinkers and creators, and working as a TA or adjunct professor helps to reinforce that.

Learn

For many employers, the accomplishment of earning a master’s or Ph.D. becomes the most important factor in a hiring decision. Students who choose WGU as a part of their process of becoming a professor will find themselves prepared to excel as leaders in their field and in higher education as a whole. 

Learn to Become a College Professor with WGU

Think you’re ready to lead the next generation? WGU’s Master of Science in Educational Leadership degree provides the steps necessary to lead educators, administrators, and other personnel in any educational setting. Curious to learn more about starting your journey as a teacher? Read more:

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