Everyone who knows of higher education has an idea what a professor does: lecture students, grade assignments, and wear tweed jackets with elbow patches. But there are a lot of unexpected skills you’ll need as a college professor that don’t always lie within public perception or even the job description. Hopefully, this list, which I generated in conversation with several other academics, will help you better prepare for life as a modern-day academic. And, if you’re not a college professor, you may still find them useful in everyday life.
It’s important to know that while I classify these unexpected skills like teaching, research, or “people” skills, these abilities can shift across categories. Unexpected skills as a professor, like flexibility and the ability to issue positive feedback, are also useful when completing research and dealing with people. In the same vein, reasonable goal setting can help you succeed while teaching and interacting with people as it does while completing research.
Biologists will tell you that with positive feedback, the successful factors of a project or process tend to repeat themselves. And that’s what you want as a professor. “Research generally operationalizes professors’ positive feedback as praiseor the act of expressing approval or admiration,” writes Ashlie Pankonin and Rebekah Myers of the Applied Psychology OPUS (Online Publication of Undergraduate Studies) at New York University.
Don’t just browbeat those taking your class; identify the factors you want to see more of. If students are handling a discussion well or knocking a quiz out of the park, let them know that you’re happy to see such positive results—and encourage them to repeat them. Don’t rely on positive outcomes if you say nothing or avoid vocalizing them.
Professors need to be adaptable. In academia, this commonly means an ability to change your technology and teaching style to meet students’ needs and learning styles. As a college scientist told me, “You can’t write the same lecture for 40-years. You have to keep with the times and update your material.”
Teacher Mike Britland suggests planning how you’re going to use technology without falling for the latest fad—to avoid quitting if it doesn’t succeed perfectly the first time.
As English professors do at LaGrange College, it’s common for professors to have their students write for different audiences. This practice helps them broaden their ability to reach many types of people. This same method applies to professors since giving a similar lesson to different audiences will often have varying results.
A presentation to introductory students will bore experienced college majors from the same field, just as an activity for experienced upper-class students (juniors and seniors) might be too advanced for first-year students and sophomores. One lecture does not fit all. Know what your students can do and what they’ve done before.
Teacher Charles Alexander concludes, “Students don’t need fixing. They need professors who make data-informed instructional decisions to match best practices to students’ needs. They need professors who offer high support while holding them to high expectations.”
Sometimes, this is as simple as making keen observations in the classroom, developing a plan to make the material more accessible, and using your knowledge of a student’s perceived abilities to motivate them to do better.
Trying to do too much can dilute the end product, leave you exhausted, and rob your future endeavors of confidence. If you list every task out, try prioritizing your list like you’re ranking the American Top 40 hit songs. You can also break them into “must do” and “maybe” categories, starting only the latter when the former is complete.
“No man is an island” might be an old 17th-century aphorism, but it still applies today. You’ll need teamwork to accomplish your goals as a professor, and that means figuring out who is good on paper versus someone who can come through in the clutch. To figure out who is the best, define your metrics for success, communicate with those you are assessing, and look for those who are committed to similar goals with your own.
Most think that good writing gets good research grants, but the ability to draft and stick to a realistic budget may be even more critical. Dartmouth College emphasizes flexibility in such budgets, but providing an easily communicated budget and which is close to accurate are probably better traits. This approach means matching the numbers to your goals for the project.
There aren’t enough hours in a day for you to get everything done. And conversations, unforseen tasks, and university life can rob you of your plans. To stay organized and on-schedule, figure out what deadlines or tasks are immovable, the part of your schedule which can’t be changed. Prioritize those tasks and delegate others that you don’t have time for. And plan for smooth transitions and breaks to avoid burnout and inefficiency in work.
Just as you should pick a solid research team for grants and projects, you should also develop a team on campus that helps you most effectively teach, research, and accomplish your goals.
To do this, don’t look down on any staffer. There’s the famous NASA story of President Kennedy asking a janitor what his job was, who replied: “to put a man on the Moon.” This mindset is one you should encourage all of those you work with to employ, whether they’re a teaching assistant, assistant professor, a tenured faculty member—or yes, even a janitor at your school.
As Zach Mercurio wrote in his 2017 Huffington Post article on career leadership, 80% of workers feel active disengagement and lack of recognition for their hard work.
Everyone can be a part of the team if you let them. For example, my work-study students develop publicity for the program. I also have a go-to source at the library, who prepare research guides for my students. My secretary is invaluable for tracking my work-studies and building community contacts. There’s also the valuable facilities worker, who helps me prepare and set up a first-rate conference room for guest speakers. The IT personnel always know how to meet my needs when a computer or software isn’t working.
I know who to speak with from my school’s budget office about credit cards, and who handles the textbook procurement. It may take a village to raise a child, but a small town is needed to pull off what my students need to learn.
The team mentioned above helps me pull off a series of miracles in the classroom and beyond. The least I can do is let them know my appreciation, and make sure their superiors know their value as well. Just like positive feedback for students, if you want to repeat strong performances, you’ve got to communicate it to those who you interact within your school community.
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