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

An image of a professor and student for our FAQ on 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 becoming a college professor. A college professor is among the top 10 highest-paying careers in education. The average annual salary for a college professor is over $80,000, depending on their:

  • place of employment
  • field of expertise
  • geographic location

But in addition to salary benefits, successful college professors enjoy engaging in research and lifelong learning. This unique occupation requires a graduate or doctoral level degree.

What Degree Does a Professor Need?

Unlike elementary, middle, and high school teachers, college professors don’t need a specific degree in education to teach. Instead, they must have advanced degrees in the subjects that they will teach.

If you want to be a college professor in the field of science, for example, you will need to complete advanced studies in a specific discipline, such as:

  • biology
  • chemistry
  • physics

An aspiring history teacher would need to earn a similarly advanced degree in history. In other words, if you want to become a college professor, choose a field of study you’ll enjoy teaching and studying. As a student, you must dedicate several years of your academic life to that field of study.

Advanced Education for Professors

To teach at an institution of higher learning, you need an advanced education. Some schools and positions require professors to hold doctoral degrees. A Ph.D., or Doctor of Philosophy, is the most common, but there are also several other research-based and professional doctoral degrees for a graduate of specific fields. While rare, some institutions require only that professors hold a master’s degree in the subject they teach or a closely related subject. However, this is more common in arts disciplines, where candidates may hold MFA or Master of Fine Arts degrees.

It can be difficult to decide whether to pursue your doctoral degree or stop at your master’s degree. Persons with a master’s degree usually teach at community colleges and part-time, or even full-time, positions at four-year colleges and universities.

It helps to have relevant professional experience, either teaching at the college level or working in your field of expertise. This may increase your 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 do.

Special Considerations: Terminal Degrees

  • MArch
  • MFA
  • MLA
  • JD
  • MD

This discussion would be only partially complete if there was no mention of professors who hold terminal degrees, as well as those 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, let’s explain these terms.

A terminal degree is the highest degree that you can obtain in your 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, but it’s  not a doctorate. In this case, the master’s degree is enough to secure a job at a university.

The MArch is a terminal degree in architecture, though it is not the only one. It’s possible to get a doctorate in the subject as well. For those who study library sciences, it is also possible to receive a doctorate. 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 you directly from a bachelor’s degree program to a doctoral-level program. There is no need for a master’s program between the bachelor’s and doctoral levels, as there would be for those who pursue the Ph.D. path.

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 finally a doctorate.

However, most professors of practice 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 who became a 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
  • other important tools

Students come away from these classes with the tools to advance their art careers and the knowledge needed to promote and sell their artwork.

The professor with a terminal degree and the teaching professional or professor of practice show that not all professors follow the same degree path. How these professionals become college professors is different from 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 career paths that will lead them closer to their professional teaching goals. You should also be aware 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.

An image of a professor and students for our FAQ on What’s the Best Degree Path for Becoming a College Professor

Beyond the Professor Degree: Teaching Experience

A big part of the professor’s job is teaching. As we’ve mentioned, if you become a professor you may not have a degree in teaching. This means you will need to get experience in another way. Typically, you would do this by teaching lower-level college classes while you’re pursuing your master’s and doctoral degrees.

For example, if you’re in an MFA program for creative writing, you may teach English 101 and 102. These writing-oriented classes give you a chance to refine your teaching skills. It also allow you to delve more deeply into your chosen subject. Many find that teaching others solidifies their own knowledge of a subject as well.

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 gain teaching experience and get paid while doing it.

The experience gained by teaching these classes is a legitimate teaching experience, which you, as the prospective professor, can put in your curriculum vitae. The curriculum vitae is like a resume. However, the curriculum vitae is longer and differs in a few other ways. It changes over time and is the most common in the academic world.

Highest-Paying Professor Jobs

Becoming a professor allows you to delve more deeply into a subject you’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 a few subjects that they feel equally passionate about.

For example, suppose you love the subject of law and the subject of journalism equally. Knowing that law professors are the highest-paid professors may make a difference in your 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. 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. 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.  Fortunately, even the lowest-paid professors, like theology and religious professors, still make a good income of $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)
  • history professors ($82,202)

Again, professors who choose lower-paying subjects still make an excellent income. Those who want to pursue these career paths can do so knowing they’ll still make a comfortable living.

An image of a professor for our FAQ on What’s the Best Degree Path for Becoming a College Professor

Career Options

Part of learning how to become a college professor is learning about the different career options available to these professionals. While aspects of the different career paths share commonalities, there are also some differences. These differences will have an impact on your 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. 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. They help shape their college experience and 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 important to note that professors at four-year universities do teach and professors at two-year colleges do conduct research. It’s just that 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 your time and money. However, it’s worth it if you’re passionate about both your chosen academic discipline and  educating students.

By studying your degree program of interest at the graduate or doctoral level, you are learning how to become a college professor and preparing yourself for an extremely rewarding career.

BDP Staff
December 2021

Related resources:

This concludes our article on what’s the best degree path for becoming a college professor.

Brenda Rufener

Julie McCaulley

Carrie Sealey-Morris