How to Become a University or College Professor


Becoming a university or college professor takes an immense amount of dedication to your chosen field of academics, as this competitive and lucrative field is reserved for those who can demonstrate academic achievement at all levels.


But there’s more to it than that. You’ll need to build a reputation among your peers and the academic community at large, which can be accomplished by gaining relevant lecturing experience and publishing influential works. 


If it sounds like this might take a lot of hard work and you don’t know where to begin, we can at least help you with one of those things.


Yes, it will take a lot of dedicated and focused work, but as far as the steps to take to get into the field, we’ve at least got you covered theres. Below, we've outlined the eight simple steps that will guide you on your journey into this profession.


We've also included some general yet helpful information for this occupation, such as job description, job duties, salary expectations, educational requirements, career advancement information and much more.



Education You'll Need

Universities typically require their professors to have doctoral degrees in their field, which generally takes students 6 years of full time study after the completion of a bachelor’s degree program.


Some universities, or university faculties may make exceptions to this, as they may hire those who have a master’s degree or hire doctoral degree candidates. This is more common among associate and assistant level professors.


Professors who teach in professional faculties, such as law, may not be required to have a doctoral level education. Instead, schools may seek professors who have experience or certification in the field they wish to teach.


Those hoping to enter this profession must be able to demonstrate academic excellence at every level of study; high school, undergraduate, graduate and doctoral. Some universities also require prospective professors to have made significant contributions to their field if they are to be considered for employment.





Getting Relevant Work Experience as a Student

An effective way to gain relevant career experience is by working as a teaching assistant while you're a student. Typically, students working as graduate teaching assistants do so in the school in which they are enrolled.


Gaining relevant career experience is crucial as academic positions are highly competitive, and many universities prefer to hire candidates whom have teaching experience.


Success Tip: Speak to your current and past professors about your career ambitions. Who can better to tell you about becoming a professor than those whom have taught you? 



Skills You'll Need to Be Successful

To be effective as a professor and perform your job duties with competence, you'll need to posses a certain set of skills. These skills are typically acquired as a result of years of study in a chosen field of study, as well as work experience as a student teaching assistant.


• High level of knowledge in area of instruction and/or research

• Excellent verbal communication skills, both for lecturing and communicating with colleagues

• Excellent writing skills, for publishing research and analysis

• Excellent organizational and time management skills

• An aptitude for research

• Able to effectively evaluate student progress



Characteristics of Great Professors

In order to enjoy your work, and to be good at it you need to have certain personal traits. Taking enjoyment from your job duties is important, as it helps you maintain a positive attitude towards your work, which usually leads to having a long and successful career.


• High level of enthusiasm for chosen academic field

• Enjoy motivating and inspiring students

• Enjoy sharing information with others

• Enough self-confidence to present information in front of large groups of students

• A commitment to continuous professional development

• Enjoy compiling information and preparing lecture materials

• Enjoy challenging existing theories or beliefs





Putting it all Together: Steps to Take

Here are the essential steps you’ll need to take to become a university professor:



Step 1 - Make sure you're well suited: Determine if you have the right personal characteristics. This will be an ongoing process throughout your career as a student. 


Step 2 - Get a bachelor’s degree: Earn a bachelor’s degree in your chosen field, and excel at your coursework.


Step 3 - Get a master’s degree: Find the program that’s best suited for your area of interest, and apply. Again, excel at this.


Step 4 - Get a doctorate in your field: Find your niche in your chosen field and pursue a doctorate in that niche.


Step 5 - Get published: During your master’s and doctoral studies, establish a publication record. This will help you ‘make a name for yourself’. 


Step 6 - Get work experience as a student: During all levels of study, participate in any available internships or employment opportunities that build your teaching and research experience and aid in advancing your career. This often means holding a graduate assistantship. 


Step 7 - Maintain good relationships: Establishing and maintaining academic and working relationships with professors can lead to potential job opportunities.


Step 8 - Get employed: This may involve moving to a different province/state, or even country. If you’ve followed steps 1-7, this shouldn't be difficult.





Details of the Career: Job Description

University professors are responsible for preparing course materials and teaching courses to undergraduate and graduate students of degree granting institutions. They may teach courses in lecture, seminar, laboratory or field study formats. University professors may also conduct research related to their field of expertise.



Typical Job Duties

• Teach one or more courses to undergraduate and graduate students

• Prepare course materials

• Assign, review and evaluate coursework and examinations

• May conduct laboratory or field study sessions

• Conduct research in field of specialization and publish findings in scholarly journals or books

• May act as a consultant to government agencies, private individuals, industry, and other organizations

• Direct research programs of graduate students



Classification of Ranks and Titles for Professors

University faculty appointments are typically classified into ranks and groups by title. These titles are significant, as each title typically has its own set of rights and benefits (varying by university) that come with it. Listed below are the 4 major titles of these professionals, as well as the criteria needed to earn them.


Instructor: Typically instructors hold a minimum of a Master’s degree or equivalent. In addition, they must have completed most or all of the requirements for the doctorate or equivalent, and they are expected to demonstrate effectiveness as a university teacher.


Assistant Professor: Generally, an assistant professor has earned a doctoral or professional degree (such as a law degree) or equivalent. They must also demonstrate commitment to teaching and scholarly or professional work of high caliber. Associate professors are typically expected to participate in university affairs at least at the department level.


Associate Professor: Generally, an associate professor meets the requirements for appointment as an assistant professor. They differ in that they must also have a national reputation as a scholar or professional. They are also expected to demonstrate public, professional, or university service outside aside from their departmental responsibilities.


Professor: Professors must typically meet the requirements for appointment as an associate professor. In addition, they must have a distinguished record of accomplishment that leads to an international or, as appropriate, national reputation in their field of expertise.


Please Note: The granting of Tenure is a separate guarantee that is not implied by any of the titles



Types of Lecturers

The general occupation of "University Professor" consists of tenured professors, non-tenured professors and lecturers. Lecturers differ from professors in that they have no research obligations and are not eligible for tenure status.


Lecturers may be hired to instruct courses that tenure level professors prefer not to teach, such as undergraduate introductory courses. Lecturers may be also chosen over tenure level professors to teach certain courses because it is inefficient from a budgetary perspective to pay a tenured professor to do so (tenured professors get paid much more than lecturers). Below is a brief introduction to the 4 main types of lecturers:


Career Lecturers: Teaching is the main professional activity of career lecturers. These lecturers generally aspire to become tenured professors.


Graduate Students: Graduate students may lecture classes while studying full time towards their degree.


Part-Time Lecturers: part-time lecturers work full time in other careers and lecturing is a second job to them. These lecturers may be hired because of their specific skills, such as judges and politicians, but do not have the ability to make a full time commitment to teaching.


Freelancers: Lecturers who work part-time jobs in addition to lecturing. Freelancers are often early in their careers and aspire to become tenured professors.



How Much Can I Earn?

Salary levels can vary considerably in this occupation, depending on a variety of factors, such as the professor's personal qualifications, academic qualifications, administrative responsibilities of the job, and the specific faculty and institution they work for. Salary figures show that a career as a university professor in Canada can be a highly lucrative one.


Salaries Canada: Below are a few examples of the earnings of full professors, associate professors and assistant professors across a range of Canadian universities, for the 2017/18 school year, as sourced from this report published by MacLean's Magazine, based on a report by Statistics Canada from April, 2019.


University of Northern British Columbia 

• Full Professor: $116,425

• Associate: $97,875

• Assistant: $78,775


Mount Allison University

• Full: $147,400

• Associate: $120,600

• Assistant: $85,350


Trent University

• Full: $164,975

• Associate: $140,075

• Assistant: $98,825


McMaster University

• Full: $190,400

• Associate: $153,925

• Assistant: $110,375


Athabasca University

• Full: $157,525

• Associate: $123,825

• Assistant: $92,725


It's interesting to note that these salary figures do not follow a pattern regarding how prestigious the school they work for is or isn’t. Some highly ranked schools pay less than schools with reputations that are not so strong. 



Salaries in the United States: In the United States the salary numbers are a little bit different. The U.S Labor and Statistics reports that the median salary for Post Secondary Teachers, which includes university professors, was $78,400 USD per year as of May 2018. The lowest 10% of those surveyed for this reported earned less than $39,760, and the highest 10% earned more than $175,110 per year.



Career Advancement Possibilities

A main career advancement goal in this field is to obtain tenure: a guarantee that a professor cannot be fired without just cause. Earning tenure can take up to 6 years of moving up the ranks in tenure-track positions, such as assistant professor, associate professor, and professor.


Tenure is generally granted to a candidate after a satisfactory review of their research, contribution to the university, and their teaching. Some tenured professors may advance to administrative positions, such as dean, or university president. 



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Typical Working Conditions

University professors typically spend much of their time in a classroom setting conducting lectures, or in an office setting meeting with students, preparing course materials, and meeting with colleagues. They may also spend time in laboratories and research facilities. They typically work very long hours throughout the year.


When classes are in session, university professors typically spend anywhere from 9-12 hours a week teaching classes. Preparation for teaching classes usually takes professors up to three hours for every hour of instruction. They usually spend an additional 9-12 hours per week reviewing, grading and evaluating course assignments.


The classes they teach may be composed of up to 300 students, in which case there is typically not much chance for personal interaction with students. However professors may also teach seminar style classes or graduate level classes in which there are fewer than 20 students. These smaller classes allow the professor and the students to interact with one another quite effectively.


When their classes are not in session, university professors are expected to conduct research activities. For many professors, this is during the spring and summer months.



Similar Occupations

Listed below are jobs that are similar in nature to that of a university professor, as they may involve many of the same skills, competencies, knowledge or responsibilities.


Adult Education Instructor

Curriculum Director


Director of University Admissions

High School Teacher

University President



References for this Career Guide

The following resources were drawn from in the preparation of this career guide:


• “Occupational Profile: University Professor.” (n.d.). Alberta Government - Alberta Learning Information Service. Retrieved June 27, 2019.

• “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Postsecondary Teachers.” (May, 2015). United States Department of Labor - Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved June 27, 2019.

• “Classification of Ranks and Titles.” (April 18, 2007). Boston University - Office of the Provost. Retrieved June 27, 2019.

• Education: “Comparing the average salaries of Canadian professors in 2018.” MacLean's. (June 16, 2011). MacLean’s Magazine Online. Retrieved June 27, 2019.



Relevant Scholarships for Becoming a Professor

Scholarships in our database that are relevant for becoming a university professor can be found on our All Scholarships by Major page.


Success Tip: Be sure to apply for any scholarships that you even barely qualify for, as there are millions of dollars of scholarships in North America that go unused every year due to a lack of applicants!



Relevant Fields of Study

The majors listed below are those in our system that can help set a proper educational foundation for a career as a professor.


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