Can You Be a College Professor with a Professional Doctorate?

Developing a career at the highest levels of academia doesn’t happen overnight. But how long does it take to become a professor? What steps are involved? What is your career outlook? In this article, you can learn more about the steps involved in becoming a college professor and some of the various incentives and rewards involved in pursuing a career in higher education.


First, the term professor refers to a rank in an academic setting for those who teach in higher education; it does not indicate the type of degree one has. Usually, the rank goes from the instructor level to assistant professor to associate professor to full professor, earned over multiple years through tenure and/or promotional review processes. Professors usually work in a college or university, public or private, performing various academically related tasks. Specific responsibilities vary widely and generally depend on a person’s particular academic field, career track, and institution of employment. However, broadly speaking, a college professor is responsible for work in three areas – research, teaching, and service. Some nuances may be based on someone’s contract, but the three are fairly typical in the U.S.

Teaching may involve designing curriculum, creating lesson plans and syllabi, mentoring students, and teaching students at an advanced level within their chosen field. It may be in or outside of classroom settings, and it may occur not only in a typical brick-and-mortar classroom but also in other spaces, including online or virtual realities.

In addition to teaching, there may be service requirements at your university, college/school, professional, or community levels. These roles typically support civic engagement efforts. Other service roles may be on committees tied to your profession, such as being on an editorial review board, reviewing grants for an organization, or a volunteer leadership role.

Many professors undertake research responsibilities, especially those on track for tenure. For instance, a Learning Scientist specializing in the design of technology for learning may also maintain a lab and investigate how people learn and how to best design technologies to engage in transformative learning. This would involve interacting with teachers, students, and others as they engage with technologies for learning in a process that includes collecting, analyzing, designing, and presenting data from these interactions and a design-based research process for peer review and eventual publication. The research may be sponsored or non-sponsored. Research plays a central role in the lives of professors to investigate ideas related to their professional interests, teaching, or service commitments.

Since there are different ways of entering academic and non-academic careers and different career tracks within academia, not every professor will have the same credentials or responsibilities. Responsibilities range from whether someone has a doctorate to their contract and the type of doctorate. For instance, there are professional doctorate degrees such as an EdD, research-oriented doctorates such as a PhD, and tenure-track or non-tenure track roles.


There are several types of teaching positions within higher education. Still, those roles are primarily distinguished by part-time vs full-time responsibilities, financial compensation, and which courses you’re allowed to teach. For example, becoming a professor with a master’s degree is possible within a few constraints.

Many two-year schools only require instructors to have their master’s degree to teach introductory courses, while some four-year institutions accept these types of instructors part-time. However, most four-year institutions require a research or professional doctorate in the field you intend to teach. The doctorate also allows you to engage in different work levels and stand out compared to job candidates with only their master’s degrees.


In addition to requiring a bachelor’s degree and occasionally a master’s, the overall average time to complete a doctoral program is around five to seven years nationally, about five years on average for U.S. nationals and six years for international students. However, an enormous range of factors can influence the time required, ranging from your decision to attend a full-time or part-time program, where you choose to study, whether additional certifications will be necessary, and so on.


Like any occupation, becoming a professor requires a progression if this is your desired career path. Here are the qualifications and requirements for a doctorate degree.

Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree

Learning the fundamentals of your field is essential before moving on to the kind of advanced analysis and application of theory that you’ll find in graduate programs. In rare cases, extensive career experience may serve as an adequate substitute. Still, for nearly everyone, a bachelor’s degree is the most basic prerequisite for entering a graduate program.

Decide What Field You Want to Specialize In

Someone who wants to become a professor will want to be deeply involved in their field. That might mean studying the subject independently of their career and education. It might also mean looking for internship programs that allow them to gain applied career experience and confidence in their decision to specialize in one field over another.

Attend Graduate School

If you want to teach at a community college or a vocational school, you may only need to earn a master’s degree, especially if you don’t aspire to train the next generation of PhD students. If you aim for a tenure track position with a large four-year institution, your best chance is earning your PhD. This is especially true when job positions are more competitive since institutions often favor those with higher credentials.

Become a Teaching Assistant

You may be offered an assistantship program if accepted into a graduate program. Assistants are usually involved in research, administrative work, or teaching. Apart from the critical experience obtained in these programs, you may also be able to reduce or eliminate the cost of tuition, obtain a stipend, and get credits toward your degree. Becoming a teaching assistant isn’t the only way of earning this experience, but it’s the most common.

Earn a Doctorate Degree

The most critical step in becoming a professor is earning your doctorate. In addition to required coursework, most programs require a dissertation, your original research work. It serves as a demonstration of your ability to add new knowledge to your field and your ability to train future scholars. While many programs allow you to earn your doctoral degree without a master’s, others require you to take that intermediate step.

Gain Teaching and Research Experience

Assistant teaching positions and research assistantships are some of the best sources of career experience in teaching and research. However, outside of graduate programs, you can find numerous opportunities for professional development, which can be important as many doctoral candidates enter the job market during the final year of their program.

Get Certified

Depending on what you intend to teach, the qualifications for being a professor may include additional certification requirements. These requirements are usually for vocational fields rather than purely academic programs. For example, someone who teaches medicine may need to earn an RN (registered nurse) certification, while someone teaching accounting may need a CPA.


According to the American Association of University Professors, the average salary for a full-time professor was $101,810 for the 2020-21 academic year. Yet, earnings depend on many factors, including the subject you teach, the institution where you work, whether you have a full-time or part-time position, and how much experience you have. Figures also depend on your job title and career track: lecturer, instructor, assistant professor, associate professor, or professor.


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment opportunities for professors are expected to grow at a higher rate than average. With the number of students attending higher education institutions only projected to continue rising over the next decade, there’s a consistent demand for these types of professionals. Owing to new workplace technologies requiring workers to have more training, these employment rates are assumed to remain high.


Becoming a professor can be equally challenging and rewarding. In addition to helping instruct the next generation and add to the body of human knowledge, college professors can develop a personally rewarding and lucrative career. But starting a career in academia starts with finding the right program for your current stage of progress.