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Your Career Path- How to Become a College Professor


Whether you’ve always dreamed of dominating a lecture hall or you’ve only recently decided to pursue the elusive life of a career academic, you can hit the gas today on the journey to becoming a professor. While there are no hard and fast college professor requirements, these four strategies can help make it happen.

1 Make yourself memorable

At work …

Complete your current role’s tasks on time (or early), and go past the goal. For example, if you’re supposed to crowdsource $5,000 for research, try to raise $15,000. Exceeding expectations is important because it influences the quantity and quality of the recommendations you’ll get.

When speaking about yourself …

Be assertive. How do you accomplish self-promotion in a way that doesn’t come off as egotistical or insincere? Focus on how your work and the way you do it contributes to positive outcomes and accomplishes the specific objectives of your organization, quantifying your effects if possible. You want to bring credibility and visibility to yourself.1

At reviews and interviews …

Ace your higher education performance review by doing appropriate preparation. Having a concise, on-point mission statement ready to go will help when you’re interviewing—it can let people know what your values are and how you plan to achieve your goals. Your purpose can be your brand. That’s what Johanna K.P. Greeson, Ph.D., discovered when she successfully interviewed for a faculty position at the University of Pennsylvania.

“My professional mission is to improve the lives for youth who age out of foster care, and I intend to achieve this mission by working to reform the child welfare system so that no youth leaves foster care without a lifetime connection to a caring adult. Having this mission—and having it spelled out—is what I believe sold my dean during my conference interview,” says Greeson, now an associate professor at Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice.2

2 Feed and water your connections

There’s a reason why almost every career expert tells you to get out there and network—it’s because it works. Talk to your former or current classmates, professors and anyone you know with media or publishing connections. Don’t forget former clients or your alumni association(s). If your dean wants to set up meet-and-greets for you, do it. If there’s an industry outreach program, then actively participate. You’re good at research, so try to learn beforehand about the people you will meet. Make eye contact, introduce yourself to people, share information about yourself, and ask relevant questions. Even if you’re not naturally wired to be at ease in social situations, you can get better with practice. As with the preceding tip, speaking up is helpful. Besides academic and Ph.D.-networking events, don’t miss out on nonacademic events related to your interests—these could expand your social network, provide personal satisfaction, and lead to professional connections as well.

If there’s a role within your department that interests you, don’t be afraid to reach out to learn more. For example, if you’re adjunct faculty and you’d like to teach a new course, try an in-person or phone conversation rather than an email to let your department chair know you can do it. And even if you don’t meet the role’s requirements right now, this should better inform you about what type of experience you should be acquiring in order to be considered in the future.


The more flexible you allow yourself to be, the less you’ll get bogged down by being tied to a specific “perfect” path for becoming a professor.

3 Be flexible— and resilient

Plan an interim path …

The more flexible you allow yourself to be, the less you’ll get bogged down by being tied to a specific “perfect” path for becoming a professor if something unexpected happens. Have an interim path mapped out, in case you don’t get a professorship immediately upon earning a Ph.D. You could do postdoctoral research or work at a nonprofit think tank, for example. [insert link to TIAA careers on campus but not in class infographic] You could also volunteer or intern at a nonprofit organization.3 Wherever you get your start, look for ways to continue to build your experience and your publication record.4

Polish your skillset …

Look for opportunities to fill out your resume. For example, speaking at conferences is a skill that directly translates to the field of academia. Fear of public speaking is very common, and in academic training speaking skills are rarely taught formally.5 Logging more speaking time can teach your fear management techniques and get you used to fielding questions from your listening audience, like while lecturing or presenting your research.

Go past your comfort zone …

Another way to incorporate flexibility into your path to becoming a professor is to apply widely, not just for a handful of posts. This is especially true if you’re finishing postdoctoral work, as you’ve got a certain deadline in your sights, be it the end of a fellowship, project or timeline for your willingness to go without a promotion. Don’t be overly selective. Of the 112 applications sent out by Jeremy Yoder, now an assistant professor of biology at California State University Northridge, he got 17 interviews, 11 campus visits and three offers.6

4 Prioritize getting published

The old adage is true about publishing or perishing. Do your best to publish early and regularly. This is important because long-term publication success is highly valued by chairs and deans, and the best predictor of long-term publication success is your early publication record—the number of papers you’ve published by the time you receive your Ph.D.7 This may go without saying, but keep meticulous records about every publication with which you’re involved. Students who start publishing sooner usually have more papers by the time they finish their Ph.D. than do those who start publishing later, as their schedules fill up.

So, what are some tips for getting published? Make sure your mentor prioritizes paper-writing since as a Ph.D. student your publishing success will depend on it.8 If your mentor doesn’t prioritize it, have a serious conversation with him or her about why it’s important to you, or find a new mentor. Publishing not only profoundly affects your employment prospects, but also your chances for winning research grants, climbing the academic ladder, having a desirable teaching schedule, winning academic prizes and fellowships and gaining the respect of your peers. Small differences early in a career can snowball into much greater differences over time.8

What you can do right now

There’s no need to tackle all of these tips at once. For now, you could pick one that speaks the most directly to your current situation and start with that. In developing your career path to professor, don’t be shy—get out there, talk to people, and make your goals known. Rather than waiting for other people to be the energetic spark you need to get moving, you can and should be your own rainmaker.

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Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America has created and the information within it for informational purposes only. Many of the experts featured in the content are unaffiliated with Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America, College Retirement Equities Fund, and their affiliates and subsidiaries (collectively TIAA), and TIAA makes no representations regarding the accuracy or completeness of any information on the posts or otherwise made available by the individuals. Statements of external featured individuals are solely their own and are not endorsed or recommended by TIAA. Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America and LinkedIn Corporation are independent entities collaborating to bring you
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