It takes a special kind of academic to want to become a professor. It's not an easy life, and depending on where you land, the pay may only be so-so. You’ll spend your twenties in school, studying and then researching and writing your dissertation.
Chances are the only teaching experience you’ll get before becoming an assistant professor will be limited to student teaching as a teaching assistant (TA). Then, once you become an assistant professor, there will likely be a clock ticking down to your tenure review. Publish or perish, as they say; the stress of teaching can be immense.
And yet, if you’ve dreamed your whole life of teaching the subject matter you are most passionate about at the higher education level, you’ll gladly take on all of this and more to earn the privilege of designing and teaching your own courses while also conducting research and contributing to the body of knowledge in your field. If a career in academia is your life's goal, your path will almost certainly pass through an assistant professorship.
In this article, we'll cover:
Here's a road map to get you there.
The responsibilities of an assistant professor typically fall into three categories: teaching, research, and institutional duties.
The needs of the university and the requirements for tenure will determine how much time an assistant professor spends on each during the academic year, but in general, most assistant professors teach two graduate or undergraduate courses per semester. This may or may not include preparing a new curriculum, though it’s unusual for assistant professors to be called upon to design a large number of courses.
At colleges and universities where assistant professors teach four courses per semester, some are likely to be the graduate and undergraduate versions of the same course topic, or at least to have a set curriculum.
The research component of an assistant professor’s role differs depending on the area of study, but most universities now expect their professors to put out publications regularly. That’s because those articles, books, and postdoctoral studies are now seen as a reflection of the university’s relative status.
Don’t expect your teaching load to be reduced at a school that expects its professors to publish, publish, publish. Chances are that you’ll still spend a great deal of your time working with students. To meet all your obligations, you may have to learn to get by on fewer hours of sleep.
Assistant professors, especially after their first year, also advise students and student organizations, serve on academic and administrative committees, organize lecture series and conferences, and take on part-time administrative roles. Those are the institutional duties that all professors are required to undertake, though it’s worth noting that many service activities are voluntary.
Assistant professors have to be careful to avoid taking on too much. Why? Because your ultimate goal will be tenure, which universities award based on how well you meet their expectations. What those are exactly, depends on the institution.
At some universities—particularly Ivy League-level institutions and large research universities—the emphasis is on research and publications, while at smaller schools, teaching and service are given more weight. Your institution's priorities will likely be evident to you; your job will be to accomplish enough to impress without taking on so much that you inevitably fail.
As you research how to become an assistant professor, you may find that your search results include information about becoming an associate professor or an assistant teaching professor. Don’t confuse them!
In an ideal world, advancement as an assistant professor would always mean undergoing a tenure review and, hopefully, being promoted to associate professor and then full professor—and maybe eventually earning a university professorship or an endowed chair. However, today non-tenure-track faculty account for about 75% of all appointments, so don’t be surprised to find yourself taking non-tenure track positions.
Becoming a full-fledged faculty member used to mean having the kind of job security most people can only dream of, but these days, there are a lot more adjunct professors and visiting professor spots, and a lifelong placement is anything but guaranteed.
The educational commitment for becoming an assistant professor will vary depending on your area of study and the guidelines laid out by individual educational institutions. In general, all postsecondary teachers at universities will have a Ph.D. in their field, though it’s worth noting that a master’s degree may be all that’s required for college professors at some community colleges and two-year colleges, and some universities will even give classes to doctoral degree candidates in some non-technical specialties.
According to PayScale, the average salary for assistant professors is $66,930, but looking at the average salary doesn’t tell you much. Salaries vary widely depending on the school, your experience before accepting an assistant professor position, and your field of study.
A quick look at Glassdoor is all it takes to see just how different assistant professor salaries can be:
Your field of study will impact your earnings significantly. A report by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources found a wide variation in assistant professor salaries across disciplines.
Assistant professors in computer science, engineering, business, and law tend to make $30,000 more to start than those teaching in English, psychology, or history departments, for example. In some cases, professors in business or law make twice as much as their peers in other disciplines.
That said, overall, your earning prospects are good. Postsecondary teachers across the board tend to make good money compared to the U.S. population as a whole, and the typical advancement path for an assistant professor is clear and direct. If you’re driven, you’ll have no issues following it.
As Professor Kristen Lee Costa of Northeastern University put it, “University faculty and administrations face immense pressure, increasing demands and in many cases are doing the work of multiple people. During the academic year, there is often very little space to regroup. Also, the desire to publish and carry out a wide range of tasks can both be exhausting and exhilarating. It takes a lot of finesse to manage time well to avoid overstimulation and becoming burned out."
Ultimately, if you love to study, are passionate about your field, feel drawn to academia, and are excited to share your passions with a new generation of learners, becoming an assistant professor is a great way to start building a rewarding career.
In some ways, becoming a tenured professor means you never have to stop learning. You’ll be responsible for teaching a set number of classes each semester, but you’ll also have a degree of autonomy you probably wouldn’t have in any other job. Whenever you aren’t teaching or serving the administrative needs of your department or the university, you can research what you find interesting and tackle the big questions that got you interested in your field of study in the first place. What could be better than that?
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