How do you become a professor? Many students think they might like to be the person lecturing at the front of the class someday, but are unclear about how to pursue this career path. I recently had a conversation with an undergraduate student curious about how one becomes a professor, and so in this piece I explain in basic terms how it works. (The following applies to Canada, and with very minor differences to the United States. Other national systems will vary more.)
First, to be a professor, you need to have a PhD (except in some professional fields, such as law), after first earning your bachelor’s and master’s degrees. A PhD typically consists of taking courses, writing comprehensive exams, and doing your own research and writing it as a dissertation. [For more on doing a PhD, including whether it is a good option for you, see my recent book, Work Your Career.] Earning a PhD typically takes 4-6 years - mine took six. In many fields, people go on to do a postdoctoral fellowship (“postdoc”). A postdoc is basically a salaried job for 1-3 years doing research, either on your own or as part of a team. In the natural and life sciences, postdocs are very common and doing one or more postdocs is necessary to be competitive enough for an academic job. In other fields, such as the humanities, postdocs are less routine. (I did not do a postdoc.)
Getting the qualifications of a PhD (and postdoc) is just the start, as the academic job market is extremely tough. There are often dozens or hundreds of applicants for a single professor position. Sometimes you may hear that “the market is going to get a lot better soon because there will be lots of retirements coming up.” This is not true; among other reasons, retirements do not always result in replacement positions in the same department. It will always be challenging, as many more PhDs graduate every year than there are jobs available. There is a lot else you can do with a PhD (again, for more details see Work Your Career). But remember: it is not easy to get an academic job. Having said that, obviously some people do get them.
So how do you get an academic job? The answer is a mix of hard work and random luck. Much depends on what jobs open up in a particular year and what fields they are in, and the timing is entirely out of your hands. You may be a brilliant scholar of 18th century literature, but if no jobs reasonably in that area of specialty are available, it doesn’t matter. And there is no magic formula - a university might be looking for a specialist one year, but someone who can cover a lot of areas in another year, and it’s hard to predict what might be coming up as you finish your PhD. So while you can do everything right to maximize your competitiveness, a lot is out of your control. And willingness to move is usually essential - only a certain number of jobs open up every year, and if one is in the University of Nowheresville, you need to be prepared to move to Nowheresville.
While professors are expected to do both teaching and research in their jobs, they are hired primarily on their research and publication records - not their teaching experience. [While I was a teaching assistant for six years, I never taught a course until I became a professor.] There are a lot of reasons for this, but a basic one is that it is much easier to assess and compare a candidate’s publications than their teaching ability. So PhD students and postdocs are under a lot of pressure to publish as much as they can to make themselves competitive for academic jobs. Having said that, some professor jobs are focused on teaching only with no research requirements, but those are much less common, and publications and a person’s overall research accomplishments and ability are the primary focus in being hired as a professor.
An aside: While it is hard to get a full-time academic job, many PhDs/postdocs get hired in temporary teaching positions, on limited fixed-term contracts or a per-course basis. This is an area of increasing controversy, as many are unhappy with their part-time status and feel exploited as cheap labour. Some individuals spend many years as part-time instructors, hoping to get a full-time teaching job. But professors are rarely hired on their level of teaching experience; it’s much more about research publications, and without them a part-time instructor faces a difficult challenge.
Finally, a quick word on how a professor’s career works. An entry-level position is called an “assistant professor,” which lasts for about five years and is known as a “tenure-track” position. After the five years, they apply for “tenure” [a permanent appointment, with considerable job security], or the job ends and they must leave. Tenure decisions are weighted heavily again on research and publications; while their teaching record will also be scrutinized, the focus will be primarily ensuring they are not a clearly bad teacher. Tenure usually also means promotion to associate professor, and when their research has reached a certain threshold they can apply to be a full professor [or just “professor’], but they can also just stay as associate professors. Universities have different pay and incentive systems and sometimes additional special positions or ranks that will influence choices here.
And that’s it. I hope this was helpful in understanding the basics of how one becomes a professor. For more specific information on all of this and especially on doing a PhD and then what to do with a PhD in addition to being a professor, check out my recent book, Work Your Career: Get What You Want From Your Social Sciences of Humanities PhD, coauthored with Loleen Berdahl (University of Saskatchewan).