How to Become a Professor in 17 Steps

Ginger Abbot

Apr 8, 2022
how to become a professor

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Becoming a professor is a long journey, but great rewards await at the end for anyone determined enough to go through eight years of college to dedicate themselves to furthering their knowledge and the knowledge of their students. Knowing how to become a professor is the first step in your journey to your dream career.

Professors need nearly a decade of academic learning, and even after they graduate, they never stop learning and continuously conduct research alongside teaching their classes. Professors make around $67,000 per year on average, though that number typically varies from state to state and the discipline in which the professor teaches.

Preliminary Steps to Becoming a Professor

Your search for how to become a professor starts in high school or early college. You can become a professor later in life, too, but if you’ve decided early that it’s your dream career, prepare yourself to study hard and work toward it while you’re still young.

1. Decide Your Level

First, you should determine what level of education you want to teach in. Figuring out this aspect of your dream career can alter the path you take to get there. For example, many community colleges only require that their professors have a master’s degree. Still, having a doctorate will place you above the competition if you want to teach at that level.

Technical or trade schools may require only a lower level of education, too. Most universities will only hire folks with Doctorate degrees, though some are an exception, like creative writing professors having Master of Fine Arts degrees.

2. Find Your Passion

What subject could you prattle on about for hours on end? The topic you’re never going to get tired of is likely the field you should go into. If you’re unsure, do a little more soul-searching until you find what it is you’re passionate about. After all, you’ll be learning this material for years to come in preparation for becoming a professor — you should make sure you like what you’ll be learning!

Undergraduate Steps to Becoming a Professor

Once you’re in your undergraduate level of college, you should enjoy the undergraduate experience, keeping an eye on your grades while still making the most of what academia has to offer. Your education will only get more challenging and more specialized from here on out, so it’s essential to take time for yourself and explore different areas while maximizing your undergraduate life.

1. Maintain Good Grades

As with any level of education, no matter what career you’re going into, you should plan to study and get good grades. A higher GPA will likely find you greater success when applying to other schools.

You should strive to maintain a GPA of 3.5 or higher, which is the average GPA accepted by graduate schools. While you might get into graduate school with a lower GPA, you don’t want to bank your hopes on that in case it doesn’t happen.

2. Tutor Other Students

Look into your university’s tutoring program. See if you can volunteer to become a tutor for the discipline you’re interested in. Keep in mind that you’ll likely have to have an A or a high grade to help other students with the same classes.

3. Seek Guidance From Professors

Your professors are there to help you. They, too, became professors likely because they wanted to help students further their knowledge in a field. Even if the professor doesn’t teach in your desired discipline, learning from them and their path to get where they are can be valuable knowledge you can anticipate on your path to tenure.

4. Take the GRE

The GRE is similar to the SAT or ACT but for graduate school. While you can take the general GRE, you might find that some graduate schools of your choice require a specialized GRE. These kinds of GRE, called GRE Subject Tests, are what you might choose to take to get into a more competitive graduate program.

5. Apply to Grad School

In addition to good grades and a solid GRE score, you’ll likely need to submit other admissions materials, like letters of recommendation or essays. Keep an eye on due dates for your applications. Some graduate schools have rolling acceptance periods, but others might have hard deadlines that you’ll have to wait a year to access again.

Graduate Steps to Becoming a Professor

Congratulations! You’ve made it to graduate school. Depending on your desired path, getting a master’s degree might be your last step to becoming a professor. If you aim to teach at a university, more than likely, you’re going to have to go for a doctorate.

Whatever the case, know that you should have fun while keeping school first, as you have done so far.

1. Maintain Good Grades

Especially if you aim to go on to get your doctorate, you should keep your grades up. Since most, if not all, of these classes will be in the discipline you enjoy, you should have no issue being interested in them. Keep your grades up and graduate with honors, even if you have no plans to go beyond your master’s degree.

2. Teach as an Assistant Professor

Many graduate programs require their students to teach basic undergraduate classes. While you might find this job difficult to keep up with while pursuing your studies, you can think of it as a valuable classroom experience and aim to be the best professor you can be.

Remember that your students rely on you like you may have relied on graduate students back when you were a college freshman. Do your best to juggle your responsibilities as a student and a teacher.

3. Get Necessary Certifications

Specific fields, like medical fields, may require certifications outside the classroom. Even if a particular discipline doesn’t require a certificate, it can’t hurt your chances for a job later on by taking courses to receive certifications. Do your best to make yourself look like a competitive, professional candidate for any professor position.

4. Search for Teaching Jobs

If you have no plans to go past your master’s degree, you should look for teaching opportunities toward graduation. Having certifications can help you out here, as it explains that you furthered your knowledge on the subject while continuing your education.

5. Start Applying for Doctoral Programs

If you’re going for your Ph.D., you should apply early with all of your materials. Acceptance to a doctoral program is notoriously low, so you need to make sure you come off as competitive and strong as possible in your applications. If you gained other teaching experience or did work outside of your academic career, it would shine on your application.

6. Conduct Research

Once you’re in your doctoral program, you’re going to be doing more and more research for your eventual dissertation. Use this time to further your knowledge in your field and grow as an expert.

7. Write Your Dissertation

Writing and defending your dissertation makes or breaks a doctoral student. You’ll face plenty of adversity and stress, but in the end, it’ll better prepare you to become a leading expert in your field. Take things slowly, day by day, and keep your end goal in sight.

How to Become a Professor After School

Your journey of becoming a professor doesn’t end yet. Even after you graduate, you’ll find that not every job is easily attainable. You may have to include more real-world experience on your resume, in which case you may have to push yourself to work a bit harder before enjoying the rewarding experience of being a professor.

1. Practical Experience

If you can’t find a job at your desired educational level immediately, consider teaching at a lower level to gain more practical experience as you search for jobs aligning closer with your dream career. Don’t think of it as a setback — consider it an opportunity to gain more practical teaching knowledge.

2. Get Published

If you didn’t try to publish your dissertation and all your research after you successfully defended it, you might consider trying to publish it. Additionally, if you conduct other research and report your findings, you could also attempt to publish that research. Getting published is a way to get your name out there as an authoritative figure on a given subject, and it might increase your odds of finding a job you desire.

Enjoy the Journey, Not Just the Destination

The path to becoming a professor isn’t easy, but you will find that its challenges help you become a better student and a better professor for your future students. Knowing how to become a professor can keep you motivated and determined, no matter how rough the road gets. Hang in there and keep climbing the academic ladder, and eventually you’ll get to where you want to be.

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