How to become a professor?
July 12, 2005 1:48 PM   Subscribe

How does one become a professor (read: university level instructor)?

Requirements? Length of time to meet these requirements?
posted by keswick to Work & Money (33 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
What field are you interested in? Humanities, natural sciences, etc.?
posted by Rothko at 1:54 PM on July 12, 2005

Response by poster: History, probably.
posted by keswick at 1:56 PM on July 12, 2005

The usual route is to obtain a PhD then apply for associate professor/lecturer positions, simple as that. The more you've published the better.
posted by Marquis at 2:02 PM on July 12, 2005

Wish I could help, I'm in the sciences, where for the most part it is a "publish-to-get-hired-to-publish-to-get-tenure-to-keep-teaching-or-investigating" position. I don't know if that applies to history or not.
posted by Rothko at 2:03 PM on July 12, 2005

What sort of institution? Community college? Research university? Liberal arts school?

Realize that there's a difference between "professor" and "instructor" at many of these institutions, and that the qualifications for these jobs can vary widely. Are you interested in being a member of a university faculty (where, in addition to teaching, you'll serve on committees, research, publish, mentor grad students, and spend a lot of time not teaching), or do you just want to be in a position where you can teach at the university level?
posted by mr_roboto at 2:06 PM on July 12, 2005

Assuming that you already have a bachelor's degree, are in the US, and want to become a professor at an accredited 4-year college or university, you will need a PhD. Grad school in history takes 4-8 years average, depending on the program, your ability to dedicate yourself to it full time, and your motivation and discipline.

If you are really stellar, then you will then be able to get a job as an assistant professor. But in the extremely competitive academic job market, its not unlikely that you will have to do a postdoc or some sort of work as an adjunct, fill-in, instructor, or lecturer for a few years.

So I'd say that a conservative estimate is at least 7 years to get to an entry-level position as an assitant professor at a university. Then its another 7 or so years to get promoted to associate or full professor.
posted by googly at 2:08 PM on July 12, 2005

It all depends on what you want and what you mean by "university level instructor." In the US, you can find yourself teaching at community colleges or small colleges with a masters degree, if you really want to teach at an accredited university you'll need a PhD.

If you're looking at the humanties/social sciences and you're starting with a Bachelors degree of some sort then budget 6-10 years to get your PhD.

My advice is to talk to a variety of people who have the sort of job/career you're interested in and pick their brains.
posted by donovan at 2:13 PM on July 12, 2005

Response by poster: So basically, if you're thinking about doing this at the age of 31, you're fucked, am I right?
posted by keswick at 2:24 PM on July 12, 2005

My mom started her bachelor's degree (in nursing) at age 35 or so, got her master's and started teaching around age 45, and got her PhD at age 52. She's now a senior, tenured professor at a large state university.

So, no, 31 is not too late to start.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:31 PM on July 12, 2005

Keswick, you're not fucked at all. I have a friend (who I met in grad school) who completed his PhD in his early 40s and got a good job.

But the point I'd make is that I wouldn't encourage someone to go down this path on a lark. You're looking at several years of making very very little money and possibly going into debt and the reward will be a job that doesn't pay a huge amount and might require you to move. If you LOVE what you're doing, teaching, etc that's a fine deal. If you're just kinda thinking about maybe doing this then . . .

That's why I urge you to talk to people who are in the specific situation you think you want.
posted by donovan at 2:33 PM on July 12, 2005

re: the doing it at 31 comment, I'm not sure I'd say that, but the point is: you've got to really, really want it. I started my PhD in English last year at 27, and I don't expect to finish it until 33 or 34. That's kind of weird to think about as a time to be starting one's life at ground zero in employment market. I think having had life outside the academy is quite useful for having perspective on what you're doing and why, but it's definitely a long, tough road.
posted by 5500 at 2:34 PM on July 12, 2005

if you're thinking about doing this at the age of 31, you're fucked, am I right?

No - I know people who started grad school that late. It depends on how dedicated you are, how much you really want to do this, and how willing you are to sacrifice (presumably) financial security at that age. You shouldn't be aiming to enter academia for the money anyways. But be warned, humanities academic job markets are brutal right now, and aren't looking to get any better.
posted by advil at 2:37 PM on July 12, 2005

No. I am in the last year (5th) of my Ph.D. in business and I am 30. I am one of the youngest people in my program. In fact, one of my colleagues started the program when he was 40. One of the things about being a professor is that people don't really retire like they do at a regular job. Because most people are doing this b/c they like it, they just move to a reduced work load. So even if it takes you 7 more years, you would still have 30 years to work as a professor. If you want more details about this, send me an email. However, I only know about getting a Ph.D. in my field. Things vary tremendously across disciplines.

On preview, I agree with everyone else who said you are not necessarily too old to begin.
posted by bove at 2:41 PM on July 12, 2005

Realistically, you are at something of a disadvantage starting in your 30s with grad school if your goal is to become a tenured professor at a top university. The reason has less to do with simple age discrimination (though some exists) than with the demands life makes on anyone in her/his 30s. If you want kids, a decent income, time to enjoy both, and a stable relationship to a place where you can put down roots, the academic life is a fair to poor fit. This is not meant to be discouraging. Many people do make academic careers work starting grad school in their early 30s (in my view, late 30s is usually too late unless you have a very specific set of skills, or are a socially young 35+ year old - no kids, ideally no spouse -- or one who can move with you easily, and endless energy).
There are, of course, always exceptions. But having been through it all myself, put many of my own students out there on the market, and watched the careers of friends and colleagues and my students unfold, I'd say 31 is within the envelope if you get cooking soon, but 36 or so and you're facing some structural disadvantages.

The reason to pursue a career in academia at the higher levels is usually not that you want to be a professor, but that you want to focus somewhat obsessively on a subject that you find exceedingly compelling and want -- primarily -- to be a researcher and writer. Teaching is a glorious thing, but the career is not kind to people who make it their central focus (again, I'm talking about at the more elite levels). One of the joys of tenure is that you can decide to recommit to teaching, but for the years of grad school and untenured teaching you are primarily required to produce original work and teach adequately.

Obviously it's different at the community college and liberal arts college levels, except that the job market for PhDs is bad enough that a lot of people working those streets have major league CVs.

Do it if you want to do it more than anything else, and you will succeed with luck and effort and good advising. I cannot stress enough that if your goal is to join the professoriate and teach in a major research university environment, you need to try to gain *funded* admission to a top PhD program in your field. There are serious structural disadvantages that follow from having to pay for it yourself, and from attending a lower-ranked program. Again, it can be done. But it's harder.
posted by realcountrymusic at 2:57 PM on July 12, 2005

Response by poster: Well, I have an interest in both teaching and researching, but I have no interest in being a baby-sitter. (Like one would be at grade, junior, and high-school levels.)
posted by keswick at 3:09 PM on July 12, 2005

Unless you have a stellar undergrad with rave reviews from profs, and therefore have a good shot at the very best Hist programs, you will search and search for a job as a HS Hist teacher. Yes, the job market is tough enough now that private HS Engl and Hist teachers are all PhDs, many of them Ivy League. So be very realistic about your abilities and think about how much you want to end up teaching really dumb students at Bumf*ck State U in a state you'd really rather not live in. If you want to teach in a coastal city, you need to be near the top of a top school.
That said, teaching is GREAT!! (studio art, not history) Go for it.
posted by johngumbo at 3:14 PM on July 12, 2005

Response by poster: sigh.
posted by keswick at 3:29 PM on July 12, 2005

I agree with realcountrymusic. While there is no reason for you not to be able to start grad school at 31, you are at some disadvantage. Let me elaborate on a few points.

1) Most of your cohort and competitors will be younger than you. You will be at an advantage in the sense of having had some real-world experience (as opposed to many of your colleagues, who will be straight out of college); but at a bit of a disadvantage socially.

2) Realize what you are getting yourself into, and the sacrifices that you will have to make if you want a viable career. You will probably have to move to a new city or town to go to a good grad school. You will have to go deeply into debt to pay for it if you are unable to get full funding. After getting your PhD, you will have to move again, you will have little or no control over your destination, and it is not unlikely that it will be a place that you don't want to be. You will probably have to move again a few years after that. If you have a SO or family, they will have to move with you or maintain a long-distance relationship. If you have anyone depending upon you financially, you almost certainly will not be able to support them, well into your late 30s.

3) The job market in history is horrific; advertised jobs routinely attract 75+ applicants. You need to be very, very good and very, very lucky to land a good job. If you get into a good graduate program, make the right connections, have an adviser who goes to bat for you, and work your ass off, then you might land a good job at a university you like in a place you want to live. More likely, you will have to pick something up for a few years while you continue to work your ass off researching and publishing. This means that you will be at least 40 before you finally land a job that gives you enough security to buy a house and settle down.

4) You will be competing against people 10 years younger than you for grants and jobs. I have sat on hiring committees, and "older" applicants for entry-level jobs were looked at with a bit of suspicion. It sucks, and there are exceptions, but thats just the way that some people think.

I don't mean to be discouraging, but you need to sit down and realistically determine whether you are willing to do what you need to do to ensure yourself a secure and fulfilling future in academia. There is no reason at all that you can't start at 31; but it will entail different sorts of sacrifices from someone who is starting at 21.

Also, check out this link for some good advice about pursuing an academic career.

If you want to chat more, feel free to email me.
posted by googly at 3:46 PM on July 12, 2005

So basically, if you're thinking about doing this at the age of 31, you're fucked, am I right?

My mom got her Ph.D. in history at 50, is now, as MrMoonPie's mom a full, tenured professor at a state university.

My father got his first doctorate at 40 and is now in his 60's working on a second doctorate.
posted by Pollomacho at 3:56 PM on July 12, 2005

keswick - just go do it. Yeah there will be consequences, but there are always consequences. If you're smart and dedicated, then go for it. Good luck.
posted by pwb503 at 4:00 PM on July 12, 2005

Well, I have an interest in both teaching and researching, but I have no interest in being a baby-sitter. (Like one would be at grade, junior, and high-school levels.)

If you've never taught at any of those levels maybe you should consider the idea that you lack the basis to declare authoritatively that it would mean being "a baby-sitter." It may be fun to smacktalk K-12 but many people teach plenty at those levels and I'd bet everyone reading this learned a lot in those years.

A big portion of the lameness of teaching at that level is self-created. And yes, the pay almost always stinks and you do have to deal with the fact that you do not have a room filled with people who at least nominally decided to be there (although if you think it's gonna be much better with freshmen and sophmore college students you're on better drugs than I can find/afford). So that definately contributes to many of the ways it sucks because the caliber of people who will take that job can be pretty low.

At the same time, there's lots of devoted and motivated teachers at that level doing good work. Unlike a university instructor who gets to spend less than 40 hours with a group to teach a subject, a K-12 teacher gets those kids around an hour a day for a whole school year. Assuming 16 weeks of summer & holiday vacation that's.... (52 - 16) * 5 days a week.... 180 hours to explore a subject. And at a time in their lives and education where there's an opportunity to teach them other academic skills too. Yes, they are less sophisiticated learners but they're also in a lot of ways more reachable.

If you really want to teach, you can teach.
posted by phearlez at 4:02 PM on July 12, 2005

Keswick: I also don't think 31 is too old to start. I would add to what others have said, this:

If you had a choice between starting at 31 and starting at 24, then starting at 24 is better (in general...I don't know what your live circumstances were at 24). But those aren't your options. You can start at 31 or you can start later or you can not start at all. Starting at 31 is better than starting later. It's up to you to decide if starting is better than not starting, but don't do it be dwelling on the idea that you wish you had started earlier.

Oh, and if you're worried that the job market for historians sucks, you might consider finding a peripheral field that is basically history, but where the job market is better. So maybe women's studies, focussing on women in the historical period of your choice, or East Asian studies (looking at history in the country of your choice), or something like that. I'm not suggesting these fields specifically. I don't know anything about them or their job markets, and for all I know they're even more competitive, but the "peripheral field where you can study essentially the same thing" might be a strategy worth considering and researching.
posted by duck at 4:24 PM on July 12, 2005


you might want to read this: invisible adjunct.

read all his links in small print under the headings "Academic "Job Market" Entries", and especially this.

I'm just finishing up my undergraduate, so what do I know, and I have a lot of friends whose experience was very positive, but you should hear opinions on the other end of the spectrum, too.
posted by ori at 5:39 PM on July 12, 2005

I wouldn't worry about age right now, if you decide you want to go. Or, really, about the job market -- I can't speak to the specifics of the market in history, but the way that most of the really nasty markets in humanities work is that a good student from a top-tier program has an excellent chance of landing a tenure-track job within 3 years of taking a PhD. So your task is to be one of those good students at a top-tier program. If you can't get into a top-tier program, I wouldn't bother going at all at 31.

I wouldn't think about trying to become (in US terms) an instructor, lecturer, or adjunct. With few exceptions, these are terrible, horrible, awful jobs with long hours, low pay, no benefits, and no prospects for advancing.

I also wouldn't romanticize the teaching. If you were a good student as an undergrad, who did the reading and was involved in class and cared about learning, ya gotta realize that most undergrads in most schools aren't like you (or me). Not to say it's bad, but teaching big sections of introductory required courses can be... disheartening. Lots of students who don't want to be there, some of which were admit mistakes who you get to fail out and crush their dreams, some of which are surly little grade-grubbers, and so on. It's rewarding in its own way, but not without its own serious problems.

The first thing you ought to do is go to your friendly neighborhood university library and look at some recent issues of top general history journals -- I have no idea what these are, but the serials librarian might, or others can chime in on this. Sit down and read an article or two, and read the abstracts for several issues. Then you gotta ask yourself: do I want to spend my time writing stuff like this? Well, do ya, punk?

Assuming you didn't recoil in horror, you might as well send applications to programs. Find out what the top 15--25 programs in history are. The best way to do this is to ask someone who's a recent assistant professor at a good school. There's an out-of-date list here as a starting point. Think about what you might want to do, and where you're willing to live, and narrow it down to 5--10 places.

Then take the GRE, assemble the rest of your application packages, and send them off. If you don't get into a top tier program: don't go. If you get accepted without an offer of a free ride and stipend: don't go. If you get signals that you'd be a marginal student at a top program, or otherwise that you appear to be something other than a bad-ass motherfucker of history, don't go.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:40 PM on July 12, 2005

Following duck's suggestion, you might also look at journals of economic history, American political development, and other "allied" programs.

In my own field, I know one guy who's done a lot of work applying theoretical models to the Confederate legislature, another guy who did a lot of work exploring the growth of mass parties in the 1820s and 30s, other people who've looked at the role of slavery, people working mostly on the Congress of the late 19th/early 20th century, and so on.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:47 PM on July 12, 2005

PhD. Publish. Network.

31 is not too old. A member of my supervisory committee did not obtain his PhD until his early 40s and now, less than ten years later, is tenured (he publishes like crazy and gets all kinds of grants and things, so they kinda want to keep him).
posted by synecdoche at 6:05 PM on July 12, 2005

Also, I can't echo enough that you shouldn't do this if it is because you think it is a good job or whatever-- you have to do it because you love it. I know a few people who are currently in grad student and are miserable because they simply don't love it. They're obsessed with their job prospects and how much work they have to do.

Meanwhile, I am doing very well, because I love the academic life-- I love looking for books and writing and researching and talking about academic things.
posted by synecdoche at 6:10 PM on July 12, 2005

(Hey, it's Prof. Synecdoche!)

Been there, done that (albeit in English, where the job market is even worse...):

1. Ditto what ROU_Xenophobe says about the funding. If they aren't willing to offer you fellowships/TAships/RAships/whatever, then don't go.

2. Ditto also the importance of attending a top-tier school, bearing in mind that, in some fields, the best schools are not always name brands. However...

3. ...check the school's placement rates. Some schools off the national radar will do very well in certain locales. And some big-name schools may do very badly when it comes to actually getting students hired. (Don't hesitate to ask about placement services.)

4. How flexible are you when it comes to type of campus, mobility, etc.? I'm a big-city gal from Los Angeles who got her Ph.D. in Chicago, and yet, here I am, living in a rural village in upstate NY. This isn't what I initially had in mind (although, I hasten to add, my standard of living up here is great). Are there places you won't go? Will you be unhappy at a 4-yr. liberal arts college?

5. In English, hiring goes something like this:
a) Jobs are announced in October;
b) you submit your letter and resume to various campuses;
c) if you make the first cut, they request letters of rec (at least 3, but many people will have 5-7, including at least one letter about their teaching) and a writing sample. Some schools request the supporting materials upfront;
d) if you make the second cut, you're invited to an MLA interview (or, if the campus is short on $, a phone interview instead);
e) if you make it through the interview and wind up as one of the top two or three candidates, you're invited to visit the campus (at which point, the college starts picking up the check). This usually involves a second interview, a presentation of some sort, and meetings with faculty and administrators;
f) Finally, you may, eventually, get a job offer. This normally happens between late March to late April, depending on the college's schedule.

Needless to say, this is a pretty unpleasant procedure, and there are a lot of competitors; there were close to 200 applications for my own position. History works in similar fashion, with the AHA serving as a hiring convention.

6. Do NOT allow yourself to get stuck on the adjunct track. (The Invisible Adjunct's site is indeed an excellent resource.) You should expect to spend at least a year as a visiting assistant professor or lecturer, but most people recommend seeking alternate employment if nothing permanent turns up after three years.

7. Once you're "in," it's easier to move, at least at the lateral level. Moving up the prestige ladder can be difficult, and it can be hard to get another job after being tenured.

8. As synecdoche says, don't pursue this career unless you must do it.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:16 PM on July 12, 2005

From what I read (when I was still considering grad school in English), if your main goal is to teach, look at community colleges. Pay's not great, but it's not quite so hyper-competitive. And you can publish/do research but it's not considered your main job (plus going into history, of course, "research" means "look up stuff at library, think about it, write" so you can do it fairly easily from really any position).

As for high school teaching, it's pretty much as good as you make it, I imagine, but since social studies is pretty low on their list of priorities, I'd advise against going into high school teaching with a history major unless you're prepared to show them your qualifications to coach a major sport. Maybe look at serious prep schools, but not your average public high school.
posted by dagnyscott at 6:44 PM on July 12, 2005

Great thread, y'all. Some of the best advice I've seen on this fairly common AskMe theme (grad school in general).

I'm a decade into my teaching career, tenured at a good joint indeed, and able to fund 3-4 PhD students a year, which I continually fear is way too many. I advise about a dozen dissertations at a time, and sit on a dozen more diss. committees. I've got half a dozen students working in tenure-track jobs or on quality post-docs, and another 4 or 5 at least banging their heads against the wall of adjuncting and patching shit together while still hustling to get work out. I also have been on 4 search committees in the last 5 years, and seen the odds first hand (for our last couple of jobs, approx. 100 applicants for each, including the rock stars of the discipline). The job market, even for good students with free rides at top programs, is terrifying.

That said, it was terrifying in my generation too, almost more so in my particular field, which has grown nicely in the last decade. (Thus, it is good advice to find a field poised to grow, and avoid fields in institutional decline, and you got good advice above about locating in an interdisciplinary space to the side of History as such.) Because of the particular work I do, I was warned I faced an especially challenging search for a gig (it was semi-uncool as a subject and an approach). One of my most beloved advisers once said to me "stop worrying, you'll either get a good job or no job." She meant "don't approach this as a careerist and you'll have your career." She was right. I've been very lucky (two jobs in two great cities). But in addition to gratitude, I have real guilt about classmates who didn't make it, and even more my own students competing with each other and a few hundred others for the 6-10 tenure-track research gigs in this field every year at the better schools. It is ultimately a weird mix of passion and luck.

Be warned. Everyone who is serious works hard. You can make up a lot of ground by working harder still. But there has to be a real spark in you about the work you do -- the more original and personal and engaged the better -- and a real effort to build networks of colleagues and friends. In reality, all job decisions are made on very subjective grounds, no matter how many objective filters are in place. And then you have just got to get lucky, or rather know opportunities when you see them -- that is, make some luck for yourself.

This is a shitty career choice for almost anyone who doesn't know they have the juice for it, the patience for its bullshit (all careers have bullshit, just different flavors), and anyone who is going to pursue it in careerist terms, ironically enough. On the other hand, it's a great gig for someone who really can't imagine doing anything else. In that sense, it's a calling. Which is not to glorify academia at all. But the unpredictability of this career is truly unique among the professions (although journalism is a little like this), and an almost entrepreneurial mentality is required to get to the higher levels. Know thyself, well. Cuz you're gonna have to sell thyself. And the bitch is it really is your SELF you're selling, which makes rejection feel a lot more like failure.
posted by realcountrymusic at 8:27 PM on July 12, 2005 [2 favorites]

realcountrymusic, I was going to send you an e-mail but I see you don't have one in your profile, so let me just say that I like your comments a great deal.

Just to keep this from being a complete derail, I strongly second the recommendation for Invisible Adjunct (whom I still miss).
posted by languagehat at 7:42 AM on July 13, 2005

yeah, good comment, realcountrymusic. I definitely agree that you have to go into academia because it's 'who you are' to some extent, and that too much focus on professionalism is out of place.

I'm 31, too, and getting to the last stage of my PhD (writing the book, basically...) in philosophy. I also considered history (among other things), but chose a program that has a historical approach to philosophy (i.e., the history of thought, in some sense).

I went for it because I did not feel like I would consider myself 'successful' if I got promotions and made more money and generally achieved standard external markers of success in the field in which I was working (graphic design). I felt that for me, success would be publishing a book, or anyway, having some part in the intellectual or creative thought of our world. Realizing that made going back to school essentially the only option for me. Even if I am unable to secure a tenured position at a good university, I will have a better chance of achieving success as I personally determine it by this route than I would have had by staying where I was.

So that is really what to figure out: what would be a good life for you? What would be a life you would look back on with disappointment? What's ideal, what's minimally necessary, and which options will give you the best chance? And don't let the thought that things would be different if only you'd done something else in the past; just begin from where you are
posted by mdn at 10:23 AM on July 13, 2005

What others have said: Your age is not a problem at all, but don't do it unless a) you cannot imagine doing anything else, and b) you are willing to live absolutely anywhere.

I am a history professor who started grad school at about your age, email me if you'd like to discuss it.
posted by LarryC at 4:54 PM on July 13, 2005

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