What’s the Best Degree Path for Becoming a College Professor?

What’s the Best Degree Path for Becoming a College Professor?

If your interest in the world of academia extends beyond earning a teaching degree and working in a middle or high school, then you may be interested in learning how to become a college professor. A college professor is among the top 10 highest paying careers in education. Full-time college professors earn annual salaries in the range of $41,600 to $83,960, depending on their place of employment, the field of expertise and location. In addition to the salary, successful college professors enjoy engaging in educational pursuits themselves – which is fortunate, because they need a graduate or doctorate level degree in their field.

Choosing a Program of Study

Unlike elementary, middle and high school teachers, college professors don’t need a degree in education specifically to teach. Instead, they must have advanced degrees in the subjects they teach, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you aspire to be a college professor in the field of science, for example, you will need to complete advanced studies in a field like biology or physics. An aspiring history teacher would need to earn a similarly advanced degree but in history. In other words, if you want to become a college professor, choose a field of study that you won’t only enjoy teaching but will also enjoy studying. As a student, you will have to dedicate several years to that field of study.

Earning an Advanced Degree

To teach at an institution of higher learning, you will need an advanced education beyond just a bachelor’s degree. Some schools and positions require professors to hold doctoral degrees. Ph.D.’s, or Doctor of Philosophy degrees, are the most common, but there are also several other research-based and professional doctoral degrees for a graduate of specific fields. Other schools require only that professors hold a master’s degree in the subject they teach or a closely related subject.

It can be difficult to decide whether to go for your doctoral degree or stop at your master’s degree. Candidates with a master’s degree only can usually teach at community colleges and part-time or even full-time positions at four-year colleges and universities. Relevant professional experience, either teaching at the college level or working within the field of expertise, can also help a candidate increase his or her opportunities for work as a college professor. One factor in deciding which level of degree you need is the subject you intend to teach. Some academic disciplines may call for instructors to have a higher level of education than others.

Special Considerations: Terminal Degrees

This discussion would only be partially complete if there was no mention of professors who hold terminal degrees, as well as those professors who are called teaching professionals or professors of practice. While the degree path toward professorship is similar for the person who holds a terminal degree, it may not necessarily be for the teaching professional professor. Before moving on to a broader discussion, both of those terms will be explained.

A terminal degree is the highest degree that a person can obtain in his or her field. Ph.Ds have already been mentioned. However, there are also other degrees, like the Master of Fine Arts. This is considered a terminal degree. However, it is not a doctorate. In this case, the master’s degree is enough to secure a job at a university.

Similarly, the MArch is a terminal degree in architecture, though not the only one. It is possible to get a doctorate in the subject as well. For those who study library sciences, it is possible to receive a Ph.D. However, the MLA, or Master of Library Science, is enough.

In law, the terminal degree is the Juris Doctor or the Doctor of Jurisprudence. It, like the MD for the medical doctor, is unusual in that the person seeking this degree goes from a bachelor’s degree program to a doctorate-level program. There is no need for a master’s program between the bachelor- and doctoral-levels as there would be for those who pursue the Ph.D. path.

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. -Albert Einstein

Special Considerations: Professors of Practice

As for the professor of practice or teaching professional, the University of California Santa Barbara defines this position as someone who is a distinguished professional in his or her fields. They are practicing professionals in their domain. Their professional experience shows how the academic theories of their field play out in practice.

This professor may have taken the traditional academic track to reach their professional goals. That is to say, this person may have completed a bachelor’s, then a master’s and then finally a doctorate.

However, most do not have traditional academic backgrounds. Their vast professional experience qualifies them for the position they teach. One good example would be a professional artist-turned-college instructor. Presumably, this person has developed a body of work and has had that work shown in many exhibitions. Art collectors regularly buy his or her work.

This professional may be asked to teach art techniques to students. However, he or she may also be asked to teach a class on becoming a professional artist. In this respect, the professor provides students with the technical knowledge necessary to improve their artwork. He or she also teaches students how to develop professional promotional materials, like a portfolio, an artist’s website and other important tools. Students come away from these classes with the tools necessary to advance their art careers and to help them promote and sell their artwork.

The professor with a terminal degree, like an MFA, and the teaching professional or professor of practice demonstrate that not all professors follow the same degree path. How these professionals become college professionals is different than how others might achieve the same end goal.

Additionally, some people who ultimately wind up teaching at the university level have Ph.Ds, but they don’t necessarily go into teaching right away after their academic career concludes. Museum curators are good examples of this. These professionals often have doctorates in subjects, like art history.

They parlay their advanced degrees into high-level positions outside of academia. However, if the time ever comes for them to change careers and move into academia, they’ll have the necessary degrees and experience to do so.

In light of that, prospective professors need to investigate all the possible degrees and even career paths that will lead them closer to their professional teaching goals. Prospective professors should also be aware of the fact that some terminal degrees, like the JD or the MD, really are geared toward professional practice. Many, if not most, of the people who hold them plan on working professionally in a career outside of academia.

What’s the Best Degree Path for Becoming a College Professor?

Gaining Teaching Experience

A big part of the professor’s job is teaching. As has already been mentioned, the person who becomes a professor may not have a degree in teaching, which means that he or she will need to get experience in another way. Typically, would-be professors do this by teaching lower-level college classes while they’re pursuing their master’s and doctoral degrees.

For example, someone who is in an Master’s of Fine Arts program for creative writing may teach English 101 and 102. These writing-oriented classes give the graduate student a chance to refine his or her teaching skills. They also allow the instructor to delve more deeply into his or her chosen subject: Many find that teaching others solidifies the knowledge they hold of a subject as well.

Additionally, these graduate-level teaching positions usually come with a stipend. They also cover the cost of the graduate student’s tuition. For many people, this is an excellent way to not only gain teaching experience but also to get paid while doing it.

The experience gained by teaching these classes is a legitimate teaching experience, which the prospective professor can put on his or her curriculum vitae. The curriculum vitae is like a resume. However, the curriculum vitae is longer and more steadfast. It doesn’t change to fit the job as a resume would. It is common in the academic world.

Highest-Paying Professor Jobs

True enough, becoming a professor allows people to delve more deeply into a subject they’re passionate about. However, it would be a mistake not to mention the highest- and lowest-paying professor jobs. Would-be professors can use this knowledge to help them decide between one or two subjects they feel equally passionate about.

For example, suppose the prospective professor loves the subject of law and the subject of journalism equally. Knowing that law professors are the highest-paid professors may make a difference in that person’s career choice. At a salary of $134,261 per year, law school professors do, indeed, make the most money, according to Business Insider.

Engineering professors are second on the list and make $114,365 per year, while business, computer and information science, and cultural studies professors round out the top five at $111,621, $101,985 and $97,637, respectively. Professors who teach architecture and related subjects earn $97,505. Health professions professors earn $95,437. Natural resources professors earn $93,375, while agriculture professors and biological sciences professors finish out the top 10 at $92,716 and $92,505, respectively.

All of this said, pursuing a life in academia isn’t all about money. It’s about fulfilling a passion, too, and fortunately, even the lowest-paid professors, like theology and religious professors, still make a more than decent income at $74,267 per year.

Other professor positions on this list include psychology professors ($84,509), language and literature professors ($80,545), visual and performing arts professors ($79,768) and history professors ($82,202). Again, professors who choose lower-paying subjects still make an excellent income, so those who want to pursue these career paths can do so knowing they’ll still make a comfortable living.

Career Options

Part of learning how to become a college professor is learning about the different career options that are available to these professionals. The reason being is that while aspects of the different career paths share commonalities, there are also some differences. These differences will make a difference in the would-be professor’s career decisions.

Many on this path want to end up at research universities getting paid to research in their chosen field. While they do teach a class or two occasionally, research represents the lion’s share of their work. These professors often work at four-year universities instead of community colleges. They also hold the most advanced degrees, often Ph.Ds, though they could have J.D.s or M.D.s if they teach law or medicine, respectively.

Other professors like the community college vibe, and while some in academia may think of community college work as a stepping stone in the progression to a job at a four-year university, it doesn’t have to be, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. People who prefer teaching to research may find an excellent academic home at a community college. At these institutions, professors have the opportunity to teach first- and second-year students, to shape their college experience and to share a subject they’re passionate about with others.

It’s also important to note that nearly half of undergraduate students in the United States enroll in two-year community colleges. Certainly, from a student perspective, there is more than enough demand for these teaching professionals.

It’s additionally important to note that professors at four-year universities do teach and professors at two-year colleges do conduct research. It’s just the amount of time that each of these teaching professionals devotes to those activities varies, depending on where they are.

Final Thoughts on How to Become a College Professor

Earning an advanced degree, either at the master’s or the doctoral level, is a significant investment of the student’s time and money. However, these additional studies are worthwhile for individuals who are passionate about both their chosen academic discipline and the important work of educating others. By studying your degree program of interest at the graduate or doctorate level, you are learning how to become a college professor and preparing yourself for a very rewarding career, indeed.

Related Resources:

The Top 10 Highest Paying Careers in Education

30 Great Small Colleges For A Teaching Degree

5 High-Paying Careers in the Education Field

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