What Does a College Professor Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

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In addition to providing higher education, college is designed to provide a path for students to grow intellectually, and prepare for the workforce. College professors are educators who provide undergraduate and graduate education to students. Teaching college courses differs from teaching younger students, in that it is less about the age difference and more about the purpose of a college education.

Some professors are hired onto a tenure track, with the expectation of permanent employment. Others are employed as adjunct, visiting, or assistant professors for a limited time period. Becoming a tenured college professor is a rigorous career path with high reward.

College Professor Duties & Responsibilities

Becoming a college professor nearly always begins with a “probationary” position. Universities expect professors to distinguish themselves, to add value to their institutions and the educational experiences of their students. As such, established (or tenured) college professors’ duties include, but are not limited to:

  • Applying the scientific method to all disciplines within their field
  • Building a course curriculum
  • Preparing course syllabi
  • Mentoring students
  • Presenting lectures
  • Creating supplemental instructional materials
  • Accurately evaluating students’ progress
  • Grading
  • Staying current on the subject material
  • Researching and publishing
  • Presenting research
  • Leading and directing research in a specific field

Initially, adjunct professors or teaching assistants may be given a curriculum to follow. Very quickly, professors need to be able to establish their own curricula and teaching styles. As such, expectations for college professors are high, both from the administration and the student body.

Professors can “pass” their probationary period and earn tenure. As such, tenured professors have significant job security and are established experts in their field. Depending on the competitiveness of your educational field, you may have to teach as a non-tenured professor at more than one university before achieving tenure.

College Professor Salary

Income data on college professors are slightly skewed because limited numbers of professors achieve tenure or full-time, established positions. Many professors are hired for fellowships within universities, where they double as a teacher and a lab researcher. Some professors also teach while continuing their education. Most common are adjunct professors. Adjunct faculty work part-time at one or more colleges, and their income will not be accurately reflected in BLS statistics.

  • Median Annual Salary: $78,470
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $175,110
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $39,760

Education, Training, & Certification

As noted above, there is a major difference between tenured and non-tenured professors. If you plan to gain a Ph.D. and then take your skills to the private sector, you may choose to be a college professor after gaining your Master's degree as a way to pay your way through the rest of your education.

However, if your desire is to devote your life to teaching in academia, then you will need to focus on earning tenure at a university. Tenured professors have at least one graduate degree and often acquire multiple graduate degrees. Earned doctorates are a minimum requirement for tenured college professors.

  • Education: You should have a minimum of a doctorate (Ph.D.) from a reputable university in your educational field. This usually requires a minimum of eight years of higher education.
  • CertificationVocational certificates are not typical for tenured college professors. However, business professors often spend time in the business sector before achieving tenure as a college professor. If your specific field of study sees value in practical graduate certificates, then they are highly recommended.
  • Training: Formal training for college professors includes rigorous training in research and writing. The crowning achievement for college professors is completing and publishing a dissertation. Dissertations demonstrate the doctoral candidate’s finely-tuned research and writing capabilities. Many dissertations uncover major scientific breakthroughs that change society as we know it.

College Professor Skills & Competencies

In some ways, being a college professor is spending your life in school. You will be educating yourself long after your Ph.D. is complete. Your students also will need guidance to digest material that can be very difficult to understand.

  • Written Communication: College professors write extensively. Whether it’s writing course material (including textbooks) or performing research, professors know how to make themselves clear in all of their written communication.
  • Research: Professors who research poorly or base significant findings on inaccurate information could possibly lose their jobs. In order to avoid issues like plagiarism, accurately paraphrasing research to support your own ideas will be important. Much of the research that you would be required to analyze is highly technical, but it is up to you to make sense of it for your students.
  • Public Speaking: Naturally, college professors spend a great deal of time addressing their students in a group. They build PowerPoint presentations and use other presentation materials to effectively communicate complicated ideas in a way that makes sense and is engaging.
  • Organization: As a college professor, it is important that you can keep your research, your students’ submissions, and your notes organized. Some professors spend hours building their own databases of sensitive information so that they can effectively guide their students and their own personal research.

Job Outlook

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 15% growth in college professor jobs over the next seven years. This is far above the national average. This is due to more government subsidies and financial aid allowing more students to attend college.

Where these numbers can be deceiving is when universities choose to hire more adjunct faculty (part-time) and fewer full-time (tenured) college professors. Additionally, there are more qualified professors entering the market. As such, experts predict that it will become more difficult to achieve tenure than it was in times past.

Work Environment

College professors spend most of their time in their offices or their classrooms. As a professor, you may have to spend extended periods standing and speaking. Other times, you may be researching rigorously for days and weeks.

Work Schedule

As a college professor, your hours may be slightly odd. Class schedules rarely accommodate professors looking for a typical 9-to-5 job. You may have a couple of hours of class in the morning and then one in the late afternoon. You could have some days with ten hours of class time and office hours and two weekdays with none.

Adjunct professors typically work flexible schedules allowing them to either teach at multiple colleges in an area or teach while also working a job in the private sector (this is common for business professors).

How to Get the Job

Write an Academic CV: What is most important for college professors is their education, GPA, and published research. As such, you will want to make sure that your curriculum vitae (CV) accurately reflects these key ingredients. If you’ve used your experience on a practical level in the private sector, it is important to highlight that experience as well.

Get Recommendations: As you work with professors on your own path to a doctorate, it can be valuable to solicit recommendation letters from the tenured professors who instructed you. The world of higher education can be a small place, and a recommendation from a leader in your field can make all the difference.

Apply: Each university may have a different process for applying for open faculty positions. Many open positions can be found on online job boards like HigherEd Jobs, as well as on the institution’s careers website.

Comparing Similar Jobs

Jobs closely related to college professors are listed below, next to those jobs’ median income:

  • College Deans & Administrators: $94,340
  • Career, Technical, & Vocational Instructors: $56,750
  • School Principals (Elementary, Middle, and High School): $95,310