The process of becoming an elementary, middle or high school teacher is well established. Get an undergraduate degree in your desired field, earn a teaching certificate in the state you want to teach and find a job. Becoming a professor, however, isn’t as straightforward.
College professors need more education compared to primary and secondary school teachers. Because college professor requirements include more education, people pursuing this career path often take on more student loan debt. Here’s a look at the steps for how to become a professor, the student debt that’s involved and how to pay it off faster.
Becoming a professor: salary and job outlook
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the career outlook for professors is promising, despite more classes being taught virtually. The job is expected to grow by 9% between 2019 and 2029, which is faster than average. This growth, however, is likely for part-time positions instead of full-time, tenured roles.
The median salary for professors was $79,540 in 2019, but the highest 10% earned $174,960.
Your professor level, the degree level at which you teach, and whether you work at a public versus private school are all factors that can affect your salary.
For example, a full-time professor at a private, independent doctoral university earns an average salary of nearly $203,000, according to an American Association of University Professors survey. Meanwhile, the average salary for a professor at the same level, who teaches at a public university earns an average salary of $146,000.
The salary disparity between public and private university professors exists at all levels. If you enter the profession as an undergraduate-level lecturer at a private university, for example, the average salary is almost $74,000, but it’s closer to $60,000 for a professor doing the same work at a public school.
How to become a professor
The amount of education you’ll need to become a professor depends on where you want to work. A master’s degree might be enough to teach at a community college or technical school. These institutions sometimes have more applicants than available openings, however. In this situation, schools will almost always pick applicants with a higher degree.
Most four-year colleges require professors to have a doctoral degree in their fields of expertise. You’ll need an undergraduate and master’s degree before working toward your doctoral degree. Your desired employer might also require work experience. Depending on your area of study, this might include classroom teaching, such as a graduate teaching assistant, or doing postdoctoral research.
About 80% of college jobs are at four-year institutions, but a third of college faculties are part-time or non-tenure-track positions. Part-time and non-tenure-eligible positions are increasing in availability because schools are trying to reduce faculty costs. Gaining “post-doc” experience — usually about two years — can increase your odds of earning tenure.
You could become eligible for tenure after committing a certain number of years at a college or university. Tenure helps guarantee your job security and allows you more freedom to structure your career path as you see fit.
If you’re hired for a tenure-track position, you could be eligible for tenure within six to seven years from your start date. A common career path for tenured professors is to be hired as an assistant professor, get promoted to associate professor when they get tenure and then become a full professor after another five to seven years.
Tenure candidates go through a review of their “tenure file” that includes:
- Their teaching record and evaluations
- Copies of published works, such as books, magazine and journal articles, and artistic creations
- Recommendation letters regarding their current standing in their respective field
- Record of service to the school and administrative contributions
Tenured members of the candidate’s respective departments will write their own letters to include in the file and then conduct a formal vote. The department’s recommendation is sent to a committee of tenured faculty from various departments before the school’s president, chancellor, provost, or other administrators to make a final decision.
Professors seek tenure for a number of reasons. The first is job security. Once tenured, professors can usually hold their position for as long as they want to. Tenure does not completely shield professors from dismissal, however. Many universities require post-tenure reviews to ensure professors are not falling behind on teaching.
Tenure also affords professors more control over their schedule and career. They often teach higher-level courses and seminars in their field of study and work with upperclassmen and graduate students. Professors can also decide how much time they want to dedicate to teaching, research, writing and administration.
Salary benefits of gaining tenure vary by institution. The University of Iowa, for example, announced that beginning in 2020 tenure-track professors would receive a $4,000 raise when promoted to associate professor. Faculty members who are promoted to full professor will receive a $6,000 raise.
Caveats to becoming a professor
A college-teaching career can be rewarding — you’re helping prepare students for the next stage of their lives. With many careers, however, comes sacrifice, and college professors are no exception. Consider the following factors before becoming a professor.
You’ll have to continue your education after you finish your undergraduate studies to become a professor for at least another two to three years to earn your master’s degree, depending on what you’re studying.
You have to earn a doctoral degree to teach at a four-year college or university. It’ll take another four to seven years to complete your PhD.
That’s 10 years of school, minimum, between undergrad, graduate school and doctoral degree work.
Completing these degrees might not be enough to make you an appealing professor candidate. Many doctoral graduates complete one to two “post-doc” years of experience to better their chance at getting a tenure-track position.
Student loan debt
Ten years is a long time to be in, and pay for, school. If you don’t already have savings to cover your education, you’ll likely have to borrow money to pay for school.
The average professor Student Loan Planner has worked with has approximately $182,000 in student loan debt. The debt can get higher depending on your field of study. Below is an example of what professors pay for their education:
Average Student Loan Balance
Your field of study, where you end up working and salary determine how steep your student loan balance will be. There’s a good chance that your student debt will be more than your starting salary as a professor.
How to become a professor: paying for school
Many of the same financial aid options you might’ve used to pay for your undergraduate studies are available to cover your master’s and doctoral degrees.
Scholarships and grants
Always begin with scholarships and grants when looking for financial aid because you don’t have to repay them. You can find potential opportunities through the school you’re attending, from organizations within your field or other associations.
Graduate students should also look into getting a graduate assistantship, which can be awarded in a teaching, research or administrative capacity. Graduate assistantships can help pay tuition or provide you with a monthly stipend.
Fellowships, which are sponsored short-term opportunities that focus on career training and development, are another great option. They’re offered to doctoral students and don’t have to be repaid. Fellowship compensation doesn’t typically compare to a salary but it provides work experience and a living allowance or stipend. Some stipends can range between $10,000 and $25,000 for a nine- to 12-month program. Some fellowships even offer healthcare coverage, student loan repayment assistance and housing stipends.
Federal student loans
Look to federal student loans before private loans if you absolutely have to borrow money. You have to repay these loan types, but federal student loans offer several benefits, such as:
- Fixed, and sometimes lower, student loan interest rates
- Subsidized interest while you’re in school
- Longer forbearance periods, if needed
- Different repayment options, including income-driven repayment (IDR) plans
- Student loan forgiveness for eligible borrowers
The last two points — repayment options and student loan forgiveness — are important benefits if you’re working on becoming a professor.
Federal student loan repayment options
If you’re not earning six figures on your first day as a professor, you’ll need some flexibility with your student loan payment. The federal government offers four different IDR plans to help you manage your budget:
- Revised Pay As You Earn. Generally 10% of your discretionary income.
- Pay As You Earn. Generally 10% of your discretionary income but never more than the 10-Year Standard repayment plan amount.
- Income-Based Repayment. Generally 10% of a new borrowers’ discretionary income on or after July 1, 2014, but never more than the 10-Year Standard repayment plan amount. Payments are generally 15% of your discretionary income if you’re not a new borrower on or after July 1, 2014 but never more than the 10-Year Standard repayment plan amount.
- Income-Contingent Repayment. The lesser of 20% of your discretionary income or what you’d pay on a repayment plan with a fixed payment over the course of 12 years, adjusted according to your income.
Public Student Loan Forgiveness program
The Public Student Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program forgives the remaining balance on borrowers’ direct loans after they make 120 qualifying monthly payments. Borrowers must be on a qualifying repayment plan and working full time for a qualifying employer, like a state or nonprofit organization.
If you’re a professor at a nonprofit school, you could be eligible for PSLF. You’d have to work full time or at least 30 hours a week to be eligible. Also, if you’re an adjunct professor working at different schools, you’re still eligible as long as you work 30 hours a week between the schools.
Dealing with student loans can be a burden when working to become a college professor, but you don’t have to navigate it alone. Student Loan Planner’s team of consultants is available to help you determine the best way to pay for your advanced education based on your financial situation. Schedule a pre-debt consultation before taking on any student loans to pay for your education to become a professor.