Looking to Become Faculty? What Doctoral Students & Postdocs Should Know

May 18, 2023 Watermark Insights

Looking to Become Faculty? What Doctoral Students & Postdocs Should Know

Choosing to become a faculty member is a significant life decision. For some people, becoming a professor at a higher education institution has always been their dream. Others gain interest when they are about to complete their doctoral studies. Regardless of your situation, it helps to know what it takes.

In this comprehensive guide, you’ll learn about the many responsibilities professors have. You'll also learn about the different types of professors, what to consider when making a decision about whether to pursue this path, and the basic requirements for becoming a professor. 

What Is a Professor?

A professor is a scholar and a teacher in a higher education institution with an academic appointment. Professors are responsible for researching and educating students in their respective areas of study. Typically, they deliver lectures, lead seminars, and supervise students’ research projects. There may also be administrative responsibilities, such as student guidance and support, committee work, communal support, and other professional and academic contributions.

Professors are experts in their fields of practice and usually have their doctorates or terminal degrees, along with track records of academic and professional publications and achievements. This allows them to contribute a wealth of knowledge to the academic and professional community. The responsibilities of being a professor are challenging and rewarding, making the role attractive to many. 

What Is a Professor?

What Do Professors Do?

Professors have many responsibilities, some of which are assigned depending on the institutions involved and the particular skills of the professors. Some typical roles include: 

  • Giving lectures: A primary role of professors is preparing for and attending classes — usually a mix of general education courses and seminars. You'll spend time gathering and revising information to share with students in the classroom, whether physical or virtual. The role also allows you to respond to students' questions, address concerns, and gain new insights into topics. 
  • Conducting research: Learning never stops, especially for professors. You'll likely engage in research, write papers, and collaborate with colleagues. This may require you to embark on literature reviews, data collection and analysis, publishing, and grant writing. 
  • Assisting students: Professors advise students in course selection and academic progress. They also offer professional development guidance and help students to plan their careers. 
  • Supervising student research: Professors help students formulate research topics, decide on the methodology, and guide them throughout various stages of the research. The role also requires you to provide feedback to enhance the project and help students stay within deadlines. 
  • Grading assignments: As a professor, you evaluate student work and provide feedback to help them progress in their studies.
  • Attending meetings and seminars: Generally, professors attend faculty, departmental, and committee meetings. These serve to improve the institution by enhancing teaching and learning, and building a collaborative culture. Professors also attend workshops, conferences, and seminars to stay up to date with the developments in the field.

The Difference Between Adjunct and Tenured Professors

Knowing the difference between adjunct and tenured professors is essential if you are on the journey of becoming faculty. Let’s break this down:

Adjunct Professors

Adjunct professors or instructors work for higher education institutions on a contractual basis, so they are often called non-tenure-track positions. They work on short-term contracts, may have little job security outside those agreements, and may also receive less pay than tenured professors — however, adjuncting offers great flexibility, especially for those who want to continue to progress in their career outside academia.

Tenured Professors

A tenured professor holds a full-time position with high job security at a higher education institution. Tenure helps professors avoid political interferences or biased, industry-influenced research. Their appointment allows them to perform their functions independently with a degree of academic freedom. 

Tenured professors enter the academic job market after attaining the highest degree in their field — generally a doctorate. The process of getting tenure will generally include the following roles:

  • Assistant professor: Assistant professors are instructors without tenure who will transition to a permanent professorship position after a probationary period called the tenure track. This allows them to teach while working toward the requirements for tenure and promotion. Depending on the institution, the tenure tracker will go through a review process that includes the assessment of their publication record, administrative tasks, teaching portfolio, awards, and grants. 
  • Associate professor: After receiving tenure, a professor may perform in a mid-career position and serve on faculty committees for some time. This lets them contribute and decide on issues about tenure and promotion within the faculties.
  • Full professor: These are academic professionals with full promotion after serving as associate professors. In most faculties, full professors have several publications, including books and scholarly articles. They hold senior and tenured positions. 

Other Types of Professors

There are other types of professors, including:

  • Visiting professors: These may be tenured professors who temporarily replace another faculty member to cover specified teaching tasks or a professor from another higher education institution invited to serve as a faculty member for a limited period, like an academic year. 
  • Research professors: These are hired primarily for their research expertise to contribute to independent research without any teaching obligations. They are often paid by external funding sources.

What Is It Like to Be a Professor?

There are different professor career experiences depending on the institution. However, many professors would agree that it is an intensive, demanding, and rewarding career choice. The profession best suits self-motivating individuals ready to explore challenges in the field. Amidst all these attributes, having a passion and natural inclination to teaching and learning is vital.

Professors spend several hours researching and preparing class materials, and they remain dedicated outside the classroom, where they may engage with the larger academic community and interact with colleagues and students. The life of a professor may be summarized as interactive, impactful, intellectually stimulating, and dynamic, with a supportive environment that facilitates success. 

What Is It Like to Be a Professor?

How Hard Is It to Become a Professor?

Becoming a professor is challenging but achievable and worthwhile. Surviving in this competitive space requires years of hard work and sacrifice. The following tips should guide you through the journey:

  • Gather information: It’s easier to navigate the corridor of a professorship career with knowledge about how things work. Identify people within and outside your institution with positions of interest. Such people may have the experience to guide you in making the right decisions.
  • Get involved: Postdoc transitions you into your independent career, so it’s time to assume more responsibility for your education and training. This is the time to read more literature and attend seminars. Getting involved in these activities helps you get new ideas to write proposals when applying for faculty positions.
  • Educate yourself: Besides purely academic and research knowledge, preparing yourself for the professional world is essential. Some higher education institutions have teaching and learning centers that offer workshops, formal talks, and libraries of books, journals, and videos. These resources help you learn the skills of an excellent teacher.
  • Learn how to write papers and do presentations: Take the lead in writing papers and critique others where necessary. Also, leverage every opportunity to practice general communication and presentation skills. This would help you build the confidence to contribute more and receive recognition. 
  • Learn how to train people: Professorship is a selfless exercise. It involves a lot of collaboration and team efforts to execute projects. Training in undergraduate research programs and mentoring are effective ways to build this quality.
  • Learn to network: Besides helping you get a job, networking positions you for a successful career. Meet with speakers at seminars and attend local and national meetings. Ask your principal investigator (PI) if they know of speaking opportunities, or ask a colleague to co-present at a forum. 
  • Position yourself to get good references: You’ll need excellent recommendation letters throughout your career. Network with collaborators and take the opportunity to discuss your research with other faculties. The more positive recognition you get, the easier it will be for you to get the references you need. 
  • Persevere and grow: Becoming a professor requires a formidable mindset to keep going and growing. This is easier when you are interested in and passionate about the field. It helps to set clear and realistic long- and short-term goals and review them whenever necessary.

What You Should Consider When Making a Decision

What Are the Basic Requirements for Becoming a Professor?

Here are four things to consider when breaking into academia:

1. Type of Institution

There are various factors to consider when selecting a higher education institution, including the following:

  • Private or public institutions
  • Residential or commuter institutions
  • Rural or city location
  • Size of institution
  • Four-year versus two-year or community college
  • Teaching institutions or teaching-oriented

These factors are relevant when choosing faculty positions because that’s where you may be working for several years. You want to serve at an institution where you’re satisfied and motivated to achieve your goals. This means you should research which institution is the best fit for you. This is vital for longevity and understanding job stratification. 

2. Your Expectations

Knowing your expectations is as important as deciding the institution you want to work in. It helps to consider the minimum educational requirements for the job — certifications, degrees, and licensure. Having a terminal degree may be insufficient in some institutions, while others hire doctoral candidates as long as their degrees are conferred by a specific date. Some institutions may also require that you have a degree at the time of application, so it helps to pay close attention to such details.

Other essential factors to consider are the years and the kinds of experience needed for the position. Remember that there may be ways to substitute some academic experience and credentials for work experience. Be clear about the role you want in the faculty and what they are willing to offer. For example, depending on your education, experience, and credentials, some faculty positions may require you to start as an instructor, while others may offer assistant or associate professor roles. This is important for determining your salary and how quickly you rise. 

Finally, consider whether you want to be tenured as part of your expectations. Some institutions may not offer tenure, while others may provide tenure-track positions. In certain instances, institutions may require you to compete for a tenure-track position after you're hired and subject to its availability. 

3. The Salary

For professors in higher education institutions, salary depends on the institution and what type of professor you want to become. Research by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) provides the following average salaries, which you can use as a guide:

  • Lecturer — $66,669
  • Instructor — $62,926
  • Assistant professors — $83,362
  • Associate professors — $95,828
  • Full professors — $140,543

4. The Employment Rate for Professors

Besides knowing the salary range, understanding the employment rate for professors guides you in the decision-making process. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), postsecondary teacher positions will grow at a rate of 12% between 2021 to 2031. However, most of this employment growth will be for part-time and adjunct positions, comprising around 50% of positions for four-year institutions and 65% of positions at two-year colleges. 

What Are the Basic Requirements for Becoming a Professor?

The requirements for becoming a faculty member differ among institutions but generally involve the following:

1. Doctorate

Higher education institutions typically require a doctoral degree in the field before considering you for a faculty position. However, some institutions may permit you to teach with your master’s degree. Since the professorship positions are competitive, securing a doctorate better prepares you for the job. This is especially true when you’re applying for tenure-track jobs.

2. Professional Certification

The institution may require professional certifications, licenses, or registration, depending on the field you want to enter. This is common in technical or vocational areas such as health, law, education, and accounting.

3. Teaching Experience

In addition to your degrees and certifications, higher education institutions may require years of work experience before offering you a position. Most professors gain experience as graduate students when they lead and assist with undergraduate classes. 

Some institutions also allow graduate students to secure part-time teaching jobs to help them gain experience. Your experience as a teaching assistant, where you assist professors in preparing lecture materials, grading papers, evaluating assignments, and acting as graduate instructors, may also qualify as teaching experience.

Securing a position as an adjunct professor to gain experience and climbing your way up from there is another effective strategy. Besides, some institutions offering full-time jobs often start with adjuncts. 

4. Publications

Having publications is integral to landing a job as a professor — quality and quantity matter. Having substantial and prominent academic research under your belt increases your chances, especially for tenure-track positions. Graduate students may showcase their dissertation work to hiring committees, but engaging in more research is best. 

Additional Tips

It helps to be tactical in the application process, but how? 

  1. Recognize the importance of timing: Keep in mind that higher education institutions post job openings in the fall. So, as a doctoral candidate yet to complete your dissertation, you may apply beforehand — it’s better to try than wait. 
  2. Collect the necessary documents: It helps to gather documents such as cover letters, resumes, and letters of recommendation, especially for tenure-track roles. 
  3. Prepare for the interview process: Learn about the interview process and practice. When the faculty offers a position, you may negotiate your salary, course releases, research budget, and other benefits.

Watermark: Assess and Showcase Holistic Learning

Becoming faculty is simpler when you understand the job demands and how to increase your chances in the competitive space. Having a place where doctoral and postdoc students can log their time for field experiences, organize artifacts, and showcase their academic success can help the faculty they work for get a robust view of that student's achievements. With all of their accomplishments and educational experience located in one portfolio, the doctoral or postdoc student can more easily demonstrate their eligibility for becoming faculty. 

Request a demo of Student Learning & Licensure to see how you can gain 360° insights into student learning.

Watermark: Assess and Showcase Holistic Learning

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