Most college and university faculty are in four academic ranks: professor, associate professor, assistant professor, and instructor. A small number are lecturers.
So, how can you achieve the scholarly position of college teacher? In general, newly hired faculty members begin as instructors or assistant professors. To work in a four-year college or university, you would generally need a doctorate for a full-time, tenure-track position. Some schools hire applicants who hold a master’s degree or who are doctoral candidates for certain disciplines, such as the arts, or for part-time and temporary jobs.
You may be qualified to teach in a two-year college with a master’s degree; however, competition for jobs can lead to schools being more selective, and master’s degree holders may be passed over in favor of candidates with doctorates. Many two-year institutions increasingly prefer job applicants to have some teaching experience or experience with distance learning. Preference also may be given to those holding dual master’s degrees, especially at smaller institutions, because they can teach more subjects.
A doctoral program takes an average of six years of full-time study beyond your bachelor’s degree, including time spent completing a master’s degree and a dissertation. Some programs, such as those in the humanities, may take longer to complete; others, such as those in engineering, usually are shorter. As a doctoral candidate, you will specialize in a subfield of a discipline, such as organic chemistry, counseling psychology, or European history, but will also take courses covering the entire discipline.
A typical program includes twenty or more increasingly specialized courses and seminars plus comprehensive examinations on all major areas of the field. You will be required to complete a dissertation, which is a written report based on original research in your major field of study. The dissertation sets forth an original hypothesis or proposes a model and tests it. Students in the natural sciences and engineering usually do laboratory work; in the humanities, they study original documents and other published material.Your dissertation will be done under the guidance of one or more faculty advisors and may take one or two years of fulltime work.
After earning their degrees, some students, particularly those in the natural sciences, spend additional years on postdoctoral research and study before taking a faculty position. Some Ph.D.s are able to extend postdoctoral appointments or take new ones, if they are unable to find a faculty job. Most postdoctoral appointments offer a nominal salary.
Obtaining a position as a graduate teaching assistant is an excellent way to gain college teaching experience. To qualify, you must be enrolled in a graduate school program, and some colleges and universities require you to attend classes or take some training prior to being given responsibility for a course.
Graduate teaching assistants usually work at the institution and in the department where they are earning their degrees. However, teaching or internship positions for graduate students at institutions that do not grant a graduate degree have become more common in recent years. For example, a program called Preparing Future Faculty, administered by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Council of Graduate Schools, has led to the creation of many now-independent programs that offer graduate students at research universities the opportunity to work as teaching assistants at other types of institutions, such as liberal arts or community colleges. In this situation, you would work
with a mentor while teaching classes and learning how to improve your teaching techniques. You may also be expected to attend faculty and committee meetings, develop a curriculum, and learn how to balance the teaching, research, and administrative roles that faculty play. You can gain valuable experience in teaching at the postsecondary level and also explore the differences among the various types of institutions at which you may someday work.
Attaining tenure is a major step in the traditional academic career. Newly hired faculty serve a certain period (usually seven years) under term contracts. Then, their records of teaching, research, and overall contributions to the institution and the field are reviewed; tenure is granted if the review is favorable and positions are available. A tenured professor cannot be fired without just cause and due process. Those denied tenure usually must leave the institution.
Tenure protects the faculty’s academic freedom, the ability to teach and conduct research without fear of being fired for advocating unpopular ideas. It also gives both faculty and institutions the stability needed for effective research and teaching and provides financial stability for faculty members. About 60 percent of full-time faculty are tenured, and many others are in the probationary period.
Some faculty advance into administrative and managerial positions, such as departmental chairperson, dean, and president. Such a promotion is based on teaching experience, research, publication, and service on campus committees and task forces. At four-year institutions, this advancement requires a doctoral degree.