Welcome to the 10th installment of College Transitions’ “So you want to be a….” series. Designed to help career-minded high school students think intelligently about their postsecondary journeys, these blogs will look at the financial, academic, and personal factors one should consider when exploring various professions.

Fiction versus Reality

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 a 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.

Do I Need to Attend a Prestigious Graduate School?

More than ever before, prestige matters is the field of higher education. A recent study examined 19,000 tenure-track or tenured faculty at over 450 colleges and universities. They focused on three very different disciplines: 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 came from 16 institutions, and half of the computer science professors from 18 prestigious colleges and universities. All of the usual suspects grace these lists: All eight Ivies, UC 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 you 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, while a more recent study of six top-ranked Ph.D. 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.” 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 will be made evident in a forthcoming “top feeders” list (to appear soon on our Dataverse page), which ranks colleges producing the highest percentage of graduates who eventually go on to earn PhDs in 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 Ph.D. applicants (this point was also made in our last section examining psychologists, who also require a Ph.D. to practice).

Finally future PhDs must also account for other equally or more important factors in the Ph.D. admissions process aside from college destination. In addition, strong grades, excellent GRE scores, research experience, and a publication (or two) can go a long way toward helping you earn admission at 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, and 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 and crystal clear about the level of sacrifice required.

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

The Adjunct Reality

Since 1975, the percent 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. They are paid an average of just $2,700 per class. In an attempt to scratch together a living, many adjuncts take on as many courses as possible each semester, often at multiple universities. Still, the average adjunct’s salary comes in right around 20k, which equates to the annual salary of someone making minimum wage. Employing adjunct faculty is an extremely cheap labor source for universities and 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 and 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 67-77k. Full tenured professors average right around 100k. There is, however, great variability across disciplines. For example, a newly hired computer science professor takes home $83,000 while an equivalent scholar in the field of journalism earns a significantly lower salary of $59,000.

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 the top of the hill, becoming a tenured full professor, takes many additional years and much good fortune.

Job Outlook

Postsecondary education jobs are expected to grow 13% through 2024, however, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is careful to note that this includes both full-time and part-time positions. 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.

This Must Be a Labor of Love

Unlike other prestigious 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 postsecondary 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 the “So you want to be a…” series, click the links below:

So you want to be a lawyer…

So you want to be a doctor…

So you want to be a teacher…

So you want to be an engineer…

So you want to be a software developer/engineer/programmer…

So you want to be a financial analyst…

So you want to be a journalist…

So you want to be a psychologist…

So you want to be an accountant…

Dave Bergman
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).