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How to Become a College Professor: Steps to Take from High School

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Ask a seasoned professional who the most formative people in their careers and lives were, and many will tell you — it was their college professor. 


Both educators and researchers, professors play a critical role in shaping the trajectories of students’ lives and contributing to a more informed world. If this sounds like the ideal career to you, you’re not alone: it’s a highly competitive profession.


So, if you dream of one day being a professor, how do you reach your goal? These steps will help you get there.


What Does a College Professor do?


The main responsibilities of a professor vary according to their particular title and role and their experience in the field. At their core, they design curricula, teach students, and perform research in their specialty at an academic institution. They are also expected to publish their research and work routinely.


You’ll often hear people differentiate between tenured and non-tenured professors. Tenured faculty have greater security in their jobs and cannot be terminated without good cause. Non-tenured faculty, a term that describes lecturers, visiting professors, adjunct instructors, and others, don’t have that security. In fact, in most cases, institutions will reconsider whether to keep them on every semester or academic year. This pool constitutes the majority of faculty positions.


Depending on their role, level, and employer, some professors’ jobs focus more on teaching than research and vice versa. For example, non-tenured faculty and those working at smaller colleges rather than large universities tend to have more teaching responsibilities, while experienced, tenured professors at large universities often have more research work.


How Much do College Professors Make?


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for postsecondary teachers is $80,790 per year. But it’s important to remember that salaries can vary widely according to your degree, whether you’re tenured or nontenured, your institution, and many other factors.


How to Become a College Professor


High school


There’s no specific work you need to do in high school in order to prepare to become a college professor. However, this is a good time to focus on honing your area of interest and gain teaching experience, as well as develop skills like communication and problem-solving. You might consider tutoring, for example, as an extracurricular activity.


High school is also a good time to learn important study habits. You’ll need to have a strong GPA as an undergraduate, so you should figure out how to keep your grades up now. 




Getting a bachelor’s degree is an essential step in becoming a professor. Search for a college that has a strong program in your area of interest and is a solid fit for you in other respects, such as location and student body. Your goal is to build a balanced list of schools, including safety, middle, and reaches. You can use our free chancing engine to help you figure out which schools you’re most likely to be admitted to.



While it’s not always necessary to major in the specific field you intend to focus on in your career, bear in mind that graduate programs will have certain course requirements, so it’s a good idea to determine your concentration as early as possible to ensure that you meet those requirements and graduate on time.


During college, in addition to studying hard and keeping your grades up, try to develop relationships with your professors. They will be the ones to provide you with recommendations when you apply to graduate school. In addition, they can offer you mentorship and guidance, as well as model the profession you hope to pursue. You can hone your relationships with professors by visiting them during office hours, asking questions, and otherwise engaging with them outside of class.


Graduate school


While a bachelor’s is enough for K-12 teachers, a graduate degree is necessary for working as a professor. Depending on where you want to teach and the role you’d like to pursue, you’ll need either a master’s or a doctorate. Community colleges often require a master’s, while larger universities and liberal arts colleges generally require a PhD. However, if your master’s is a terminal degree in that area, then you’ll usually be eligible for positions at universities and LACs.


While in graduate school, you’ll be expected to work on a thesis (master’s) or dissertation (PhD). Your advisor and other professors will play a critical role in helping you shape your work; so, as with your undergraduate career, you should also focus on developing strong relationships with them, as well as maintaining high grades.


Many graduate students also work as teaching assistants or graduate/research assistants — this is usually required of funded programs, in which you essentially perform this work instead of paying full tuition. These roles will also help you prepare for your career as a professor.


You should also start working on getting your research published. This will help you secure positions after you finish your graduate degree.


Post-Doctoral Work


Securing faculty positions is extremely competitive, especially for certain disciplines. Many professorial candidates find that they have to move to potentially undesirable locations to find work. 


Even if you have a PhD and are highly qualified, you’ll need to start off in an untenured position. After paying your dues, you may be eligible for a tenured position. Alternatively, you may pursue a postdoc position directly after finishing your degree. This will allow you to gain teaching and research experience, as well as network in your field and the academic world. 


Becoming a college professor is a long, challenging road, but for many, it’s well worth it. Bear in mind that over the course of your career, you’ll need to continue to hone your skills and publish your work widely, as well as network with other professionals in your field.

Short Bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Slackjaw, Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket, and Funny-ish. View her work and get in touch at: www.lauraberlinskyschine.com.