Professor Career Information, Duties and Employment Outlook

Oct 20, 2021

In addition to teaching courses in their studied subject, professors often participate in researching and publishing scholarly material. The amount of education required to become a professor varies both by the school one works for and the subject one teaches, but typically a Master's degree is the minimum. Job prospects look best for professors willing to take part-time positions.

Essential Information

Professors teach undergraduate or graduate students in community and 4-year colleges and universities. Most full-time professors at 4-year colleges and universities hold doctoral degrees. Part-time professors may have master's degrees and work on their doctorate while teaching undergraduate courses. Arts professors typically hold a Master of Fine Arts (MFA), which is the terminal degree for artistic fields such as painting or creative writing.

Required Education Ph.D., though some fields only require a master's degree; some 2-year schools may only require a master's degree as well
Other Requirements Expertise in a particular field
Projected Job Growth (2019-2029) 9% for all professors*
Median Salary (2020) $80,790 for all professors*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Job Duties

Full-time faculty members at 4-year colleges and universities normally teach about 3-4 different courses per semester, serve on academic committees and advise students. In research-oriented institutions, they are required to engage in independent, original scholarship.

The traditional mode for hiring professors is based on a tenure system. Newly minted Ph.D.s start their professional careers with the understanding that their work will be carefully scrutinized at the end of a specified time period. They are then reviewed by a committee. If the committee grants tenure, they are given a much higher level of job security and, in some cases, a lighter teaching load. The tenure system is meant to encourage academic freedom and original research, in part by shielding professors from unfair or arbitrary dismissal.

Each semester, a full-time professor may teach only one course closely related to his or her special interests. Other courses may be lower-division and more general. Professors may teach small groups or lecture in large halls. Each course requires devising a syllabus, presenting material in class, responding to students as a class and as individuals, grading exams and papers and evaluating student performance. At the same time, professors must keep current in their fields by reading new publications, attending and presenting papers at conferences and publishing their work.

Employment Outlook

As noted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job opportunities for postsecondary instructors were expected to grow at a faster-than-average rate of 9% from 2019 through 2029. The best job prospects were projected for those with Ph.D.s who were willing to work part-time or on short-term contracts. Earnings for college professors vary widely, depending on their specialty, but as of May 2020, the median annual earnings of all types of postsecondary teachers were $80,790, according to the BLS.

Some college teachers are only employed part-time. Often called adjunct professors, these educators may have other jobs in fields related to their subjects; for example, an adjunct might be employed in computer science in addition to teaching it.

However, many adjunct professors make a living teaching multiple courses at several different universities. Some part-time professors provide instruction in alternative and career-preparation schools and often teach at night or on weekends while they hold down other jobs.

In 2019, the BLS noted that the number of tenured positions available was in decline because colleges and universities were hiring more non-tenured, part-time professors. There is also a trend toward hiring short-term contract instructors who will not be tenured.

Becoming a professor requires completing an extensive amount of education. However, employment options look promising, especially for candidates willing to become adjunct professors and work at multiple schools or hold another part-time position in their field.

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