How to Become a College Professor

September 24, 2022

Life as a college professor sounds like a delightfully quaint way to make a living. Residing in a rent-free cabin somewhere in New England, clad in your unfashionable yet almost required patch-sleeved sweater, you walk across a picturesque campus each day to deliver an hour or two worth of lecture, engage in intellectual debates with your colleagues, and work on the Great American Novel. Unfortunately, the realities of working in academia in the 21st century are significantly less idyllic. An unfavorable job market, a shift toward part-time faculty, and the corporatization of higher education have the day-to-day realties challenging and barriers to entry high. As we explore how to become a college professor, we will examine:

  • What type of grad school do I need to attend in order to become a professor?
  • What type of undergraduate school do I need to attend in order to become a professor?
  • What is being an adjunct professor like?
  • How to become a tenure-track professor?
  • Job outlook for college professors through 2030.

How to Become a College Professor – Do I Need to Attend a Prestigious Graduate School?

More than ever before, prestige matters in the field of higher education. One insightful study examined 19,000 tenure-track or tenured faculty at over 450 colleges and universities. They focused on three very different disciplines. These were: computer science, history, and business and found several overarching conclusions about whether the prestige of your Ph.D. program matters. The findings: Just 25% of the institutions surveyed produced 71-86% of the professors in those fields. Further, half the history professors hailed from eight schools. Half of the business professors 16 institutions, Additionally, half of the computer science professors from 18 prestigious colleges and universities. All of the usual suspects grace these lists. They included all eight Ivies, Berkeley, University of Chicago, MIT, Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, a handful of other premier, super-selective institutions.

The takeaway from this research is obvious: Your job prospects in academia are very much tied to the prestige of the school where you earn your Ph.D.

Do I Need to Attend a Prestigious Undergraduate School?

Knowing that attending an elite Ph.D. program significantly improves your chances of landing a tenure-track academic job, let’s examine the next logical question—do you need to attend an elite undergraduate school to get into an elite Ph.D. program?

One examination of Ph.D. candidates in philosophy found that over 80% had attended Top 50 universities or liberal arts colleges. A more recent study of six top-ranked PhD programs in several disciplines reveals an admissions process that favors students from prestigious undergraduate institutions.  Admissions committee members interviewed for the latter study were quoted as saying that they believe elite college attendees were “preadapted” to elite graduate programs, and given their ability to earn admission into a prestigious undergraduate school, “must truly be better.”

Our own study

Finally, our own examination of National Science Foundation data revealed that prestigious colleges, particularly those of the small, liberal arts variety, also produce a disproportionately high number of PhDs in general. Our findings are made evident in our “top feeders” list. This list ranks colleges producing the highest percentage of graduates who eventually go on to earn PhDs. The list includes several fields across the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. Surprisingly, selective liberal arts colleges dominate the rankings in every discipline.

The preponderance of liberal arts colleges on this list is due, at least in part, to the fact that liberal arts grads have increased access to faculty and research opportunities, which ultimately gives them a leg up on other PhD applicants (this point was also made in our last section examining psychologists, who also require a PhD to practice).  Therefore, it seems fair to suggest that aspiring PhDs should at least consider liberal arts institutions during their college search.

It is also important to note that our advice is not limited to those with elite college admission credentials. Although our “top feeders” list features a high number of very selective liberal arts institutions, several prominently ranked schools do accept students with less than excellent grades and standardized test scores, including Earlham College, Wheaton College, St. Olaf College, and others.

Finally, whether attending these schools or the more selective institutions on this list, future PhDs must also account for other equally or more important factors in the PhD admissions process. Aside from college destination, strong grades, excellent GRE scores, research experience, and a publication (or two) can go a long way toward helping you earn admission to a top-notch doctoral program.

Earning a Ph.D. Is a Long Commitment

The average Ph.D. takes over eight years to complete. Breaking this down a bit, a doctorate in the physical sciences averages just under seven years. A doctorate in the social sciences is just over seven. Lastly, a terminal degree in the humanities takes over nine years. As you slog through this intellectual marathon, many of your peers will be out earning money, getting promoted, starting families, etc. It’s important to enter this type of endeavor with the long-view in mind.

Failure to plan and adopt a winning mindset partially explains the attrition rates in Ph.D. programs—roughly 50% of those who start a program never finish. Even for those who survive, additional perils await.

How to Become a College Professor – The Adjunct Reality

Between 1975, the percentage of part-time professors in the United States has increased by 300%. Today, these part-timers known as adjunct professors make up over half of the total faculty members at U.S. colleges. The majority are paid less than $3,500 per course. In an attempt to scratch together a living, many adjuncts take on as many courses as possible each semester. This is often at multiple universities. Still, the average adjunct’s salary comes in right around $24k. This equates to the annual salary of someone making minimum wage. Employing adjunct faculty is an extremely cheap labor source for universities. Further, they have little incentive to hire full-timers with a glut of Ph.D.s available to teach each semester.

If you are going to dedicate eight plus years of your life to obtaining a Ph.D., it’s important to understand that your “reward” will be a fierce job market with a limited number of full time, tenure-track positions. Supply and demand (depending on the field) is not on your side, nor is the hiring trend in higher education.

Adjuncts around the country are beginning to unionize. They are beginning to voice what they perceive as unfair practices on the part of institutions. Whether this leads to substantive change by the time someone in high school right now earns a Ph.D. and enters the job market is yet to be seen.

Salary for Tenure-Track Professors

Tenure-track assistant and associate professors average annual salary falls between $69-$83k. Full tenured professors average right around $108k. There is, however, great variability across disciplines. For example, professors in the fields of engineering, computer science, and business make significantly more than faculty in the humanities or social sciences.

It is important to understand that those hired as tenure-track assistant professors typically have between 5-7 years to impress the university with their ability to publish, teach, and aptly fulfill other administrative duties. Generally speaking, most schools, with the exception of some liberal arts schools, place paramount importance on publications over teaching. The higher education cliché of “publish or perish” often guides tenure decisions. The climb toward becoming a tenured full professor takes many additional years and much good fortune.

How to Become a College Professor – Job Outlook

Postsecondary education jobs are expected to grow 12% through 2030, however, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is careful to note that this includes both full-time and part-time positions.[vii] Additionally, these projections vary across disciplines with high job growth expected in fields like healthcare, nursing, biology, and law and slower growth in areas like agricultural science, library science, and education.

Final Thoughts – This Must Be a Labor of Love

Unlike other prestige fields with arduous and costly paths to entry, entering academia does not offer a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. For individuals committed to the idea of teaching and researching at a post-secondary level, proper planning beginning with your selection of an undergraduate institution is necessary. This is a field where elite credentials give candidates a leg-up in the pursuit of a tenure-track position. Regardless, your journey to a stable and rewarding career as a professor will likely continue well into your 30s. For those who possess passion and zeal for a given subject, the end result will justify the means. For those picturing that cabin in New England and a relaxing, quiet life—academia is likely not for you.

To read previous installments of this series, click the links below for How to Become a…