To the outsider, being a college or university professor seems like a great career. You get to work everyday in a field or subject you’re passionate about, conducting research and educating the minds of tomorrow. Here’s a guide on entering the profession, and how to get the title Professor.

Professor salaries

According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)’s annual salary report, average salaries for professors in 2017-2018 were as follows:

  • Full, tenured professors: $104,820
  • Associate professors: $81,274
  • Assistant professors: $70,791
  • Lecturers: $56,712
  • Instructors: $59,400.

But with the number of qualified applicants far outweighing the number of job openings, would-be professors need to plan accordingly if they hope to obtain that title. Here’s what you need if you want to get the title of professor.

How to get the title Professor: With a PhD

In order to become a professor, you will need to obtain a PhD in your field of specialization first. And in order to get a PhD, you need a Master’s and undergraduate degree. There are some exceptions: creative writing, dramatic writing and some fine arts programs will allow you to teach with an Master of Fine Arts, but the majority of four-year post-secondary teaching institutions require a PhD.

On average, doctoral degree programs can take anywhere from five to eight years to complete. Sometimes, universities will bundle a Master’s degree with the PhD.

Options to teach at the community college level do exist for those without doctoral degrees—but because competition is so fierce, it’s much more likely that you’ll succeed in that space if you have that PhD.

Teaching experience

As a professor, one of your main responsibilities will be educating students. While a degree in pedagogy or teaching is not a requirement, teaching experience is. And the more you have of it, the better.

Many would-be professors start accumulating this experience while they are still students, working on their PhDs or Master’s. Students in these programs are often required to work as teaching assistants (TAs), where they instruct or assist with teaching undergraduate and/or graduate classes. There is a difference, though, in the type of work done at the undergraduate and graduate level. Those working with undergraduate classes will often find themselves holding office hours or grading papers and examinations to support a senior professor. Those working with graduate-level students will usually have more of a chance to teach, gaining practical teaching experience.

For those unable to secure a position as a teaching assistant, all is not lost. Any type of experience in which you are leading and instructing a group of students is useful. You could organize and run group tutoring sessions, for example, as a way to start accumulating your teaching knowledge, then try to parlay that into a TA job the following semester.

Most, if not all, applications to be a professor have a teaching statement component. It’s essentially a reflective essay on one’s philosophy and approach to teaching, often supported by insights gleaned from real-life classrooms. It’s important to get practical teaching experience well in advance of applying for jobs because of the need for a teaching statement.

How to get the title Professor: By publishing

If you’ve been involved in academia, you’ve likely heard the popular term ‘publish or perish.’ It couldn’t be more appropriate for those seeking a career as a professor.

Having a number of academic papers published will help you stand out from the crowd. Being published is particularly important if you are hoping to secure a tenure-track position. A research article published on The Conversation attempted to predict an academic’s likelihood of publishing success. Although their study focused only on biologists and environmental scientists, it’s worth noting what they found:

“By far the best predictor of long-term publication success is your early publication record–in other words, the number of papers you’ve published by the time you receive your PhD. It really is first in, best dressed: those students who start publishing sooner usually have more papers by the time they finish their PhD than do those who start publishing later.”

The message is clear. Getting the title of professor requires publishing early, and as often as possible.

A note on adjunct professors

Adjunct professors usually use the title ‘professor’ as a courtesy title, but have none of the benefits, networking opportunities or long-term career security of a tenure-track professor. Many teach at short notice on part-time contract; many more teach at more than one institution, looking to supplement their income from their other careers.

More than half of faculty are part-time, according to the AAUP. Moving from a part-time, adjunct position to a salaried tenure-track role is extremely rare, although not unheard of.


While getting a job as a tenure-track professor isn’t impossible, the lack of available positions for the number of new graduates means you will have your work cut out for you. It takes some people several years to secure a role.

The best advice for how to get the title Professor, in the end, is preparation, planning and persistence.

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