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.
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.
Because of the relatively flexible structure of the profession, many full-time faculty engage in outside professional activities. Economists consult with governments and corporations; engineers and academic labs develop products for private industry; humanities professors write articles which appear in newspapers and magazines. Many find this ability to work professionally on terms they define, while remaining in their institutions, to be among the most satisfying aspects of the profession. In addition, the significant administrative positions in colleges and universities are usually filled by former and current professors, and it is not uncommon for careers in university administration to develop from teaching careers.