Professors instruct students in a wide variety of academic and vocational subjects beyond the high school level. They also conduct research and publish scholarly papers and books. They work in public and private colleges and universities, professional schools, junior or community colleges, and career and vocational schools. Outside of class time, their schedules are generally flexible.
Educational requirements vary with the subject taught and the type of educational institution. Most commonly, professors must have a Ph.D. However, a master's degree may be enough for some postsecondary teachers at community colleges. In technical and trade schools, work experience may be important for getting a postsecondary teaching job.
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Professors typically do the following:
Professors specialize in any of a wide variety of subjects and fields. Some teach academic subjects, such as English or philosophy. Others focus on career-related subjects, such as law, nursing, or culinary arts. Professors usually work for large universities. In this setting, they often spend a large portion of their time conducting research and experiments and applying for grants to fund their research. Frequently, they spend less time teaching. Classes may be taught by graduate teaching assistants, who are supervised by a professor. Professors may teach large classes of several hundred students (usually with the help of several graduate teaching assistants), small classes of about 40 to 50 students, seminars with just a few students, or laboratories where students practice the subject matter. They may work with an increasingly varied student population as more part-time, older, and culturally diverse students are coming to postsecondary schools.
Professors keep up with developments in their field by reading scholarly articles, talking with colleagues, and participating in professional conferences. To gain tenure (a guarantee that a professor cannot be fired without just cause), they must do research, such as experiments, document analysis, or critical reviews, and publish their findings. Full-time professors, particularly those who have tenure, often are expected to spend more time on their research. They also may be expected to serve on more college and university committees. Part-time professors, often known as adjunct professors, spend most of their time teaching students.
Professors who work for four-year colleges and universities are most often required to have a doctoral degree in their field. However, some schools may hire those who have a master’s degree or those who are doctoral degree candidates for some specialties, such as fine arts, or for some part-time positions.
Doctoral programs generally take six years of full-time study after the completion of a bachelor’s degree program. Included in the six years is time spent completing a master’s degree and then writing a doctoral dissertation, which is a paper presenting original research in the student’s field of study. Candidates usually specialize in a subfield, such as organic chemistry or European history.
Two-year colleges or career and technical schools also may hire those with a master’s degree. However, in some fields, there are more applicants than available positions. In these situations, institutions can be more selective, and they frequently choose applicants who have a Ph.D. over those with a master’s degree. Some institutions prefer to hire professors who have teaching experience. Some prospective professors gain experience by working as graduate teaching assistants—students who are enrolled in a graduate program and teach classes in the institution where they are enrolled.
Many postsecondary teachers find their jobs rewarding because they are surrounded by others who enjoy their subject. The opportunity to share their expertise with others also is appealing to many. However, some postsecondary teachers must find a balance between teaching students and doing research and publishing their findings. This can be stressful, especially for beginning teachers seeking advancement in four-year research universities.
Classes are generally held during the day. Some are held on nights and weekends to accommodate students who have jobs or family obligations. Many professors do not teach classes in the summer, but they use that time to conduct research or to travel. Others teach summer courses.
Professors’ schedules are generally flexible. They need to be on campus to teach classes and keep office hours. Otherwise, they are free to set their schedule and decide when and where they will prepare for class and grade assignments.
The median annual wage of professors was $62,050 in May 2010. (The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less.) The lowest 10% earned less than $30,720, and the top 10% earned more than $130,510.