How to Become a Postsecondary Teacher
Some institutions prefer to hire professors who have teaching experience, which can be gained by working as a graduate teaching assistant.
Educational requirements vary with the subject taught and the type of educational institution. Typically postsecondary teachers must have a Ph.D. However, a master's degree may be enough for some postsecondary teachers at community colleges. Other postsecondary teachers may need work experience in their field of expertise.
Postsecondary teachers who work for 4-year colleges and universities typically need a doctoral degree in their field. Some schools may hire those with a master’s degree or those who are doctoral degree candidates for some specialties, such as fine arts, or for some part-time positions.
Doctoral programs generally take multiple years to complete, and students must already possess a bachelor’s or master’s degree before enrolling in a doctoral program. Doctoral students spend time writing a doctoral dissertation, which is a paper presenting original research in the student’s field of study. Candidates usually specialize in a subfield, such as organic chemistry or European history.
Community colleges or career and technical schools also may hire those with a master’s degree. However, some fields have more applicants than available positions. In these situations, institutions can be more selective, and they frequently choose applicants who have a Ph.D. over those with a master’s degree.
Work Experience in a Related Occupation
Some institutions may prefer to hire those with teaching or other work experience, but this is not a requirement for all fields or for all employers.
In health specialties, art, law, or education fields, hands-on work experience in the industry can be important. Postsecondary teachers in these fields often gain experience by working in an occupation related to their field of expertise.
In fields such as biological science, physics, and chemistry, some postsecondary teachers have postdoctoral research experience. These short-term jobs, sometimes called “post-docs,” usually involve working for 2 to 3 years as a research associate or in a similar position, often at a college or university.
Some postsecondary teachers gain teaching experience by working as graduate teaching assistants—students who are enrolled in a graduate program and teach classes in the institution in which they are enrolled.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Postsecondary teachers who prepare students for an occupation that requires a license, certification, or registration, may need to have—or they may benefit from having—the same credential. For example, a postsecondary nursing teacher might need a nursing license or a postsecondary education teacher might need a teaching license.
A major goal for postsecondary teachers with a doctoral degree is attaining a tenure—a guarantee that a professor cannot be fired without just cause. It can take up to 7 years of moving up the ranks in tenure-track positions. The ranks are assistant professor, associate professor, and professor. Tenure is granted through a review of the candidate’s research, contribution to the institution, and teaching.
Tenure and tenure-track positions are declining as institutions are relying more heavily on part-time professors.
Some tenured professors advance to administrative positions, such as dean or president. For information on deans and other administrative positions, see the profile on postsecondary education administrators. For more information about college and university presidents, see the profile on top executives.
Critical-thinking skills. To challenge established theories and beliefs, conduct original research, and design experiments, postsecondary teachers need to apply analyses and logic to arrive at sound conclusions.
Interpersonal skills. Most postsecondary teachers need to be able to work well with others and must have good communication skills to serve on committees and give lectures.
Resourcefulness. Postsecondary teachers need to be able to present information in a way that students will understand. They need to adapt to the different learning styles of their students and teach students who have little or no experience with the subject.
Speaking skills. Postsecondary teachers need good verbal skills to give lectures.
Writing skills. Postsecondary teachers need to be skilled writers to publish original research and analysis.