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A Day in the Life of a Professor

College professors organize and conduct the functions of higher education. They engage in a variety of activities, from running laboratory experiments and supervising graduate student research to conducting large undergraduate lectures and writing textbooks. With the exception of scheduled classes-which can consume as few as three hours a week in graduate universities or up to twelve to sixteen hours per week for undergraduates-a professor’s time is largely spent on research, preparing class material, meeting with students, or however else she chooses. This profession is thus best suited for motivated self-starters, and its highest rewards are given to those who can identify and explore original problems in their fields. Tenured professors have relatively high job security and professional freedom. Once tenured, a professor can largely set his own responsibilities and decide to a large extent how to divide his time between teaching, writing, researching, and administration. However, tenure no longer means complete immunity; post-tenure review is now mandate at most universities, and those who fall behind on teaching and independent scholarship may not be as secure nowadays. The most difficult years of being a professor are the early ones, when there is great pressure to publish a significant body of work to establish the credentials that lead to tenure. However, the work of junior and senior faculty is quite similar, and the profession offers intellectual stimulation and freedom to all its members.

Paying Your Dues

The path to becoming a tenured college professor is arduous. While a master’s degree may be sufficient to qualify to teach in a two-year college, a doctoral degree is required to teach in four year colleges and universities. Ph.D.s generally take four to seven years to complete; after completing two to three years of course work, the graduate student will usually teach classes and write a dissertation, an original piece of research taking about three years to complete which is the most important element of the search for a first job as a professor. In addition, post-doctoral experience is an added advantage. For the coveted tenure-track positions, virtually every successful job candidate now boasts at least one and usually two “post-doc” years, and these are necessary to remain competitive, which means gathering a sufficient backlog of publications and writings in progress. Personal relationships with faculty is also critical in this hunt for a first job, as teaching positions in many areas (particularly the humanities) can be scarce. While approximately 80 percent of college jobs are in four-year institutions, about a third of all college faculty are employed part-time or in non-tenure track positions, and this percentage has risen in recent years as colleges attempt to control costs.

Present and Future

The mission of the first colleges in the United States was to train ministers for the new colonies. The concept of the modern liberal arts education did not appear in America until 1825, with the founding of the University of Virginia; today, this principle of the secular faculty is the norm rather than the exception. Higher education for women originally developed separately; the first women’s college, Wesleyan Female College, was founded in Macon, Georgia in 1836, and single-sex education was the norm until the 1960s. Since then, coeducation has become the rule. Openings for college professors should increase significantly beginning in the late 1990s as the generation of faculty who entered the field in the 1950s and 1960s begins to retire and the children of the baby-boom generation begin to reach college age. Demand should grow for professors in growing fields such as computer science and engineering, while employment for humanities professors will likely remain tight.

Quality of Life


At this stage, the recent Ph.D. graduate is either in a tenure track job as an instructor or assistant professor, or is working as a part-time or adjunct professor and looking for a job which could eventually lead to tenure. In the sciences, 50 percent of Ph.D. holders work with academic institutions, and many work in the private sector in lucrative jobs they have chosen in lieu of academic careers. For humanities Ph.D.s the job market is tougher; 20 percent find junior positions on a tenure track in their first year after graduation, and another 30 percent find non-tenure track work. Half do not find academic jobs. The young assistant professor works long hours for minimal pay, teaching several undergraduate classes and beginning to establish the research and writing record necessary to advance in her field. In smaller schools and at two-year colleges, there is often less pressure to publish, but these are busy years regardless of where the junior professor teaches.


If the professor has been aggressive (and lucky) enough to get a monograph published and establish a clear area of expertise, she is on the verge of being promoted to associate professor and awarded tenure, events which are normally expected after the sixth year. Associate professors have more control over their teaching schedules; they are likely to be teaching fewer low-level classes, and more classes and seminars in their areas of specialization with older undergraduates and graduate students. In addition, as academic marketability is determined by a university’s specific needs for expertise, professors become more able to move around among institutions when they establish themselves in their fields.


By now, professors have hopefully either made tenure at the university where they started, found another university which will give them tenure, or left the profession altogether. Failing these options, she may remain exploited as an adjunct professor, with all the demands of a tenured position but not the freedom, prestige, or security. With tenure comes the real rewards of the academic life: The ability to say, write and teach what one wishes with the greatest possible freedom. Job satisfaction is extremely high, and few tenured professors leave the profession. Those who do generally move to lucrative positions in private enterprise or powerful positions in government.