How to Become a University Professor

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How to Become a University Professor: Career Guide

If you want to become a university professor, will you need to be highly dedicated to your chosen field of academics, as this competitive and lucrative field is reserved for those who can demonstrate academic achievement at all levels.


Below we've outlined what you'll need to succeed in a career as a university professor in the United States, and Canada.


We've also included helpful information for a university professor career, such as job description, job duties, salary expectations, educational requirements, career advancement information and much more!



Education Needed to Become a University Professor

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


Some universities, or faculties within some universities 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.


University 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.


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




Gaining University Professor Work Experience as a Student

If you want to become a university professor, a great way to gain relevant career experience is by working as a graduate teaching assistant while you are a graduate student. Typically students working as graduate teaching assistants do so in the school in which they are enrolled as a graduate student.


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


Tip for Success: Speak to your professors about your career ambitions. Who can better to tell you about becoming a professor than your own professors? 




University Professorships

University Professorships - Canada


University Professorships - United States




Skills Needed to Become a University Professor

In order to become effective in a career as a university professor and perform your job duties with competence, you 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 Successful Professors

In order to enjoy performing the duties of a university professor, you need to have certain personality traits. Taking enjoyment from your duties as a university professor 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 for Becoming a University Professor

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 University 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 university professors, 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 occupation 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.



University Professor Salary: How Much Do Professors Earn?

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


University Professor Salary Canada: The report Salaries of full-time teaching staff at Canadian universities and colleges, 2009/2010 by Statistics Canada shows that salaries for university professors during the 2009-2010 school year 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. Below are examples of average salaries for various universities across Canada:


• Trent $158,876

• Calgary $154,008

• British Columbia $151,145

• Alberta $145,585

• Athabasca $144,689

• McMaster $144,366

• Lethbridge $144,255

• York $143,091

• Wilfrid Laurier $142,905

• Windsor $141,831


University Professor Salary Alberta: The Alberta Learning and Information Service website estimates that assistant university professors earn between $75,000 and $100,000 per year, and senior full professors can earn more than $160,000 per year.


University Professor Salary 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 $62,050 USD per year as of May 2010. This number is lower than the figures for Canadian universities, as it includes all levels of professors, not just full professors.



Career Advancement for University Professors

For those who want to become full-time university professors, a main career goal is typically 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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Working Conditions for University Professors

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.



Careers Similar to University Professor

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 How to Become a University Professor career guide:



• “Occupational Profile: University Professor.” (n.d.). Alberta Government - Alberta Learning Information Service. Retrieved August 12, 2016.

• “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Postsecondary Teachers.” (May, 2015). United States Department of Labor - Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved August 12, 2016.

• “Classification of Ranks and Titles.” (April 18, 2007). Boston University - Office of the Provost. Retrieved August 12, 2016.

• “What do professors make in Canada?.” Dehaas, Josh. (June 16, 2011). MacLean’s Magazine Online. Retrieved August 12, 2016.



Scholarships for Becoming a University Professor

Scholarships listed for majors that apply to 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 that go unused every year due to a lack of applicants!



Becoming a University Professor: Applicable Majors

Studying one of the university majors listed below is an excellent starting point to becoming a university or college professor. Click on the links to find out what else you can do with these majors!


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